TCS Daily

The War: Where We Are Now

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 5, 2004 12:00 AM

From all that terror teaches,

From lies of tongue and pen,

From all the easy speeches

That comfort cruel men,

From sale and profanation

Of honor and the sword,

From sleep and from damnation,

Deliver us, good Lord!

-- G. K. Chesterton, "A Hymn," 1915

The proclamations of Muslim terrorists are always larded with a pathetic kind of obstreperous pomposity -- the linguistic signature of an invidious hatred born of a really bad inferiority complex. Witness the audiotape that turned up recently, apparently made by Osama bin Laden's right hand man, Ayman al Zawahri.

"Bush, strengthen your defenses and your security measures," warns the Arabic voice, "for the Muslim nation which sent you the legion of New York and Washington has determined to send you legion after legion seeking death and paradise."

Whether these legions will materialize remains to be seen. Whether we have the means to head them off short of their targets remains a brow-furrowing question. Although our intelligence system is probably not as inept as it is currently portrayed in the press, it is struggling nonetheless to gain its balance and sharpen its vision to fight a global war against Muslim terrorist zealots (let's call this conflict what it really is).

America is in the most critical stage of the "War on Terror," but since "Nine Eleven" the public's anxiety and vigilance -- its waiting for another big terrorist shoe to drop -- have gradually dissipated into indifference and even annoyance. As months and years have passed with no dramatic follow-up to those horrific initial attacks most Americans, it seems, have lost their sense of siege.

We have become impatient with strictures on our freedom, fretful of largely imagined threats to civil liberties, sickened by the mounting terrorist death toll in Iraq, focused on intelligence failures and cynical about the politicizing of issues related to the threat.

The fact is the attacks of 9-11 raised the quality level of terror. It made it all the harder for terrorists to achieve "the next big thing." Perhaps, just perhaps, what happened that awful day was the high water mark for al-Qaida.

What, indeed, would top the coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Would it be some massive "chain reaction" of bombings all across the United States (or the world)? Airliners shot down? A cruise ship or crowded theme park attacked with chemical or biological weapons? A "dirty bomb?"

The bottomless hatred of the Muslim radicals and the vast, complex and therefore target-rich infrastructure of the United States and the West provide a playground of fevered speculation for the media and a nightmarish challenge for those entrusted with the public's security.

The mere protection of "targets" is, of course, a formula for disaster. The suicide bombings in Baghdad and Karbala on Tuesday came despite a "high alert" around the Shiite holy places targeted. No, this must be an offensive war, fought in dark and unwholesome ways. We are dealing with stone killers. There are no conventions and there must be no quarter.

We may be thankful that we have an adult in the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld, who understands that sometimes the preservation of civility requires a killer instinct. As he has made clear, terrorism is not criminal behavior; it is war.

That is precisely why carrying the fight to Afghanistan and Iraq is so important. Sweep away all the babble about the whether-or-nots of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq and one comes to the undeniable truth that the elimination of Saddam's regime has helped throw terrorist forces off balance and opened up new access to their apparatus.

Sen. John Kerry's maundering about the nation being no safer than it was before the invasion of Iraq is fatuous and ill informed if not ignorant. He should be allowed some rhetorical excess, perhaps, while in campaign mode, but his recent "plan" for handling Muslim terrorism through better "strategy" and winning the "war of ideas" against radical Islam is high line demagoguery -- an arm chair answer to the bloody reality of dealing with desperate, unbalanced men and women who strap on explosive-laden suicide belts, or head for paradise at the wheel of truck bombs.

This is the kind of thinking that, after Pearl Harbor, would have demurred from, say, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo for fear it might piss off the Japanese. This is the flabby reasoning and easy speech that gives murderers comfort.

Yes, there are unpleasant repercussions to taking the fight to the terrorists. The counteroffensive against al-Qaida has caused a deadly diaspora of terrorists, some of whom have linked up with regional hate groups around the world, like Jemaah Islamiyah with cells throughout Asia. But that's just the point. Such groups no longer have the luxury of being ignored or overlooked. They are being watched, pursued and where possible, engaged.

Part of the insidious nature of this war is that it does not lend itself to "score card" battles. "Victories" are often small, not really measurable and, indeed, not always even recognizable. The most routine or incidental arrest or discovery (of an arms cache for instance) may well avert a cataclysmic act of murder or destruction. Small, seemingly insignificant events will occur -- indeed have already occurred -- that thwart or delay some terrorist plan.

Yes, the sober reality remains that the planning of other terrorist acts may well be advancing by imperceptible steps, undiscerned against the "noise" of everyday events. We will be caught by surprise or near surprise. But we, too, will surprise the enemy on occasion.

Right now, dark and confused as things seem, there are broad indications of success. The very fury of the terrorist attacks in Iraq is, I believe, evidence that the terrorists see their "world" such as it is, coming apart. They have nothing to offer the people of Iraq, or for that fact the entire Arab world -- no political or economic plans, no moral cause, nothing. Fear and hatred are the only currencies in which they can deal.

Right now I pray that there are some secret "victories." But I hope they remain secret. The worst thing the forces of the West could do now would be to succumb to that natural eagerness to show some progress for the sake of public morale or political advantage by telling too much.

I've been a journalist all my life, mind you, but personally, I think we already know too much about what is being done in the nether reaches of this war. I would rather that my grandchildren have the luxury of reading some day about acts now hidden that will prove to have thwarted chaos, saved lives and preserved the social fabric.

Meanwhile, neither election year politics, nor trade wars, nor unemployment figures nor hoohahs over homosexual nuptials, must deter us from pressing the fight relentlessly, even viciously all over the world. Al Qaida has been hurt financially and technologically. It cannot operate as openly and freely as it once did. But it still has important liquid resources -- diamonds, gold etc. to help it survive.

The search for bin Laden now proceeds in amazing hidden ways. He has fewer and fewer places to hide. And the break that will kill or capture him may come from the most inconsequential happenstance. The shield about him and his operatives, thick as it is with religious fanaticism and loyalty forged in ignorant hatred, is not impenetrable. These despicable men are now forced to move in an uncertain environment where not only outright betrayal, but also fatigue, forgetfulness and stupid mistakes may bring their end. Hasten the day.

The author recently wrote for TCS about Evolving Truths.


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