Compared to the lethal menaces of the twentieth century, the strategic threat posed by radical Islamic terrorists is minor league. On September 11th, 2001, the terrorists killed some 3,000 people, and subsequent attacks in Bali, Madrid, Istanbul, London and Mumbai have killed hundreds more. Tragic as those deaths are, they pale in comparison to the nearly 100 million deaths of the two world wars.
True to their label, the Islamic terrorists are terrifying, and they can sometimes inflict nasty damage, as we discovered to great sorrow five years ago. But terrorism has always been the strategy of weak parties, not strong ones, and radical Islamic terrorism is no exception.
The closest historical analogy for the radical Islamic terrorist threat is neither the two world wars nor the Cold War. It is the violence perpetrated by anarchist forces during the last third of the nineteenth century. Anarchists committed numerous high-profile assassinations, including a Russian czar, an empress of Austria-Hungary, and President William McKinley. They also fomented numerous bomb plots and riots, including the notorious Haymarket riot in the United States. The Newt Gingriches of that era also overreacted and warned of a dire threat to western civilization. In reality, though, the anarchists were capable only of pinpricks, and life went on.
The radical Islamists are only a little more potent. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that there are no more than a few thousand Al Qaeda operatives—many of whom are hunkered down in the wilds of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However fearsome they are, we must keep their threat in perspective. Even in the improbable worst-case scenario—the one in which Al Qaeda gets its hands on a nuclear weapon and somehow figures out how to detonate it (not an easy task)—the scope of destruction, while terrible, would still not begin to rival the horrors of the last century's bloodletting, much less what would have happened if the Cold War had turned hot. There is no realistic prospect of Al Qaeda obtaining thousands of nukes.
Consider the scope of the threat posed by Nazi Germany and its allies in World War II. Germany was the world's number two economic power and had an extraordinarily capable military—probably the best in the world. At the peak of its success, the Wehrmacht managed to conquer most of Europe, and Japanese forces overran most of East Asia. It took the combined military efforts of several great powers to defeat the fascists' bid for global dominance. When the dust settled, more than 50 million people were dead.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the world's number two military power. Moscow dominated Eastern and Central Europe, and its conventional forces could have overrun the rest of the continent and condemned millions more people to communist slavery. With an arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons, it was capable of obliterating most American cities and effectively ending modern civilization in the United States. The Soviet Union, like Nazi Germany before it, was a strategic threat of the first magnitude.
Absurd proclamations that America's conflict with Al Qaeda and its radical Islamist allies constitutes the next world war are becoming a growth industry. Newt Gingrich is the latest to sound the alarm, but Norman Podhoretz, publisher of Commentary magazine, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, and many other pundits and politicians have made the same allegation. Indeed, the only thing these would-be national saviors seem to disagree about is whether the current conflict is World War IV or V instead of World War III.
Yet most countermeasures that the United States and other countries have undertaken are glorified law enforcement tactics rather than full-scale warfare. Last month's airline bombing plot in Britain was disrupted in that way, as were the previous break-ups of Al Qaeda cells in Hamburg and Madrid. With the exception of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, this is the nature of the war against radical Islamic extremists. Whereas once we carpet-bombed our adversaries, we now pursue largely non-military tactics.
We must recognize that terrorism poses a frightening and tragic but manageable threat to the United States. Gingrich, Podhoretz and other panic mongers do us a huge disservice by exaggerating its danger. The only way the current struggle could ever become a world war is if American leaders followed their advice and escalated our response into a war between the West and Islam. As we mourn our dead, we must remember that we have more power than our enemies to worsen our fate. For both the dead and the living, we must make sure that does not happen.