TCS Daily


A Modest Proposal to End the War on Terrorism

By Lee Harris - March 25, 2004 12:00 AM

To begin with, President Bush should invite John Kerry to the White House for a confidential discussion on how to bring the world wide threat of terrorism to an end. Kerry will have no choice but to accept the invitation; and the press will be fed tips from high governmental officials that the meeting between the two men will have the profoundest historical consequence. Bush will have earlier issued a statement that, at this dangerous juncture in history, there can be no hint of a partisan divide on our nations' approach to the problem of terrorism; and that it is imperative that any proposal coming from the current administration will be backed one hundred percent by the opposition party.

Kerry arrives, but does not leave. The press is told that the joint discussion is going so well, and has reached such a critical level, that Senator Kerry has been invited to stay at the White House as an overnight guest -- and, indeed, let the Senator stay there for three or four nights -- just to increase the dramatic tension.

The leaks are flowing profusely by now. Talk is circulated in the media about the "breathtaking" and "astonishing" proposal that will be announced in a joint statement by both the President and the Democratic candidate for President.

This is what the joint statement, when it is finally released, will say:

"The United States had decided to open negotiation with Islamic terrorists, including Al Qaeda. Our only demand is that the terrorists must formally state their demands to us in a written document, and this document will become the basis of any future negotiation. These demands may be for cutting off all support for Israel, or for banning American presence from the Middle East, or for the mass conversion of all American citizens to Islam. Everything will be open for discussion."

Now how can the terrorists -- or their American and European apologists -- ask for more than that?

But what about the fine print. Certainly there must be some strings attached somewhere?

In fact, there are two very minor conditions.

First, it must be possible for the United States to comply with the terrorists' demands without the aid of a time machine. They are therefore barred from requiring us to "do over" episodes of history that are over and done with, such as American defilement of Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War. However, the United States will be happy to consider paying compensation for all such misdeeds in the past.

Second, the various terrorist organizations must unite behind one common front. This may be Al Qaeda or Hamas or what group the other terrorists decide to let represent them in their negotiations with the United States -- it makes no difference to us. All that really matters is that there be one clearly identifiable group that is authorized by Muslim terrorists everywhere to speak for them.

Third, the list must not be a laundry list of complaints or grievances. It must be expressed in a form of ten priorities, ranked in accordance with their importance to the Muslim terrorists; and again, it is essential that all the Muslim terrorists will agree on the ranking of the relative demands -- there can be no argument about which demand has to be met first.

These demands are only common sense. After all, the whole point of opening negotiations is to provide a definitive solution to the problem of Islamic terrorism; hence, the United States has every right to insist that the party with whom they are negotiating has the authority to secure such a definitive solution. It will not do to have the United State accede to the demands of one group of terrorists, only to find another group of terrorists making different demands on us, and justifying their acts of terror on the basis of our failure to meet these new demands. When one nation sets about negotiating with another nation, it is presumed that the other nation's negotiating team can uphold its end of the bargain -- otherwise, what is the purpose of negotiations?

Now by this point I expect that many of my readers will be convinced that I am advocating virtual surrender to the terrorists. But in fact I am urging precisely the kind of policy that Otto von Bismarck adopted -- to create a trap in which your enemy will irresistibly fall, simply because he will have no clue where the trap has been set.

Consider the only two responses that the Muslim terrorists can make in such circumstances.

First, they can reject the offer to negotiate their demands with the United States, in which case they will be announcing to the world that they have no genuine political demands to make, but are simply indulging in terrorism for the sake of terrorism. This may not be enough to disillusion the many apologists for terrorism in the West, but it certainly will stop them from attacking the United States for its failure to pursue a more conciliatory path.

Second, the various Muslim terrorist groups can accept the offer to negotiate, whereupon they will immediately fall into bickering over which group has the legitimate authority to speak for the entire Muslim world, not to mention which of their various demands should take priority over other demands, and which need to be included in the list of ten demands, and which should be left off this list.

The result of this bickering would almost certainly be an orgy of mutual slaughter -- just the kind of thing that happens to gangs when they are trying to establish their dominance over each other. Each would be competing with the rest to be allowed to represent the Muslim world in its negotiations with the United States.

Otto von Bismarck could have done such a thing. We probably can't. And yet by simply contemplating such a scenario it becomes instantly clear why the crisis we are facing is so different from any crisis in our past. Every war in our past could, in theory, have been capable of a solution had we been simply willing to give up enough to those who were our enemies. Had we abandoned the Pacific to the Japanese, that would have appeased them; had we kept out of the European war, Hitler would have been fine with us. Had Wilson simply accepted the German sinking of our ships on the high seas, as William Jennings Bryan had urged, we would have never gotten involved in the First World War.

In our current situation, however, the mere willingness to yield to the demands of the enemy is not enough to bring about a definitive solution, simply because while we have enemies, they are not even close to being organized enough to constitute something that we could plausibly call the enemy. Indeed, let us suppose that, instead of trying to open negotiations, we simply decided to flat out surrender. To whom would we surrender? And if we surrendered to terrorist group A, how could we be sure that we were not thereby embroiling ourselves in a war with terrorist group B, who might decide to insist that we surrender to them instead, and to underscore this insistence with terror strikes of their own?

As long as a handful of people in the Muslim world believe that they have a grievance against us, and are willing to use terror to express this grievance, it will be impossible for us either to achieve a negotiated solution to the problem of terrorism, and equally impossible for us even to surrender. This means that even the most peace-loving dove must accept the fact that we have no choice but to fight -- and to fight with whatever weapons come to our hand. Either that, or just to stop caring when hundreds or thousands of human beings are brutally murdered for no reason at all.

In H.G. Wells' novel, The Time Machine, the hero is transported into a far distant epoch of man's future. There he is astonished to discover an innocent and carefree race of beautiful and child-like human beings, called the Eloi. Yet, just at the moment when the hero believes he is seeing the return of the Golden Age, an incident happens. A beautiful girl suddenly loses her footing and falls into a river along which she and her friends had been walking just moments before. The girl screams as she falls into the water, but her companions merely give her a glance, and then casually, as if nothing had happened, they continue their way, utterly unaffected by their friend's desperate shouts.

Wells' hero immediately sees his duty, and does it, jumping into the river to save the drowning girl, but, as he does so, he asks himself, How could human beings possibly reach such a point where they thought nothing of the death of their friends and companions?

Since we cannot negotiate or surrender, even if we wished to, our only realistic alternative to fighting our enemies is to adopt the attitude of the Eloi, and to ignore the deaths of those of us whom they kill, and to go our merry way as if nothing had happened to them.

Lee Harris recently wrote for TCS to ask: "Did We Have It Coming?" His new book "Civilization and Its Enemies" is just out from Free Press.


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