We watch in horror as terrorist hijackings, suicide bombings. car implosions, and even missiles intrude into the comfortable world where we and our allies live. These events involve countless individual tragedies, including the victims themselves, their families, friends, and associates. We do not easily recover from the physical and psychological trauma.
We search for answers. Who does these things and why? What should we do about terrorism? One body of opinion suggests that World War III is upon us. According to this view, Western civilization itself is under attack. It is faced with radical evil and needs to use whatever force is required to eradicate it. The many people who die, innocent as well as guilty, civilians as well as soldiers, are the necessary cost of maintaining our way of life. The United States as leader of the free world, to recall the words of President Kennedy, must pay any price, bear any burden, to make the world safe for democracy. These words still speak to our heroic ambitions.
The vision is clear, but the path is uncertain. United States military forces are deployed for action across the globe, but are such military actions are likely to achieve their aims? Can all of the guilty be so easily located in the distant mountains and deserts of the world? Is bombing completely innocent foreign civilians consistent with our values? While we may help defend some of our allies, do we encourage others or repel them? Do we persuade the billions of people in other cultures that they want to be our partners? Do we wish to follow policies that risk escalating existing losses toward the very much higher casualty levels of World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam? Though one could ask the same questions of those who undertake the attacks, we can, for the moment, only try to answer them for ourselves.
Moderation beckons. Domestically, the United States takes steps to defend itself, while also remaining conscious of what we are defending, particularly in the area of civil liberties. Internationally, our allies continue to work with us. But many of are concerned that the strongest medicine may make the disease worse rather than eradicate or contain it. We continue to take seriously their views, connecting with them both individually and within the global web of international institutions. We remain conscious of the need to align ourselves with the consensus of world opinion.
While the United States continues to use the hard power resources of appropriate force, we try to limit this force to what is consistent with rational objectives. The use of cruise missiles and drones on innocent people in foreign countries has unsurprisingly enhanced the very enmity that underlies terrorism.
Non-military means, diplomatic consultations, economic incentives, and appeals to shared humane values are preferred means of soft power. But we also take seriously the way that our international trade, aid, and debt policies may increase popular frustrations and terrorist recruitment in poor countries.We may ask how legitimate opposition grievances in other countries might be addressed in a more democratic context. As President Reagan reminded us, one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
We place all these efforts in the frame of a larger strategic question: How will our actions produce a world in which terrorism is less likely to grow, a terrorist anti-world? We, and some of our allies, tend to focus narrowly on immediate military responses to terrorist attacks. We also need to remain true to ourselves and a long-term dream for our own society. How do we work to create a more democratic, just, and peaceful future for ourselves and for all the other people on this planet?
See also Counterpunch 10/29/2001