Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Learning to Prevent Terror

Reacting to terror is a sign of an unprepared and unthinking government; responding to terror is somewhat better. Preventing terror is the proper focus for a government. The United States moved through these three phases in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Realizing that there was a coordinated and funded network of individuals and groups whose sole aim was to kill Americans was the first step.

The name Osama bin Laden would soon be common in the news media. This Saudi millionaire issued a fatwa - an Islamic verdict - stating that

the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.

The public learned that the group operated by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida, was one of a long list of terror organizations. Ending the terrorist threat would not simply mean dismantling al-Qaida and getting rid of Osama bin Laden. An entire network of terrorist groups would have to be defunded and destabilized; the safe havens which had sheltered parts of this network would have to be made inhospitable to it.

Most of all, the nations of the world would have to understand that these terrorists were incorrigible: their one and only objective was to kill Americans. With them, there could be no negotiating, no deterrence, no compromise, no diplomacy, no appeasement, and no tradeoffs. As long as the network of terrorist groups existed, and as long as its members lived, they would be working diligently to kill. Innocent civilians would be safe only when the network and its members were eliminated. This realization would be possible only after the immediate shock of the attacks wore off. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld writes:

America awoke the next day a nation at war. Above pictures of the burning World Trade Center, the Washington Times had a one-word front-page headline that read, in large, bold, capital letters: "INFAMY." Across the United States, Americans expressed anger and sadness. They also voiced fear of further attacks. Many wondered if they were safe, how their lives might have to change, whether their family members or friends were in danger. Major landmarks considered likely targets were watched with anxiety. Each rumor of another attack set people on edge. Some feared for family members in the military. The financial world was in shock. The stock market suffered one of its biggest drops in history when it reopened six days after 9/11. Hundreds of billions of dollars - property damage, travel revenue, insurance claims, stock market capital - all lost in a single day because nineteen men with a fanatical willingness to die boarded four commercial airliners wielding box cutters.

Understanding the nature of these fanatics was and is a central historical task. Vocabulary is helpful: there is a difference between 'Islam' and 'Islamist' and a difference between 'Islamic' and 'Islamism' and these differences are crucial.

Islam is a religion, which people, like every other religion - Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, etc. - have a constitutional right to practice. Islamism is, by contrast, not merely the religion of Islam, but rather the most orthodox interpretation of that religion, adhering carefully to Qur'an (Koran) and other sacred texts of that religion. Islamism is essentially, intrinsically, and inherently violent. Civilized people in general, and the United States government in the wake of 9/11 in particular, have no quarrel with Islam. Islamism, on the other hand, constitutes a continual danger to free and peaceful civilians everywhere.

The word 'Islamic' refers to the religion, to the culture, and to the practitioners of that religion. On the other hand, the word 'Islamist' refers to the propaganda, to the attacks, and to those who carry them out in the name of orthodox understandings of the prophet Muhammad. As leaders of all western governments have repeatedly stated, the civilized nations of the word seek peaceful relations with Islamic cultures; but from Islamists, conversely, come only violence and terror. Don Rumsfeld writes:

However, I became increasingly uncomfortable with labeling the campaign against Islamist extremists a "war on terrorism" or a "war on terror." To me, the word "war" focusses people's attention on military action, overemphasizing, in my view, the role of the armed forces. Intelligence, law enforcement, public diplomacy, the private sector, finance, and other instruments of national power were all critically important - not just the military. Fighting the extremists ideologically, I believed, would be a crucial element of our country's campaign against them. The word "war" left the impression that there would be combat waged with bullets and artillery and then a clean end to the conflict with a surrender - a winner and a loser, and closure - such as the signing ceremony on the battleship USS Missouri to end World War II. It also led many to believe that the conflict could be won by bullets alone. I knew that would not be the case.

Voices in government and in the media repeated our friendship with, and respect for, peaceful and moderate Muslims - typically those who lived in American suburbia: middle class, middle-aged, mid-western, educated professionals. Such people were not to be seen as a threat. Rather, it was the radicalized version of Islam which was both seed and fertile ground for terror. The distinction between dangerous Islamists and peaceful and moderate Muslims - nominal Muslims, not bound slavishly to the literal texts of the past - was and is a central distinction to understanding the terrorism which threatened and threatens not only the United States, but much of the free world. Rumsfeld continues:

From the beginning, members of the administration worked gingerly around the obvious truth that our main enemies were Islamic extremists. I didn't think we could fight the crucial ideological aspect of the war if we were too wedded to political correctness to acknowledge the facts honestly. While we certainly were not at war against Islam, we did intend to fight and defeat those distorting their religious beliefs - their Islamic religious beliefs - to murder innocent people. I thought that the best term was Islamist extremists, which made clear we were not including all Muslims. Islamism is not a religion but a totalitarian political ideology that seeks the destruction of all liberal democratic governments, of our individual rights, and of Western civilization. The ideology not only excuses but commands violence against the United States, our allies, and other free people. It exalts death and martyrdom. And it is rooted in a radical, minority interpretation of Islam.

For more than a decade, the United States has wrestled with the subtle and nuanced situations in which these distinctions must be applied. Learning to identify those who are truly people of good will, and learning to identify those who wish only to kill, is not always easy. But learning to make such distinctions is necessary for the survival of civilization, and necessary for the defense of the peculiarly western notion that human life is innately valuable and precious.