The awful response that we dare not speak about
Almost daily we are assured that another attack on the homeland, commensurate with 9/11, is inevitable. What a scary mood of fatalism we are in! Where will it happen? The Olympics? The party conventions this summer? A week before the election? Chicago? L.A.?
Our experts weighed in over the 4th of July weekend and seemed to disagree only over the method of the mass murder to come. Will it be chemical, biological, radiological, or involve hijacked planes, car bombs, or waves of suicide terrorists? We talk endlessly about "they" without ever specifying exactly who "they" really are who are planning to butcher us at home. So in between our summer fare of televised beheadings, Michael Moore's latest pseudomentary, and Alfred Knopf novels about killing George Bush, we sit waiting, waiting, waiting.
While we speculate idly about the nature of the attack to come, and the inability of our homeland-security forces to stop it, very few talk about what we should do post-facto if the promised disaster actually transpires. This is a surprising lapse if one believes an understood response helps in advance to create deterrence.
Is our reluctance to discuss the unmentionable because we think we can do nothing in response -- as if there is no culpable nation-state, a toothless CIA can tell us little, we dare not upset fragile gains in Iraq, or that violence only spawns violence? In a world in which Hezbollah promises to help out with peddling Fahrenheit 9/11, the Spanish people are led by the nose by al Qaeda, and Americans lose their heads to cheers in Middle East Internet cafes, have we given the fatal impression that we would grunt a few times, flip the channel, and then do nothing after a repeat of September 11?
And our silence is almost surreal given the standard past American policy in the Cold War of quietly announcing that a Soviet first strike on the United States would result immediately in massive retaliation. We caricature Mutually Assured Destruction today -- indeed, it was a frightening Strangelovian concept. Yet in the absence of any better strategy, MAD kept the peace for 50 years and prevented millions of Americans from being incinerated.
So what would the United States do the next time we are hit? Strike who or what -- and where, when, and how? The problem with the likes of a supposedly nation-less bin Laden, Zarqawi, or their copy-catters, we are told, is that they are like metastasizing brain tumors whose ganglia are deeply embedded in the surrounding tissue. Surgery or chemotherapy often kills the host as well as the cancer. They and their stealthy patrons both know and count on just that ambiguity and imprecision -- as if Americans never operate on malignant brain tumors.
Thus the genius of the jihadists is that they provide psychological rewards on the cheap for millions in the Arab Street without costs, and in turn thrive on "credible deniability" of their tacit hosts. They smirk that postmodern Western liberality precludes Shermanesque collective punishment against the pre-modern. After all, a Christiane Amanpour can be at the front in 24 hours before a live 60-million-strong global audience to yell to U.S. troops on patrol "Don't step on that child!" -- even as her husband advises the Kerry campaign back home. But do they also know that another 9/11 would throw such restraint out the window?
Without the direct aid of an Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, the secret support of rogue elements within the Saudi Arabian, Jordanian, and Pakistani governments, and millions on the Arab Street, the killer cadres simply could not carry out their next large attack. Most Arabs are shocked at the beheadings; but even those who know where the beheaders live and sleep are not so shocked at seeing Westerners sliced and diced to turn the killers in.
Thus on 9/12 we saw Middle East governments like the Saudis (whose 15 citizens spearheaded the murder), the Baathist Iraqis, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Taliban, and the Lebanese all sort of publicly disassociate themselves from the murder -- even as many of their populations polled silent approval and their own smirking intelligence services shrugged that some such attack was always inevitable -- and perhaps salutary after all given our support for Israel and our intrinsically satanic nature.
What to do? The key for the United States -- in very quiet and deferential tones, in private, and to the albeit illegitimate leaders of these relevant countries -- is to convey the message that if there should be a repeat of 9/11, the United States will hold any countries responsible who are proved to have aided or sheltered any of the guilty. Now what does that overused and near-meaningless phrase "hold responsible" really mean? A repeat of Afghanistan and Iraq in places like Iran or Syria?
We should be clear about a proper response now and inform the appropriate parties exactly of the real damage that they should expect -- and it won't be moral fuzziness about guilt over endemic poverty, ancient support for the shah, past Aramco antics, the misery of the Arab Street, and all the other bottled causes and complaints that the Middle East counts on for its accustomed pass from a supposedly neurotic, decadent, and self-loathing West.
Perhaps it would be best to inform hostile countries right now of a (big) list of their assets -- military bases, power plants, communications, and assorted infrastructure ? that will be taken out in the aftermath of another attack, a detailed sequence of targets that will be activated when the culpable terrorists' bases and support networks are identified and confirmed. We would have to draft a formal declaration of war -- as we should have against the Taliban, bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein -- against those countries that harbored or even aided the next 9/11-like cell. Both sides should anticipate the consequences should another 3,000 Americans be incinerated at work.
In real wars of the past, Germans did not study in the U.S. in 1943. Third-Reich reporters did not mingle with Allied journalists. You could not just dial up Mainz or Kobe to chat. Americans did not watch documentaries alleging bloodguilt for B-17 raids. Our ancestors really did sacrifice for total victory. Something like all that is the awful nature of real war that would follow another mass murder here at home -- and this presently deluded world right now should shudder at the very thought of it to come, try to prevent it, and stop looking at "war against terror" as some sort of parlor game. Honesty and resoluteness now might just saves lives later on, as the Middle East realized that it had a collective stake in preventing another calamity.
Oilmen would be aghast that we might hit a country that exports petroleum like an Iran. And we should assume that the Arab world, the Europeans, and many of the Michael Moore Left would hope that we simply take another massive attack, "learn" from our disaster, and then through such pain come to "wisdom" about the "futility" of war begetting war.
Yes, another 9/11 would be a watershed event where the tragic choices in responding would entail only "bad" and "much worse." If it were to occur again, then we would have to realize that we had no foolproof ability to stop such mass terror. And if we were to accept that death sentence and do nothing, then we would also accept the sure end of our civilization as we know it. Compared to that scenario, discussing a bleak response right now doesn't seem so stupid. Keeping silent about it does.
Victor Davis Hanson, July 6, 2004