In the Face of Evil

David Tucker

September 1, 2001

In the face of this evil, making careful distinctions may seem worse than useless but make them we must. Our ability to respond to and overcome what has happened depends first on our ability to understand it, particularly when what we must understand is unprecedented.

So, a few such distinctions.

We speak of the attacks as acts of war. In doing so, we call upon ourselves to respond with a seriousness proportionate to the damage we have suffered and the threat we face. Both are grave. As bad as the attacks were, they could have been worse and may well be in future.

But this is not war as we have known it. If a government conducted the attacks, or sponsored, assisted or merely allowed, even through negligence, some group to use its territory to organize such attacks, we should see to it that the government is no longer in a position to assist terrorists or neglect the damage they can cause. However, if a terrorist group is ultimately responsible, which seems likely, traditional notions of war will not apply. Such a group will not have territory we can control, for example. It is not likely to be a target that our armed forces can strike with full effect.

Yet, what happened is not terrorism, at least as we have known it. Terrorists have typically declared who they are and issued demands because they seek some political gain from their violence. Additionally, they have tended to limit their violence in order not to alienate too many people. The attacks in New York and Washington were anonymous. They put an exclamation point on a trend of increasingly violent and lethal attacks designed not so much to gain this or that political point from us but to attack the United States as such. Measured retaliation as part of a calculated political process to win public and international support, our approach in the past to terrorism, seems an inadequate response.

How then should we respond? We should take seriously our talk of war and respond accordingly to those states which have allowed themselves to be associated with the attacks. But we should recognize that, however difficult and costly, that part of our response is likely to be the easiest and most quickly completed. We need to pursue any terrorist group that threatens the United States with a relentless vigor that we have judged on balance in the past to be unnecessary. September 11th changed the balance.

A few more distinctions:

Concerning what we are willing to do within the United States against terrorist groups, we must pay careful attention to the balance between security and civil liberties. This is the most important and must therefore be the finest calculation we make. We will be giving the terrorists what they seek if we move even slightly toward becoming one of the benighted dungeons where they work most comfortably. Following the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, proposals were made to increase police powers. Such calls may arise again. Some proposed changes may be useful, others may be necessary, but we should consider all such proposals carefully.

One way to think about the issue of our liberties at home is to see them in relation to our conduct abroad. To as great a degree as possible, we want to fight whatever fight we must wage outside of the United States. To avoid increasing our restraints at home, we must loosen them abroad. In particular, this concerns what our foreign intelligence agencies can do. We need to consider the restrictions we have placed on the collection of human intelligence and other activities and be as willing to loosen them as we are unwilling to tighten restrictions on our liberties at home.

Reconsidering the current restrictions on human intelligence collection is, however, only a part of what needs to be done to improve this capability. Critical to this renovation will be the public recognition that we are undertaking it not only to provide better warning of impending attacks but primarily to allow us to carry the fight to the terrorist groups. In the past, when we tried to do this Congressional and public opinion would not tolerate it. It should now appear to be more acceptable.

Finally, when we hear people say that that the attacks on September 11th have changed America forever or have made us a different country, we should distinguish in which senses this might be true. In the most fundamental sense, we should strive to see that the attacks do not change us, that they do not make us change our exuberant openness and inventiveness, our tolerant and democratic outlook. These are things that the terrorists most fear and most wish to destroy. If possible, now and in the future, we should take comfort from the fact that the threat of terrorist attack under which we live is the price we pay for our true greatness.

David Tucker is a Member of the Board of Advisors at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an Associate Professor of Defense Analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of the book, Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire: The United States and International Terrorism. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.