TCS Daily

The Anti-Terror Virtues

By Kenneth Silber - April 30, 2004 12:00 AM

The War on Terror has been presented, rightly, as proceeding on many fronts. It has been fought on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has been sustained in smaller-scale military actions in other countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, and the Philippines. It includes police investigations, financial crackdowns, diplomatic pressure, economic development, and information transmission. It is a clash of ideas as well as of weapons.

It is also a war that depends crucially on the American people overall. The main burdens of the war have fallen disproportionately on a relative few -- military men and women and their families, most saliently, but also intelligence agents, diplomats, contractors and others. Yet a chief lesson of September 11, 2001 was that war can occur in unexpected places, fought by unprecedented methods. We are all potentially on the front lines. Moreover, the sustainability of government policies, the morale of our troops, and the resilience of our economy and society against terrorism all require active public support and participation.

The War on Terror is thus a matter not just of policy and strategy but of character. Achieving victory in this war -- a world in which al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups no longer constitute a substantial threat to the United States -- will require that the American people display and cultivate certain virtues. Three moral qualities stand out as of particular importance in this regard. These anti-terror virtues are:


Courage is the essential antidote to terrorism. It is required by our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines as they root out terrorist nests overseas, and it is needed by Americans in general as they confront the threat or event of terrorist attacks at home. A society that values and instills courage presents a hard target for terrorists.

Before September 11, Al Qaeda leaders calculated, mistakenly, that fear would hobble the U.S. response to the attack. The terrorists have been slow to grasp their error. Early this year, a letter evidently from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda's man in Iraq, described Americans as "the biggest cowards that God has created," and yet noted, with grim puzzlement, that "America ... has no intention of leaving, no matter how many wounded nor how bloody it becomes."

Courage is more easily understood through examples than in the abstract. A new book, Why Courage Matters, by Sen. John McCain with Mark Salter (Random House), provides a valuable discussion replete with exemplars of courage, such as Special Forces Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez, who fought with incredible valor in Vietnam, and Hannah Senesh, a Jewish woman who lost her life on a mission into Nazi-occupied Hungary. McCain and Salter also argue, aptly, against labeling as "courage" acts that are admirable (such as helping a loved one escape a ruinous vice) or trivial (such as defying the fashion mainstream) but which do not risk life, limb or serious personal injury.

In an interview shortly after September 11, Sen. Joseph Biden made an important point about American courage. Asked how the U.S. could defeat Al Qaeda, a group that has operatives who are willing to die, Biden pointed out that the U.S. has a greater number of people who are willing to die if that is what it takes to destroy Al Qaeda.


Patience is not always a virtue. The quintessential American desire to cut through the nonsense and fix things quickly is beneficial in many aspects of life. Yet, the War on Terror requires not just bold strokes but also slow, painstaking work. Terrorist groups must be infiltrated. Sleeper cells must be monitored. The indoctrination conducted in radical madrassahs and the propaganda spewing from Al Jazeera must be countered by steady, persistent education and information.

Patience involves pressing ahead amid temporary setbacks. It means maintaining perspective about the broader picture, even on terrible days of casualties and bloodshed. It also means seeking to choose the time and place of battle, as opposed to allowing enemies to do so. Perhaps the most inane criticism in the run-up to the Iraq war was that the U.S. was being inconsistent by not simultaneously moving to fight North Korea.

The terrorist threat now facing the U.S. gathered over several decades. It may take even longer to eradicate. The war of ideas is about not just changing minds but preventing a new generation from embracing pernicious ideologies. Interestingly, some of America's enemies engage in long-term thinking to a pathological degree. Osama bin Laden rants about 13th-century Muslim defeats in Spain and the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate after World War I as if these happened recently. For Americans, tempering the characteristic desire to get things done with a sense of the longer view will help defeat such an enemy.


Rationality is a crucial yet often overlooked requirement of the War on Terror. It is relevant in many ways. Science and technology provide weapons for combating terrorists and terror-sponsoring governments, as well instruments for investigating and surveilling such enemies. Rational assessment of risks is vital to guarding against terrorism; awareness of the statistical unlikelihood of personally falling victim to terrorists is an antidote to public fears. Promoting respect for evidence and logic, at home and abroad, is a countermeasure against paranoid conspiracy theories and ideologies that breed terrorist acts.

Unfortunately, in America today, rationality is often not even recognized as a virtue. It is denigrated by some postmodernists on the left and some conservatives on the right; the latter overlook the rationalistic outlook of such religious figures as Maimonides and Saint Thomas Aquinas. Rationality is treated by economists and other social scientists as purely instrumental, a means toward whatever are a person's ends; in reality, ends and means are not so readily separated, and listening to reason is conducive to a moral life.

Placing a high value on rational thought contributes to the moral outrage one feels against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. For instance, the doctrine that suicidal murderers are rewarded with 72 virgins in paradise is offensive not only because it is heartlessly brutal and strangely lascivious but also because it is astonishingly stupid. Such mindlessness in the ideologies of terror provides the terrorists with certain tactical benefits, such as a supply of human cannon fodder. But a poor grasp of reality is no advantage in a long war. Their irrationality will contribute to the terrorists' undoing.

Ken Silber writes frequently for TCS about science, technology and philosophy. He recently wrote about Searching for Bobby Fischer's Platonic Form.


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