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October 2001

Making Sense of the Attack

By Christopher C. Harmon

It was a confederation of individuals from around the Middle East and North Africa. They lived in America. Some had been here quietly for a long time; others were fresh off the airplane. They all followed a sheik -- a Moslem religious leader -- of the most extreme politics and vicious opinions. He taught them, in effect, that the door to the sublime beauties of the Koran was entered with the twist of key sentences. They were to kill the enemies of Islam (as selected by violent sheiks). They had a duty to punish allies of Israel, a foul and foreign state defacing "greater Palestine."

"Jihad" meant more than personal struggle and purification and religious preparedness; it meant killing, and deaths would be welcomed by the divine.

After the savage attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, one or two of their notebooks appeared, and one or two of those arrested chose to talk unblushingly. In the US they would attack "the twin pillars of American civilization" -- totems of success and capitalism and power. Americans must be punished for their "pride." The leader flatly said he hoped to topple the North tower against the South, and cause 250,000 casualties. Testaments against American Middle East policy flowed readily. America is a great Satan.

All the murderers were male. One man was a chemical engineer, whose skills and manuals helped them make a huge simple vehicle bomb. It went off in the basement of the North tower, blowing a hole seven stories deep and 200 feet across. But the leader said he was disappointed. Only six people died, even if another 1,000 were injured. It would only cost $1 billion dollars to repair one structure. Yet we largely forgot. We locked up Sheik al-Rahman and Ramzi Youssef and some others and we moved on.

February 26, 1993 receded from memory, like it was a century ago, maybe sometime after the bombing of Haymarket.

In the present case, the veils over the perpetrators are only slowly being lifted. We see what, but not yet precisely who. It was a diverse group of men, assembled by first-rate planning from many states, some foreign. They had technical skill to mix with their bottomless resolution. The suicide pact bespeaks religious fervor. A Koran appears among other documents and practical manuals. Their only personal weapons seem to be knives: more than just a solution to the X-ray screening at airports, the knife was the archetypal terrorist weapon of the "Assassins" of the Middle East 900 years ago, and the first and

favorite weapon of Hamas in the period after 1988. And, after all that, this attack is against the same Trade Towers.

Terrorism is about power. It is a strategy -- to hurt enemies, thrill friends, inspire allies, and thus to enhance power for political purposes, including politico-religious purposes. Middle Eastern and North African terrorism has struck the US directly and repeatedly, and the motives vary only a little with circumstances. Yet this terrorism is still misunderstood and, it is usually quickly forgotten. Until now.

We have listened to the words of these power-hungry enemies even less than we listen to the sound of the bombs. The charter of Hamas is over a decade old. It is filled with poetic passages, careful arguments, and cries for the blood of anyone who supports Israel's "partition of Palestine. Yet for all that, it is never read on our news shows or studied by our university undergraduates.

When Osama Bin Laden published a fatwa in 1998 promising to drain American blood -- civilian and military -- for daring to oppose Iraq's war on Kuwait, or support Israel, only a few words of the full text were ever aired. When Bin Laden blew up two embassies, killing hundreds of Africans and a few Americans, we settled for the trials of a few of his underlings and then mentally we moved on. When the USS Cole was blown up by suicide attackers in Yemen, it was a shock, briefly; we saw Bin Laden exult on camera but our formal investigation bogged down badly in murk and detail.

Perhaps until September 11, the lessons have been lost. Every time, some of us have refused to understand the attacks. On the morning of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, an American terrorism expert with a Ph.D. told me it couldn't be foreigners because such great damage would not suit their strategy. Terrorism has another effect: Each time, like the fools in our old children's books, we respond to the rock dropped into our group by turning against each other. Some Americans damn our Israeli friends. Some warn all non-Arab Americans to beware their hideous tendencies to racism. Commentators fuss even now over whether doing justice will merely 'further the cycle of violence,' as if the devastation of one end of Manhattan can just be accepted with quiet dignity.

The lessons were there to learn, whether studied in word or deed. In New York in 1993, in East African capitals in 1998, and in the Cole catastrophe in 2000, there were obvious preludes to future attacks. The lessons were there in the Millennium plot by Algerians, a team with German and Bin Laden connections who took up quiet residence in Canada, and then moved south to bomb the Seattle Space Needle or a target in California or both. These were all political offensives, aimed at toppling symbols of American power so as to enhance the powers of militant Islam. Even now, with New York's two tallest pillars in rubble, we meet people who still do not understand.

Terrorists are our enemies, and the enemies of all who understand the short glorious word "democracy" and the simple phrase "rule of law." Their approaches to political life and competing interests turn not upon truths acknowledged by human reason, but upon bullets fired to punctuate declarative sentences.

Like pirates, terrorists are enemies of mankind. They should be hunted down anywhere and everywhere by all civilized states and given capital punishment. Moreover, their safe-havens and state supporters are in violation of every respectable tradition of international law, and even the softer strictures of the UN Charter. States have never had the right to protect those who sally forth to murder and maim elsewhere; indeed the well-known duty of states is to suppress such parties as they do pirates.

Our counter-terrorist actions have been totally inadequate. As one example, we have magnificent special forces which train for years and are never or almost never used against terrorists and their training camps. There are many other good tools and options. But on one matter, we no longer have a choice: the principle of self-defense now demands a forceful, broad, and truly effective reply. So do decency and common sense. So does a long train of recent atrocities -- no matter WHO did the latest attack in New York.

Christopher C. Harmon is author of Terrorism Today (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 2000) and an adjunct fellow of the Claremont Institute.

 

 

 

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