TCS Daily

Our Brave New World

By Lee Harris - December 29, 2003 12:00 AM

Why is there a terror alert in the United States some two years and three months after President Bush declared his war on terrorism? Wasn't that the whole point of invading Afghanistan and Iraq -- to make certain that nothing like 9/11 happens to us again?

This question has been raised during the last week, and I would like to try to answer it, if only because it badly needs an answer.


I regret that the Bush administration ever made it appear as if our occupation of Iraq was a new front on the war on terror, because if it is a new front, it is a new front because we have called it one; which poses an enormously serious problem for the administration if, after making such a claim, our enemy should hit us in our heartland. For, immediately after such an attack, the administration's critics would raise the cry, "Why weren't we defending our homeland? Why did we go to Iraq to open a new front in the war on terror in Iraq, when the terrorists were still capable of hitting us in our own country?"


Note that my quarrel with the administration is only with the words they use to justify these actions, and only because these words expose the administration to an unnecessary risking of their credibility -- something that they are duty-bound never to endanger. I have also written extensively in justification of the second Iraq war, which I believe we would have been obliged to carry out if 9/11 had never happened. Furthermore, I remain convinced that the attack on Iraq was the most sensible one thing that the United State could have done in order to reduce the chances of a future 9/11 occurring, not because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in his hands, but rather because he could so easily have gotten them in his hands. Did we have "real certainty" that he would use these weapons, if he had them, in Howard Dean's clinical sense of "real certainty." No, we did not because we could not. Our invasion was a gamble, and it may well have been a gamble that was unnecessary because Saddam Hussein might never have gotten around to using his weapons, even if he had them. We will never know.


We will never know: that is the great leitmotiv of our epoch. We will never know if Saddam Hussein might have provided weapons of mass destruction to those whose work on 9/11 he had already hailed so enthusiastically. We will never know whether the invasion of Iraq was really in our national defense. We will never know how many, if any, terror attacks we may have thus prevented.


The Bitter Truth


But come to think of it: Tell us something that we will ever know for certain about the war on terrorism -- like, when is it going to end, and how on earth will we be able to tell when it is over?


This is a bitter truth that both sides of the political fence must be brought to recognize, and as quickly as possible. We can no longer know for sure the very things that we most want to know, such as when they will try to kill us again. It is not possible knowledge. There are too many people in the world who could do it to ever be certain who will.


We must collectively grasp the full implications of this terrifying thought: How do you behave rationally in such a world? How do you ever begin to judge the performance of your leaders, or the merits of their policy, in an era in which small groups of men are capable of changing the world as much as the 9/11 hijackers changed ours? How do you assess the risk and calculate the uncertainty?


True, we have faced nightmarish scenarios before. As a child coming up in the fifties in Orlando, Florida, I was terrified of thermonuclear annihilation, and I vividly recall begging my father to build a bomb shelter in our backyard as my birthday present. That nightmare, I reflected, never came true; so wouldn't this one pass over us as well?


This argument sounds persuasive until you realize the vast and troubling difference between the two eras.


During the Cold War, the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, guaranteed that no side could possibly win in a nuclear exchange, and this made it in the genuine interest of both parties to minimize the uncertainty surrounding the other side's course of action. That was the strange, and unintended, logic of MAD. In a situation where you know your enemy will annihilate you if you make a sneak attack on him, you must make sure that you never act too sneakily around him -- since mere suspicion may be fatal for you both. That is why, under the rules of MAD, you could safely hold back your own missiles until the very last moment, and indeed until several hours after the last moment -- that is to say, after your enemy's missiles had already landed and spread their devastation to your own country. And you could have such a comfortable margin of error precisely because you knew that there would always be a huge surplus of your missiles that the enemy could not possibly take out -- the second strike forces, cunningly scattered in hidden crannies of the ocean aboard Polaris-style submarines or skirting along in flatbed cars on a maze of railroad tracks.


In short, MAD forced all players in the game to try to minimize the uncertainty that their enemy would face in deciding whether or not to launch an attack. Under MAD, it was possible to wait to attack your enemy until after he had already done his worst. Thus there was no compelling reason for preemption; no need to act with less than one hundred percent certainty -- far even beyond the wildest hopes of Mr. Dean's "real certainty."


The Logic of Catastrophic Terror


Alas, the logic of catastrophic terror runs in the opposite direction: it is designed precisely to maximize uncertainty. Anyone could do it anywhere, anytime. No explosion is too terrible, no loss of innocent life too obscene. And, worst of all, how do you deter someone who is eager to die for the glory of murdering you? He is his own happy executioner, putting himself forever beyond reach of your retribution.


The comfortable certainties of MAD are unobtainable in our brave new world. How do you stand back and assess the chances of another 9/11 happening at all?


If we knew for a certainty that there would never be another act of catastrophic terror, then the best policy for us would be to forget that 9/11 ever happened, and never let the least worry about it cloud our minds. If we knew for a certainty that there would be another attack, then the best policy would be for us to never let the thought of catastrophic terror ever leave our minds.


How do you choose between those two radically antithetical policies? How can you achieve "real certainty" about which one of these two paths our nation, and our world, should be led down?

That is what the recent heightened terror alert is all about. And that is what the Bush administration needs to make clear: Nothing we can do, in our homeland or in Iraq, in Afghanistan or any other part of the world, can ever return us to an epoch of certainty.


This is not a new war we are in, but a new age.

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