In Terrorism's Wake
Community Forum, Barnard College
Comments of Kimberly Marten Zisk
Associate Professor of Political Science, Barnard College
Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Good evening. The major point I want to make this evening is that the terrorists who struck last week are unlike most terrorists that we've seen elsewhere in the world and at other times in history. This is because they do not want any specific policy changes. Usually we think of terrorists as wanting something to change, for example by having additional rights granted to minority groups in societies, or wanting a constitution to be rewritten.
But what Osama bin Laden wants is to destroy the United States; he has said this repeatedly. In one recent interview, for example, he said, "it shall end up separated states and shall have to carry the bodies of its sons back to America." He will kill as many civilians as it takes to accomplish this task. He finances and trains a large network that is not necessarily under his centralized control; what others in the networks connected to him have said they want is for all "infidels" (including Americans, secular Muslims, and Jews) to leave lands that they consider to belong to Islam, in the Middle East and South Asia.
This major observation has three related implications.
The first implication is that the United States is at war. This is not because President George Bush has said we are at war, but because Osama bin Laden and the networks associated with him will not stop their violent attacks on the U.S. no matter what policies we adopt. What happened last week is just the beginning, and the lives of everyone present in the United States have changed forever. Last Saturday night we had some friends over for dinner. One who works in the financial district said, "They tried to kill me." I think that sums up well the situation we are all facing.
The second implication is that we must use force in response to this attack. This is for two reasons:
First, Osama bin Laden is a bloodthirsty individual; he has demonstrated in the repeated large-scale terrorist attacks which he has supported in recent years that killing people is part of his basic makeup. He is charismatic enough to convince others to support him. This means that as long as he survives, we are all in mortal danger.
Second, we must use force in response because these networks are made up of bullies who operate according to the rules of violence. If we do not respond with a well targeted and well thought out use of force, they will take this as a sign of weakness, and it will encourage them further. If we hesitate, it will not open a period of dialogue and will not lead them to slow their attacks. Instead it will lead them to believe that their efforts are successful, and they will redouble them.
However, there is a very important third implication from my initial observation, which we must remember as well: namely, there is nothing that Osama bin Laden would like better than to have this become a war of the United States versus Islam. If that is what happens, he has won, because surely that *will* destroy the United States.
At present we have unprecedented international support for taking forceful action in response to these attacks. For the first time in history, our 18 NATO allies have declared under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty that this attack on the United States is an attack on all of them as well, and that they will come to our defense. The United Nations Security Council, including Russia and even China, unanimously passed a resolution last week stating that this attack on us was a threat to international peace and security and that we have a right to defend ourselves in response. Furthermore, both the government of Israel and Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Authority, moderated their stances yesterday and declared a ceasefire in their ongoing conflict, probably at least in part to demonstrate their support for us and their refusal to accept the legitimacy of terrorism.
But we will squander this support, and we will alienate significant portions of our own citizenry, if we engage in a thoughtless, massive attack that kills many innocent civilian Muslims in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Therefore our use of force must be judicious and careful. The rhetoric that was common in the days immediately following the attack worried me, and made me think that we would not be judicious and careful in our response. Yet one factor that gave me hope even then— something pointed out by numerous commentators— is that the majority of the people in the top leadership positions who are currently responsible for US foreign and defense policy are Vietnam veterans. They lived through Vietnam once, and do not want another Vietnam. We can hope that their advice will influence the choices that the administration makes, and that the use of force will be sensible and directed toward achievable goals.
It also gives me hope that the rhetoric in recent days has indeed been moderated. President Bush was quoted as saying yesterday, "What's the sense of sending a $2 million missile to hit a $10 tent that's empty anyway?" While the words themselves may seem a little jokey, they indicate that Bush is well aware of the risks of an immoderate attack, and appears to be thinking about a strategy that is sensibly targeted. Bush also said yesterday at the Washington Islamic Center: "These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Muslim faith. The face of terror is not the true face of Islam." This indicates to me that there is hope that this will not become a war of the United States versus Islam.
But we all need to be aware of the fact that the violence directed against us is not over. This was just one strike; more are coming. Life as we know it in this country has changed, and we will all have to deal with the dilemmas this raises for the democratic process as we seek to ensure our own security and survival.