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The End of Our Holiday from History

George F. Will, The Washington Post
Sept. 12, 2001

The acrid and unexpungeable odor of terrorism, which has hung over Israel for many years, is now a fact of American life. Yesterday morning Americans were drawn into the world that Israelis live in every day.

Just at the moment when American political debate had reached a nadir of frivolousness, with wrangling about nonexistent "lockboxes" and the like, the nation's decade-long holiday from history came to a shattering end. After about a half-century of war and Cold War, Americans came to feel, understandably, that the world was too much with them, and they turned away from it. What happened Tuesday morning, and can happen again, underscored the abnormality of the decade.

Terrorism is usually a compound of the tangible and the intangible -- of physical violence and political symbolism. The terrorists' targets yesterday were symbols not just of American power but also its virtues. The twin towers of the World Trade Center are, like Manhattan itself, architectural expressions of the vigor of American civilization. The Pentagon is a symbol of America's ability and determination to project and defend democratic values. These targets have drawn, like gathered lightning, the anger of the enemies of civilization. Those enemies are always out there.

At times like this, confused thought breeds confused action. The American mind must not be cluttered with two familiar cliches. One is that terrorists are "desperate" people. Yesterday's terrorists probably were akin to soldiers, disciplined and motivated but not desperate.

The second cliche is that terrorism is "senseless." Terrorism would not be such a plague if either cliche were true.

Far from being senseless, much terrorism is sensible in that it is "cost-efficient." Or, to borrow the language of the stock exchange, terrorism is "highly leveraged." Even sporadic terrorism can necessitate the constant costly deployment of defense against it. Furthermore, the effectiveness of terrorism is strengthened by instant and mass communication, especially graphic journalism.

One purpose is to deprive a government of respect and legitimacy by demonstrating that it is unable to guarantee public safety, the prerequisite of all justice. The United States, no fragile thing, is invulnerable to that purpose.

However, many years ago a Chinese theorist said: "Kill one, frighten 10,000." A modern student of terrorism has correctly said that in the age of terrorism, the axiom should be: "Kill one, frighten 10 million."

In thinking about terrorism, democracies are sometimes plagued by bad sociology and bad philosophy feeding upon each other. From the false idea that extreme action must have justification in the social environment, it is but a short intellectual stagger to the equally false idea that such acts can and should be eliminated by appeasement tarted up as reasonableness. The real aim of terrorism is not to destroy people or physical assets, still less to score anything remotely resembling military victories. Rather, its purpose is to demoralize.

Terrorism acquires its power from the special horror of its randomness and from the magnification of it by modern media, which make the perpetrators seem the one thing they are not -- powerful. Terrorism is the tactic of the weak.

To keep all this in perspective, Americans should focus on the fact that such acts as yesterday's do not threaten America's social well-being or even its physical strength. However, weapons of mass destruction are proliferating. Some of them, such as nuclear weapons, can be delivered to their targets in shipping containers or suitcases or the ubiquitous automobile. Imagine a car driving down Fifth Avenue spewing anthrax. The complexities of urban industrial societies make them inherently vulnerable to well-targeted attacks that disrupt the flows and interconnectedness of such societies. The new dependence on information technologies multiplies the vulnerabilities.

The grim paradox is that terrorism, a particularly primitive act, has a symbiotic relationship with the sophistication of its targets. And opportunities for macro-terrorism directed against urban populations and their water, food-handling and information systems multiply as societies become more sophisticated.

There can be no immunity from these vulnerabilities, but that is not a reason for fatalism. A proactive policy begins with anticipation. Therefore the first U.S. policy response must be to reevaluate and strengthen the national intelligence assets, particularly the CIA and FBI, which are the sine qua non of counterterrorism.

Americans are slow to anger but mighty when angry, and their proper anger now should be alloyed with pride. They are targets because of their virtues -- principally democracy, and loyalty to those nations that, like Israel, are embattled salients of our virtues in a still-dangerous world.