History is littered with victims of those who learned the wrong lessons from history. Last week‘s attacks resembled Pearl Harbor in their element of surprise and the extreme loss of life, but the destruction of the World Trade Center heralds a very different sort of threat, one that requires a different response. In this climate of grief, anger and revenge, the voices willing to raise concerns about the use of force have been drowned out. Making somebody pay, making many of “them” die, is just about the only given, the only certainty, in the national dialogue. It’s not a case of whether or why, but when, where and with how much force.

Military options include a full-scale U.S. invasion, a multinational coalition that could leave the risky groundwork to non-U.S. troops, aerial bombardment alone and the pinpoint assassination of terrorists. Any such course embodies practical and ethical issues that aren‘t gravely considered in the din of public-opinion polls, political rhetoric, and broadcast paeans to patriotism and uniformity. Launching a war against — well, against whomever — could endanger the lives of thousands, here and abroad, without putting a dent into terrorism. And if we’re not careful, we will seem to much of the world like the terrorists we are seeking to root out. We, too, could be slaughtering innocents — except that we‘d be doing our damage with made-to-order missiles, rather than commandeered passenger planes.

At first glance Afghanistan looks to be the perfect candidate for a painless (to us) invasion by our 21st-century Stormin’ Normans. Who‘s going to stop us? The goat-herders? In fact, those Afghani clans did remarkably well against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Afghanistan became the Soviet’s Vietnam, even though the USSR had the advantage of being next door and already had a puppet regime in power.

“Afghanistan is an extremely difficult country to invade,” says Cal State Northridge professor Mehran Kamrava, a Middle East and political-development specialist. “Most of the major metropolitan areas are in the periphery. It is mountainous in the center, with impassable mountain ranges, innumerable mountains, valleys and caves. It is very difficult for regular military forces to go into these areas and identify targets. This has been a historical problem for those who have wanted to control Afghanistan. This was the difficulty for the Soviets when they tried to exert central authority.”

Before our troops got to the terrorists, if ever, they first would have to cut a bloody swath through nationalists and conscriptees, all of whom would be compelled to resist a territorial invasion.

Then there‘s the chilling parallel with Chechnya, the source of unending terroristrebel attacks against Russian interests. Russia has responded by bludgeoning Chechnya into the Stone Age. But for all the dead, including thousands of Russian soldiers and tens of thousands of Chechens — and the obliteration of Grozny, once a city of 400,000 — Russians hardly are sleeping safer, and Russia has been richly condemned by the rest of the world for the pervasive death and misery it has inflicted.

A multinational coalition, involving American air power and ground troops from the region, would play well in domestic public-opinion polls (in other words, few Americans would die), but entails problems of its own. Unlike in the Gulf War, no territory has been taken, so there’s nothing to take back. And the necessity to strike the protectors of terrorists is a hard sell to other nations, especially when it means sacrificing their soldiers, making their citizens more likely targets of future terrorism and, in the case of allied Muslim nations, possibly destabilizing their own governments. Besides, there‘s no oil supply to safeguard in Afghanistan. British Prime Minister Tony Blair already has made it clear that his support of the United States is no “blank check.”

Of course the U.S. can always purchase proxies, but that practice hasn’t always worked out — Vietnam being the most notable example. Much anti-U.S. sentiment and many of the world‘s terrorist cells have roots in how we developed and handled proxies set up as Cold War bulwarks against the Soviets.

“Bin Laden used to be an ally of the United States when he was used and trained by the U.S. to fight against the Soviet Union,” says Cal State Northridge professor Ram M. Roy, who’s also a senior research associate at Claremont Graduate University. “Now what he has learned he is using against the United States.”

Simply bombing Afghanistan, in much the way that NATO obliterated the modern infrastructure of Serbia, does not work when the target is terrorists, though it can be highly effective at killing people — which brings the matter around to a fundamental question. Exactly how many innocent Afghan lives are we willing to take in the name of avenging our own innocent? Even eye-for-an-eye vengeance presumes that you are maiming the guilty alone. The 19 terrorists who actually conducted the September 11 rampage have already applied to themselves the death penalty that American politicians are so fond of supporting.


Another strategy of violence — U.S.-sponsored assassination of terrorists (which was banned by President Gerald Ford not so long ago) — could avoid the killing of innocents, but there are problems even if the U.S. could become as skilled at this dark art as the Israelis. After all, it‘s not clear that Israel has benefited from this practice. What’s been achieved if killing one suspected terrorist makes future suicide bombers out of his brothers and sons?

Deterrence by suppression is always tricky, given that suppression helps spawn terrorism in the first place. A terrorist is already beaten down — by politics, by poverty, by religious fanaticism, by whatever — all the way down to the level of feeling good about strapping himself to a bomb and blowing himself up in a shopping center.

“Whoever is responsible needs to pay the price,” says Professor Kamrava, who, like the other experts interviewed for this article, would endorse a thoughtful, limited application of military force. “But in inflicting that price, the American government should make sure that it doesn‘t further damage its own interests in the long term by further destroying a country that is already battered, by further polarizing anti-American sentiments, by isolating American allies, and by creating future martyrs.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor — the event most often yoked by metaphor with the World Trade Center strike — vaulted us into a conflict that was, in the battlefield, a conventional war over territory and resources. That is not the case today. Yet President George W. Bush — with his vague but repeated “declaration of war” and his talk of getting bin Laden a “dead or alive” — has backed himself into a political foxhole from which he may see no escape but fighting his way out.

“The Bush administration has focused its future, defined itself and its agenda as ’fighting the war,‘ this new conflict, what it calls a war,” says USC political science professor Richard H. Dekmejian, an expert on the Middle East and terrorism. “Calling it a war is good rhetoric, but it’s also unfortunate. That this is a very different kind of conflict should be obvious to people. But when they‘re looking at tragedy, they’re not too objective.”

To date, no one has demonstrated that military might stops terrorism. Certainly, no one has proved it superior to international cooperation and effective diplomacy, which could be funded with the $40 billion Congress approved last week for the so-called war effort. What could that money buy? How about investing in technology that would lessen our dependence on foreign oil? The payoff would be cleaner foreign policy and cleaner air too.

Maybe more foreign aid is in order, on a selective basis, though it should yield more of a return. Would Israel continue its assassination policy if the U.S. threatened to cancel all aid? Would Yasir Arafat and his PLO keep radicals in line if the upshot of their decision was either increased U.S. aid or none at all? Those kind of quid pro quos are at least worth a try before we start lobbing cruise missiles.

“Everyone has a price except the most committed fundamentalists, the true believers,” says USC‘s Dekmejian. “But much depends on American willingness to use our power wisely.” With Israel, yes, and also the Arab countries. “Go down the list of Arab states and see what they’re prepared to do for us in this regard, in terms of tracking down criminals and terrorists. In the past, we‘ve been very soft with them.”

Beyond capturing suspects, international efforts could focus on seizing terrorists’ financial assets and shutting down fund-raising venues. While Bush‘s broad hints about military invasions have received a lukewarm international reception, he might get his coalition if the talk shifted to economic sanctions, for example.

The problem with real solutions, says Dekmejian, is that they are long-term efforts “at a time when the American public is looking for something very dramatic.”

The Israeli example worth emulating is from the early 1960s, a period when Israelis first tried to extradite fugitive Nazi leaders, then, when necessary, risked their lives to capture them. Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who organized the transportation of Jews to death camps, wasn’t abducted and then summarily lynched; he was captured and brought to trial. Israelis elected not to reduce themselves to Eichmann‘s level. That’s a history lesson worth remembering today.


Researcher Lovell Estell III contributed to this article.

LA Weekly