What Happens Next?
When the military prepares for action, the public debate is usually a simple either/or: Will there be peace, or will there be war? Not so now.
Fresh from the bloody assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there are at least six choices before us, each with its own subgenres and mutant variations. None is perfect, and one is actually insane. But each is worth examining, if only to understand what people actually mean when they call for war, peace, or some other path they can't quite articulate.
Here, then, are our choices, beginning with the least violent and ending with the most:
1. The Gandhi Option
Some favor no military response to the attacks at all. In its flaky form, this position involves wishing really hard, perhaps while holding someone's hand, that hatred and violence will disappear from the world. Not every pacifist is so naive, though, and there is a more sophisticated case for military inaction.
This argument points out that terrorists do not come from nowhere. They respond to particular policies of the country under attack. If, as the evidence suggests, the assault was masterminded by Osama bin Laden or his allies, then it may well be easier to adjust our foreign policy than to hunt down every terrorist in the Middle East, especially since that hunt might inspire yet more Middle Easterners to turn to terrorism. Wouldn't it make more sense just to stop these clumsy interventions into other people's battles? Why make ourselves a target for every tin-pot maniac in the Third World?
A variation on this argument notes that many of our present foes -- including Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein -- were originally built up by the United States to fight the enemies of an earlier day. One can only wonder what our allies in a new war might do to us several years later.
There are two problems with the Gandhi option. The first relates not so much to the position itself as to some of the people who have been advancing it. Obsessed with finding what "we" might have done to "deserve" this -- as though anyone deserves to die this way -- the hairshirt faction has conjured a list of sins far removed from anything that could have inspired the attacks. When the filmmaker Michael Moore speculated about the terrorists' motives, for example, his rambling ruminations touched on missile defense, America's withdrawal from the Durban conference on racism, and even our rejection of the Kyoto accords on global warming. Evidently, Moore believes that we are being attacked by European diplomats.
In the real world, we are being attacked by a group that -- judging from the fatwah issued by Osama bin Laden in 1998 -- objects to America's military presence in Saudi Arabia, to its sanctions against Iraq, and to its support for Israel. The point of reexamining U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the attacks is not to find everything about it that you might want to change, from Star Wars to Kyoto. It is to find the parts that might be putting us in danger, even if you've supported them until now. In the next few months, a lot of Israel's American supporters will be wrestling with a difficult choice: Israel's security, or their own? Many will choose the latter.
The other problem with Gandhianism goes deeper. Watching the World Trade Center towers collapse last week, desperately aware that thousands of people were inside them, most Americans did not merely crave greater security. They wanted justice. If nothing is done to capture the people responsible for that atrocity, it will be hard to claim that justice has been done.
2. The Kojak Option
And so we come to option two. A terrible crime has been committed. The immediate perps are now dead, but the conspirators behind them are alive and free. They may be plotting further, even worse assaults. We still aren't sure who they are or where they are, but we have some significant leads. So it's time for some expert policework, to track down and capture the people who did this.
The advantage to this approach is that it meets the demand for a response while keeping that response targeted at the criminals. As such, it upholds justice in two ways: by meting it out to the murderers who killed 5,000 people in one day, and by refusing to replicate their crime by killing anyone unfortunate enough to live in the same country as the terrorists.
There are two disadvantages. One of them I'll describe later, as it undermines the next two alternatives as well. The other is that, in tracking terrorists through the mountains of central Asia, it won't be easy to stick to all the legal niceties that policemen are supposed to observe. And if it comes down to letting the likely culprits escape or abandoning due process, most Americans will choose the latter. At the very least, they will say, let us consider response three:
3. The Bronson Option
If we cannot be policemen, let us be vigilantes. We could still limit ourselves to hunting the perpetrators, taking care to leave innocent civilians out of the fight. But we won't have to prove their guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, we could combine the goals of a policeman with rules more akin to those of war. (Some libertarian variations on this idea call for literal vigilantism, with privateers rather than soldiers leading the fight.)
If a foreign government turns out to be involved in plotting the attack, then it isn't merely the rules of war that might be invoked. A violent attack on the U.S. by another state would land us in response four:
4. The Bugs Bunny Option
This one's named for the great American who, when attacked, routinely remarks, "Of course you realize this means war."
This would be a limited war, aimed not at "rooting out terrorism" but at treating those terrorists who are affiliated with foreign governments the same as those who are independent agents. As with Bronsonism and Kojakism, it limits its fire to the conspirators and their henchmen, leaving civilians spared. If you're looking to bomb cities or occupy Afghanistan, you'll have to go well beyond Bugs.
These last three responses share a problem. If the Gandhi option addresses the question of security while leaving justice undone, the others aim for justice but leave us insecure. Arrest or kill Osama bin Laden, and his lieutenants will take over his war. Capture them, and other branches of his very loose network will step into the breach. Bring down a government, and heaven knows what might take its place.
And that brings us to the biggest decision. Do we defend ourselves against this attack, whatever that entails, and then withdraw from the Middle East, fusing a rigorous and vigorous self-defense with non-intervention in other nations' affairs? Or do we dig in for a long fight against the social landscape of the Mideast? Do we, in the words of The New York Times' Thomas Friedman, fight "a long, long war" against "all the super-empowered angry men and women out there"?
5. The Caesar Option
If you prefer this alternative -- if you favor a long war against a ubiquitous enemy -- then be aware of the likely consequences:
- The war will not merely be long. It will be perpetual. We will not be fighting an army, after all, but a tactic -- terrorism -- that can be adopted by small cells anywhere in the world. More: We will be fighting a mindset, one which will probably be inflamed still further by the battle against it. We will never know when the war is over, or when we're finally safe. Innocent civilians will die -- not just abroad, but here (as if we needed to be reminded) in America.
- The U.S. will become a garrison state. When you're fighting a perpetual war against an enemy that operates without borders, citizens will become suspects. Privacy, due process, freedom of association, and freedom of movement will be curtailed. Given politicians' predilections, the same fate will likely befall free speech and the right to bear arms.
- Whatever authoritarian measures afflict us domestically will be meted out several times over to states abroad, since that will be where most of the actual terrorists live. Dictatorship, of course, is nothing new in the Middle East. But now the governments will be answering to the United States, which can scarcely trust the Taliban to do its terrorist-hunting for it. America will have to act forthrightly as an empire.
In short, the Caesar option will probably fail to bring us security or justice. The only way around this would be not just to dominate the potential terrorists of the Middle East, but to wipe them out. Incredibly, there are those who are proposing just this.
6. The Strangelove Option
Not long after the attacks, Sam Donaldson asked the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, whether we can "rule out" the use of nuclear weapons. He received this response:
"We have an amazing accomplishment that's been achieved on the part of human beings. We've had this unbelievably powerful weapon, nuclear weapons, since, what, 55 years now plus, and it's not been fired in anger since 1945. That's an amazing accomplishment. I think it reflects a sensitivity on the part of successive presidents that they ought to find as many other ways to deal with problems as is possible."
"I'll have to think about your answer," said Donaldson. "I don't think the answer was no."
"The answer was that that we ought to be very proud of the record of humanity that we have not used those weapons for 55 years," replied Rumsfeld. "And we have to find as many ways possible to deal with this serious problem of terrorism."
Where Rumsfeld weasels, others step boldly. "At a bare minimum, tactical nuclear capabilities should be used against the bin Laden camps in the desert of Afghanistan," Thomas Woodrow, formerly of the Defense Intelligence Agency, declared in The Washington Times. In the pundit class the talk is even nastier, with Col. David Hackworth among others suggesting that portions of the Middle East should "glow" with radiation.
Maybe they're just bluffing. Maybe they're just trying to convince the world that Americans are batshit crazy when we're mad, and that the terrorists damn well better be scared. The trouble is, they're scaring me too.
* * *
So which path do we take?
I've long opposed American intervention abroad. Self-defense, however, is an entirely different matter. Obviously, the Kojak model is ideal, but I can live with Bronson or Bugs. The important point is to aim our fire at the murderers, not at civilians or at anyone who merely happens to be a usual suspect -- and to limit ourselves to a well-defined mission, rather than a vague, all-encompassing "war on terrorism." The Caesar option would lead to further tragedy; the Strangelove path, to utter disaster.
At the same time, we will have to take a hard look at what the pacifists are saying, even if we reject absolute nonviolence. Do we really want to defend a fundamentalist dictatorship in Saudi Arabia? Do we really need to maintain sanctions that have had no effect on Saddam's dictatorship, but have brought death to thousands of Iraqi children? And in that most contentious of Mideastern conflicts, must we tilt so strongly toward Israel, even when it treats Palestinians like second-class citizens or winks at those who steal their water and land? (Spare me your angry e-mails, Israeli partisans: I don't think much of Arafat's brutal Palestinian National Authority either.) This isn't just an issue to grapple with after bin Laden has been captured or killed. It's something to look at now, as we figure out how to fight the terrorists without alienating the Middle Eastern public.
Never before has America's involvement in the Mideast's tribal politics seemed more foolhardy. Now that we're stuck in this tarbaby, we're going to have to fight our way out. But we should think twice before punching any more tarbabies down the road.
Jesse Walker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor of Reason Magazine and the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).