The Terrorists Are Winning

Conservative columnist George F. Will is upset, claiming that "The war on terrorism is suddenly going terribly wrong." He thinks that "more than six months into the war on terror, terror is more indicated as a tactic than ever before."

Will is upset, as are many conservatives and neocons, that the United States is once again being soft on Yasser Arafat. The fact that any American diplomat, and especially the president and the vice president, treats Arafat with any respect at all gets these people into a predictable lather.

If it ever occurs to them, they never mention that one of the reasons is that the United States government, as it periodically does, believes it has a holy mission to impose some semblance of settlement on an apparently intractable dispute (at least in the short term), so its minions pretty much have to talk to Arafat. The neocons who generally urge the United States to impose a settlement seem to think we can do whatever the currently most hawkish elements in Israel want without ever talking to Arafat.

DOES TERRORISM PAY? In using the extravagant language – "suddenly going terribly wrong" – to get into a relatively small aspect of the big picture, however, Mr. Will has stumbled on a fairly valid point. The war on terrorism is going terribly wrong, just not in the way he imagines it and not only in Afghanistan, where the neocon triumphalism of December, when allied and Northern alliance troops entered Kabul, suddenly doesn't look especially accurate.

Every aspect of the war in Afghanistan – most certainly including the recent attack on the caves, where initial failure due to underestimating the adversary has now been proclaimed a triumph – has turned out to be more difficult and more complicated than the geniuses expected.

Even more significant than how difficult anything resembling an ultimately satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan is proving to be, is the mounting evidence that the terrorists have won. They have achieved what could be viewed as their realistic objectives – perhaps some believe they'll eventually bring down the Great Satan but one doubts whether Osama or Mullah Omar really did – in stunningly successful fashion.

HOW TERRORISM WORKS The premise, of course, is that terrorism is a political tactic usually employed by those with relatively few resources compared to their chosen adversaries, designed to accomplish certain discrete objectives on the cheap. While terrorists might have long-range objectives, like overthrowing the capitalist system (as some of the European terrorist groups claimed in the 1970s), eliminating Israel, or facilitating the spread of Islam and the elimination of infidels, they seldom figure that any one terrorist act will achieve the objective. The acts have more short-term objectives.

The main short-term objective in most cases is being noticed, whether that means having attention and analysis focused on one's cause and its justness or historical roots, or simply announcing one's existence. There might be more specific short-term objectives, like getting prisoners or hostages released. Terrorists acts are also designed to sow confusion and fear in a chosen adversary, putting the "enemy" on notice that his vulnerabilities are being probed and an attack might come at any time or any place. Ultimately, of course, a hoped-for objective is to demoralize the other side, to make them timid or indecisive. But getting the other guys to change their behavior can be viewed as a victory. And killing some of the people regarded as enemies or adversaries can be an objective in itself.

MIXED RESULTS In some senses, of course, the 9/11 terrorists may have miscalculated. If they thought the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks would cripple the economy and/or the U.S. military they were quite mistaken. And far from demoralizing America, the attacks created a sense of solidarity among Americans that in some ways has not been evident since about the 1950s. It is still far too early to make even a semifinal assessment, but it seems unlikely that the attack will seriously demoralize the United States or lead to the collapse of the American system. And I doubt if Osama and the gang expected as swift and potentially devastating a response as came in Afghanistan.

There's little question, however, that the terrorists achieved the objective of getting our attention, of announcing themselves to the world, of letting it be known that they are the baddest, boldest terrorists yet. It is quite possible that the atrocities helped recruiting, as they were no doubt intended to do, although I have no special knowledge or knowledge I view as reliable, and it may be too early to assess that aspect anyway. And they killed a lot of people, including people they no doubt viewed as key players in the economic globalization of the world, which most religious fundamentalists (not just Islamic) view as something other than a blessing.

CHANGING BEHAVIOR, SOWING CONFUSION The most signal successes of the 9/11 terrorists, however, have been in the realm of changing American behavior. I don't think the terrorists really attacked America because somebody read the Declaration of Independence and decided it was high time to stamp out this nonsense about inalienable rights. But some hostility to the concepts of freedom and democratic institutions is certainly part of the mix. And the United States has become less free since the attacks.

The idea of individual rights has been subverted, sublimated or downplayed, and the power of the central state has been upgraded in countless ways, from the creation of an office of "homeland security" to the passage of the bogus anti-terrorism bill to the development of military tribunals to the indefinite imprisonment of foreigners without real charges to the violation of the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war to the utter abandonment of any pretense of working to keep government limited (or, to be utopian, to shrink it) on the part of the Republican Party. The conservatives are all big-government conservatives now.

Furthermore, considerable confusion, much of which could contain the seeds of long-term resentment against the system, has been sown. The U.S. government has panicked more than once, declaring states of emergency that nobody on the outside can assess due to secrecy and hoarding of information. The crayola color-code system Tom Ridge just announced has not clarified anything but made the government more of a laughingstock.

The attempt to pin the anthrax messages on Saddam Hussein is almost certain to backfire and make the government appear more absurd and less credible. The Bush administration has become the most secretive and least candid administration since Nixon, reflexively keeping secrets for no justifiable reason and sowing seeds for future resentment. All this not only undermines American traditional freedoms, but ultimately undermines the credibility of the American government.

Like most recent administrations, this one would no doubt have made plenty of stupid moves, done things to undermine its own credibility and demonstrated reflexive distrust of the American people on its own. But the terrorist attacks have done a great deal to multiply the number of mistakes that will eventually come back to haunt officials, and to allow officials to believe that anything is justified in the name of the war on terror and that mistakes and missteps can be covered up or hidden. Unless they manage to subvert the still relatively open American system altogether and convert it to some neo-totalitarian system, however, they are mistaken. Eventually the mistakes will be discovered and many of those who made them will pay dearly.

AIRPORT STUPIDITY Perhaps the single most visible sign of utter failure and panicked, wrongheaded action is in the area of American security. Anybody who has flown knows how much more inconvenient and annoying air travel has become, although most Americans still endure it with sheeplike patience. But a Transportation Department report was just obtained or leaked that supposedly shows that in the post-9/11 era the supposedly heightened-alert screeners missed 30 percent of the guns and 70 percent of the knives that testers tried to smuggle aboard airplanes.

So even with the added inconvenience – and, you may be sure, the higher and spiraling costs now that federal employees are doing the screening – passengers still have no reason to have confidence that people can't smuggle weapons onto planes. As before, the innocents, the decent people, could find themselves defenseless against some unscrupulous hijacker. The added security has been virtually useless.

FIGHTING YESTERDAY'S BATTLES Eventually a critical mass of people will begin to rethink the issue, and wonder why so much money has been spent, so many innocent people have been inconvenienced or had their privacy violated, so much damage has been done to the American spirit, in a vain effort to close the barn door after the horse has escaped. Like governments everywhere, ours has spent enormously to fight yesterday's battles ineffectively – and has not demonstrated just how ineffective its efforts have been.

The suicide hijackings were a shock, unexpected by almost everyone (except the passengers of Flight 93 who figured things out belatedly but apparently in time to take some action. But the one thing you can be almost sure of – not absolutely but almost – is that the next terrorist action will not be a carbon copy of 9/11. This is so in part because surprise is important to effective terrorism and also because of the actions of those on Flight 93. An attempt at a copycat action would lead to an attack by passengers, even if they were unarmed, and reduced chances of success.

This suggests that the most effective thing the airlines could have done to thwart another terrorist attack would have been to check passengers to make sure they had only those special bullets that don't pierce the skin of an airliner in their carry-on luggage weapons, and to issue weapons to those who had forgotten to bring their own.

Instead, of course, the government worked even harder to make passengers helpless, defenseless and dependent, creating enormous inconvenience and almost bankrupting an industry in the process. They failed to achieve the objective of catching every nailclipper, but they did force enormous unnecessary expenditures, increase central government power, and force passengers to change their behavior.

All this must be counted as a success for the terrorists. They have forced an enormous change in American behavior and attitudes that will in the long run make the country weaker and probably more vulnerable to a new kind of attack – since so many resources have been wasted on bound-to-fail airline security.

In an insightful piece he did for the Claremont Review of Books, Boston University Professor Angelo Codevilla in early December argued that the purpose of a war in a decent civil society is to create the conditions in which ordinary peaceful pursuits are once again the order of the day. (He's hardly a pacifist; in his essay he called for invading Iraq with massive force.) He cited the restrictions on travel, on access to building and events, which are apparently slated to be semi-permanent, as evidence that we are losing this war.

Winners don't change their behavior to something less pleasant and free, Prof. Codevilla argued. They win and resume their ordinary pursuits and pleasures, having earned the right to remain free through the force of arms. The terrorists have forced us – not that our government resisted or did anything other than embrace the opportunity to create more restrictions on Americans in the name of freedom – to change our behavior in ways that make us less free and less happy on what looks to be a permanent basis.

To me, that looks like the bad guys are winning.

Alan Bock

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