Lincoln Journal/Star, September 12, 2001
by George Will
The acrid and unexpungable odor of terrorism, which has
hung over Israel for many years, is
now a fact of American life. Tuesday morning Americans were drawn into the world that
Israelis live in every day.
Just at the moment when American political debate had
reached a nadir of frivilousness, with
wrangling about nonexistent “lock boxes” and the like, the nation’s decade-long holiday from
history came to a shattering end. After about half a century of war and Cold War, Americans
came to feel, understandably, that the world was too much with them, and they turned away
from it. What happened Tuesday morning, and can happen again, underscored the abnormality
of the decade.
Terrorism is usually a compound of the tangible and the
intangible - of physical violence and
political symbolism. The terrorists’ targets Tuesday were symbols not just of American power,
but also its virtues. The twin towers of the World Trade Center are, like Manhattan itself,
architectural expressions of the vigor of American civilization. The Pentagon is a symbol of
America’s ability and determination to project and defend democratic values. These targets
have drawn, like gathered lightning, the anger of the enemies of civilization. Those enemies are
always out there.
At times like this, confused thought breeds confused action.
The American mind must not be
cluttered with two familiar cliches. One is that terrorists are “desperate” people. Tuesday’s
terrorists probably were akin to evil soldiers, disciplined and motivated but not desperate.
The second cliche is that terrorism is “senseless.”
Terrorism would not be such a plague if
either cliche were true.
Far from being senseless, much terrorism is sensible in
that it is “cost-efficient.” Or, to borrow
the language of the stock exchange, terrorism is “highly leveraged.” Even sporadic terrorism
can necessitate the constant costly deployment of defense against it. Furthermore, the
effectiveness of terrorism is enhanced by instant and mass communication, especially graphic
One purpose is to deprive a government of respect and
legitimacy by demonstrating that it is
unable to guarantee public safety, the prerequisite of all justice. The United States, no fragile
thing, is invulnerable to that purpose.
However, many years ago a Chinese theorist said: “kill
one, frighten 10,000.” A modern student
of terrorism has correctly said that in the age of terrorism, the axiom should be: “Kill one,
frighten 10 million.
In thinking about terrorism, democracies are sometimes
plagued by bad sociology and bad
philosophy feeding upon each other. From the false idea that extreme action must have
justification in the social environment, it is but a short intellectual stagger to the equally false
idea that such acts can and should be eliminated by appeasement tarted up as reasonableness.
The real aim of terrorism is not to destroy people or physical assets, still less to score anything
remotely resembling military victories. Rather, its purpose is to demoralize.
Terrorism acquires its power from the special horror of
its randomness, and from the
magnification of it by modem media, which make the perpetrators seem the one thing they are
not - powerful. Terrorism is the tactic of the weak.
To keep all this in perspective, Americans should focus
on the fact that such acts as Tuesday’s
do not threaten American’s social well-being or even its physical strength. However, weapons
of mass destruction are proliferating. Some of them, such as nuclear weapons, can be delivered
to their targets in shipping containers or suitcases or the ubiquitous automobile. Imagine a car
driving down Fifth Avenue spewing anthrax.
The complexities of urban industrial societies make them
inherently vulnerable to well-targeted
attacks that disrupt the flows and interconnectedness of such societies. The new dependence on
information technologies multiplies the vulnerabilities.
The grim paradox is that terrorism, a particularly primitive
act, has a symbiotic relationship with
the sophistication of its targets. And opportunities fo macro-terrorism directed against urban
populations and their water, food-handling and information systems multiply as societies
become more sophisticated.
There can be no immunity from these vulnerabilities, but
that is not a reason for fatalism. A
proactive policy begins with anticipation. Therefore the first U.S. policy response must be to re-
evaluate and strengthen the national intelligence assets, particularly the CIA and FBI, which are
the sine qua non of counter terrorism.
Americans are slow to anger but mighty when angry and
their proper anger now should be
alloyed with pride. They are targets because of their virtues - principally democracy, and loyalty
to those nations which, like Israel, are embattled salients of our virtues in a still-dangerous