A Rational Alternative to Thoughtless Bombing

Beware collateral damage, for today's hey-nothing-personal victims give rise to tomorrow's terrorists. As this goes to press, a bestiary of bombs -- a few 500-pounders here, some "bunker busters" there -- is falling into Afghan cities. Bombing, despite laughable assertions to the contrary, is anything but a precision art. Bombs go off-course. Bombs hit things that themselves blow up and kill people who weren't supposed to die. Civilians hang out where they shouldn't. And information about bombing targets is often plain wrong or out-of-date.

The bottom line is this: Ordinary Afghan people, men and women and children who have never done anything wrong to anyone, are getting mangled and killed by American bombs. The innocents have spouses, parents and friends, and these spouses, parents and friends quite naturally hate those who mangled and killed their loved ones. That hate festers, and some eventually come to be persuaded that vengeance will soothe their pain. And one day they'll fly planes into office buildings or blow themselves up in shopping malls or do something as yet unimaginable.

Needless to say, getting even doesn't do much good if our vengeance only creates more terrorism.

And yet: the right-wingers are absolutely correct when they assert that doing nothing is not a viable option. Whether we had September 11th coming or not, giving peace a chance is a supreme act of self-denial: there is no peace. Whether the victims cry for vengeance or not is moot: no nation is worthy of the name unless it's willing to react to the murder of its citizens with force. Bush is, like it or not, doing something. People respect that, even if that something later turns out to be counterproductive.

There is, however, an intelligent middle ground between the commonly-considered binary of mindless bombing versus mindless pacifism. Neither liberal nor conservative, a thoughtful solution can be found by applying what we Americans do best: simple common sense.

The Objectives

The "war on terrorism" is, like previous wars on drugs and poverty, too vague and nebulous to win. Our first priority ought to be to bring the remaining perpetrators of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center to justice; if they end up dead in the attempt, so be it.

Second, while we'll never eradicate terrorist attacks on American soil we can minimize their number and their intensity when they do occur. This requires a delicate combination of force and tact: We must be kind as well as forceful.

What To Do

Afghanistan's Taliban regime is at best indirectly involved with the September 11th hijackings. (The Bush Administration admits that it couldn't indict Osama or the Taliban on the evidence it currently possesses.) Follow the passports: 18 out of the 19 hijackers were Egyptian; 1 was Saudi. The smart money points to one of the Middle East's most venerable militant Muslim organizations, Gama'at al-Islamiyya, or the Islamic Group. Founded by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, currently serving a life sentence for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Gama'at al-Islamiyya is best known for the November 1997 massacre of 62 tourists at the Temple of Luxor in Egypt and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though the Islamic Group is composed of numerous splinter cells whose ideology varies, they share a common aim: the replacement of the secular government of Hosni Mubarek by an Islamic theocracy. The Islamic Group resents the U.S. for propping up the Mubarak government as well as Israel.

Egyptians are, according to most reports, the main suspects for September 11th. So why are we attacking Afghanistan? American intelligence should work with the Egyptian government to track down any members of Gama'at al-Islamiyya who had anything to do with the New York and Washington attacks and put them on trial for mass murder. Arresting murderers ought to take precedence over bombing the places where they trained.

A targeted approach would demonstrate to all but the most fanatic elements in the Arab world that the United States is a nation whose retribution takes place in a measured, just manner. It would also serve to destroy the one network to have drawn the most American blood -- and reduce the odds of a repeat performance.

Though we should continue providing economic and military assistance to Israel, that aid ought to be predicated on several conditions. First, all Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories ought to be closed. Second, Israel should guarantee an end to its more egregious human rights abuses, such as the demolition of Arab homes and rocket attacks on civilian targets. Finally, internal border blockades of Gaza and the West Bank should be permanently halted. This bilateral policy -- supporting Israel while refusing to tolerate religious apartheid -- would show that we stand behind our friends but only to the extent that they behave in a civilized fashion. Best of all, it would end an absurd state of affairs in which a superpower is repeatedly manipulated by a resource-free desert nation the size of New Jersey.

We should drop sanctions and military action against such nations as Iraq and Afghanistan in exchange for verifiable assurances that neither nation will harbor terrorists who target the United States. Then we should pour in humanitarian assistance to show ordinary Muslims that Americans care about their plight. Let a co-opted postwar Taliban root out Al Qaeda and other groups in their territory; it's a hell of a lot easier to let the locals do our dirty work than to send in American ground troops.

But first, let's stop this stupid bombing.

Ted Rall, a syndicated cartoonist for Universal Press Syndicate, is the author of the new books 2024 and Search and Destroy.


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