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Published: Saturday, 9/15/2001 - Updated: 1 year ago

Understanding terrorists key to defeating them

While others about him were celebrating the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, Adm. Isokoru Yamamoto, who planned it, was somber.

“I fear that all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve,” Yamamoto said.

For years, Americans have been sleepwalking through the war on terrorism.

Rule No. 2 for success in war is to know your enemy. (Rule No. 1 is to know yourself.) We break Rule No. 2 whenever we refer to “cowardly” terrorists or “senseless” acts of terrorism.

We tend to describe anything that offends our Western sense of morality as irrational, but that is a grave mistake. Tuesday's acts of terror were by no means senseless. Our enemies meant to hurt us, and they have. Our enemies meant to frighten us, and they have. “Kill one, frighten 10,000,” said Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage who also is the source of the rules of war cited above.

We have given our enemies reason to suppose they could frighten us out of the Middle East. Jimmy Carter lost his presidency by dithering about the hostage crisis in Iran. When 241 Marines were killed in a suicide bombing in Lebanon in 1983, President Reagan's response was to cut and run. When 18 Rangers were killed in Somalia in 1993, President Clinton's response was to cut and run. If our enemies have misjudged us, it's as much our fault as theirs.

We need to understand the depth of the hatred our enemies feel for us. They hate us because we will not let them destroy Israel. They hate us because we don't put veils on our women. They hate us because we are successful and they are losers. We can appease them only by becoming like them. We can be safe from them only if we kill them.

The most serious mistake we've made is to treat terrorism as a criminal, rather than as a military, problem. They come at us with bombs. We go after them with subpoenas. So far, the fight's been one-sided. We aren't winning.

If we are to deter future acts of terror, our response must be swift and terrible. A legalistic approach guarantees that our response will be neither.

We must convince terrorists that they and the causes for which they commit these heinous acts will suffer more from our retaliation than we will from their attacks. We cannot do this if we postpone action until after we have gathered legal evidence for an indictment; if we rely upon the goodwill of the nations which harbor terrorists to extradite them to us, and if we worry overmuch about causing harm to the innocent.

That Osama bin Laden is still breathing is proof positive of the failure of the legalistic approach. He is strongly suspected of having masterminded the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996; the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden last year. Though he has killed hundreds of Americans over half a decade, our anti-terrorism efforts to date have at most caused bin Laden mild discomfort. He was able to plan Tuesday's slaughter at his leisure.

If journalists can find bin Laden to conduct interviews, the Rangers could find him, too . . . if we'd let them. An advantage of the military approach is that even if we can't catch or kill all the bad guys, we can make them put their heads down. If a terrorist is busy running for his life, it is hard for him to plan additional acts of terror.

We can win the war on terrorism only if we understand that it is a war, and we fight it accordingly.

Jack Kelly is a member of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail him at jkelly@post-gazette.com.



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