Commentary

An Important Distinction and Decision

By Charles V. Peña
September 15, 2001

There should be no doubt - no question whatsoever - that the United States should find the perpetrators of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and use whatever military force is necessary against them. If the mastermind behind these heinous acts is indeed Osama bin Laden, then our goal should be the total destruction of his al Qaeda terrorist network. If it is bin Laden, then the Taliban government in Afghanistan is complicit and should suffer the wrath and might of a U.S. response. Indeed, President Bush made clear from the outset that the United States would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts, and those who harbor them.”

But we are also at a crossroads. We need to make the distinction-and ensuing decision-between retaliation against those responsible specifically for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks versus a war on terrorism. These are two very different things. The former is a daunting - but not insurmountable - task of tracking down the apparatus of a distributed terrorist network and destroying it. The latter - “a global assault against terrorism in general,” according to Secretary of State Colin Powell - is completely uncharted waters.

At the moment, it is understandable that people would rally around the flag and support such a war. But we must also consider what that means.

Tuesday’s catastrophic events were likely the result of a single terrorist group (most think it to be Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda). A more broad-scale attack against terrorist groups could potentially have the effect of galvanizing fundamentalist Islamics to engage in an all-out holy war against the “American infidel.” More radical elements within the Islamic movement might be emboldened to topple more moderate regimes. And the backlash against a more widespread U.S. response could be a swelling of ranks within the more radical factions. With over one billion Muslims in the world, these potential effects are not insignificant.

Even if it does not become a jihad, is the American public prepared to go to war against terrorism? Because the war will not be war as we know it.

CNN has reported that the Defense Department intends to ask that 50,000 reservists be called up for “homeland defense.” Are we prepared to have Humvees and soldiers in fatigues toting automatic weapons routinely patrolling the streets of our cities?

Do we understand that going after terrorists is not a routine military operation such as the Gulf War? We won’t be facing an opposing army. And it won’t be confined to a single geographic region. We would not be going to war against any one country and its armed forces. Instead, the enemy will be individuals and small groups of people, living in shadows and moving from one unknown place to another in cities spanning the globe. We already know that cruise missile strikes from afar won’t do the job. The question is whether ground troops can.

The public seems to be willing to accept casualties-both troops and perhaps even innocent civilians. But if part of the war on terrorism means that terrorists will bring the war home to us, do we understand that casualties are likely to include more American civilians being killed here and abroad? We may wage war against the terrorists using military forces, but the terrorists will not limit themselves to striking just military forces. Is that a price we are willing to pay?

Union General William Sherman is famous for the phrase “War is hell.” It is not pretty or easy. It is a messy, ugly business. But a war on terrorism may be a hell we have never seen or experienced. Before we enter it, perhaps we should see whether retaliatory action confined to the perpetrators of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks makes the point that needs to be made. We can always escalate our efforts, if that is ultimately required. But once we go to war, there can be no turning back. We ought not to make that our first step.

Charles V. Peña is a Senior Defense Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute.