Terrorism: February 25, 2001

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could revive the group.

And Now, For Something Completely Unthinkable; What happens when terrorists, or some reckless nation, uses a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon on Americans? The response is likely to be ugly, and unstoppable. 

Americans have been quick to anger when attacked. The Civil War got off to a brisk start when Fort Sumter was fired on. The Spanish-American war was inevitable once the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor (even though the explosion later turned out to be accidental). World War I had the loss of Americans on the torpedoed Lusitania to put us in a fighting mood. World War II brought us the battle cry; "Remember Pearl Harbor." That one ended up with Japan getting nuked twice. The Korean war started pretty quick once a country we had military advisors in got invaded. Vietnam needed a contrived attack on American warships to get Congress to authorize a major military effort. But Congress, and the American people came across. In 1990, the invasion of Kuwait was seen as a threat to the American economy, and the response was massive.

In light of all that, what happens if a nuclear bomb goes off in the United States? Or if someone releases a chemical (nerve gas) or biological (anthrax) weapon in an American city? With thousands of Americans dead, how do you think the American public will react? No matter how reasonable and deliberate you might be, the majority of the population will be crying for revenge. The more terrible the retribution, the better. The above examples show that time has not mellowed the American public when it comes to payback for a sneak attack. 

But this is where things get rather more interesting. Over the last two decades, terrorists have more often preferred to remain anonymous. The reason is simple, the United States has proved remarkably capable of hunting down and finding terrorists. For this reason, fewer nations are willing to sponsor terrorists. The Soviet Union could do it because the Russians had nukes and gave the impression that they would defend themselves against any American retribution. And it was understood that the Soviets would insure that "their" terrorists did not go too far (no nukes, chemicals or biologicals). But the Soviet Union is gone, and the smaller nations who hosted terrorists can no longer say, with some degree of truth, that the Soviet Union was behind every terrorist organization. What this means is that if some terror group manages to pull off the "big one," and kills several thousand Americans with nerve gas, anthrax or even a small nuke, the retribution will likely land on the last nation to have supported the terrorists. 

Some nations, like Afghanistan, still harbor terrorist organizations. But, fearful of massive retribution, the Taliban in Afghanistan try to keep Osama Bin Laden and his crew on a short leash. As fanatical as the Taliban are, they have expressed interest in getting Bin Laden out of the country. It's not just the media's desire to have a high profile bad guy that keeps Bin Laden in the spotlight. He is well organized, clearly capable to pulling off spectacular acts of terrorism, and disowned by his own country (Saudi Arabia.) It's difficult to retaliate against a secretive organization that has members in dozens of countries. 

Bin Laden's followers tried to blow up one of New York City's World Trade Center towers in 1993. They didn't bring down the building, which would have killed thousands. Had the death toll been that high, the attack still would not have been in the "Remember Pearl Harbor" category of incidents. For that you need to use a weapon that, by itself terrorizes people. That's why any incident using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons is in a class by itself. The media magnify the fear of these weapons, spending much air time and print on examining who might get them and use them. With that kind of build up, any terrorist use of these weapons will be considered an extraordinary event deserving of extraordinary retribution.

But the Bin Laden organization deliberately leaves a faint trail. The organization is not a strict one. In many cases, all Bin Laden does is train terrorists and provide technical assistance. As wealthy as Bin Laden is, he encourages terrorists to raise money locally. What we have here is not a country (like Japan in 1941) launching a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, but many small groups plotting terrorist attacks all over the world. 

Thus we have an ancient American tradition colliding with a radically new reality. If a terrorist group attacks America with, say, a nuclear weapon, and does more damage on the United States than the Pearl Harbor attack, who do we declare war on and retaliate against. Most likely, such an attack would lead to a "War on Terrorists." Afghanistan would be told to give up Bin Laden, or else. The Taliban would probably say no, and America would invade Afghanistan. This would be a little tricky, as Afghanistan is land locked and surrounded by nations (China, Iran and Pakistan) not eager to help us out. Several of Afghanistan's neighbors (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) are more inclined to help, but they are also landlocked. But with an enraged United States looking for revenge, a way would be found. For example, Iran is supporting anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan and might see an opening to better relations with the United States by letting our troops and aircraft pass through. 

Then again, maybe not. A powerful terrorist attack against America would be very popular with many Moslems world wide. The terrorists are betting that such an attack would cause Moslems everywhere to rise up against American interests. Probably not, but a complicating factor just the same. 

Wars usually begin because one nation feels they have a good shot at getting away with their aggression. In most cases they are wrong, as the world abhors aggression and retaliation eventually overwhelms the attacker. But in the 21st century we have stateless terrorist with weapons capable of massive attacks. Who do you retaliate against and how do you do it?

 

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