Justice Is a Dish Best Served Cold

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The first impulse is to strike hard. "America Under Attack," headlines CNN. Anger boils. Members of Congress call for a robust military response. Conventional wisdom expects retribution. Officials and columnists scream that "this is war." This is not war. This is not another Pearl Harbor. This is terrorism.

Although military action is now manditory, terrorism must be treated differently than an attack upon the United States by a foreign nation. War is the use of armed force to break an enemy's will to resist. The enemy's economy, population and political authority are the focus of combat and psychological operations. War ends when terms are accepted.

Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda (the Base) terrorist network, the only organization other than the IRA capable of such a complex, professional terrorist attack, is not a state, has no economy, and has no constitutional political responsibility for a nation. It can exist as long as its leaders and members survive. It has no incentive to accept terms ? and the United States has no terms to offer.

Terrorists use violence to weaken a hated political authority. They do not plan to conquer America, but instead induce Washington to do something stupid, costly and counterproductive, such as killing innocent civilians. They want drama, big drama, to advertise their anti-U.S.-Israel struggle.

The more massive the use of force the United States directs at al Qaeda and its supporters, the higher the terrorist's political cause is elevated. Any setback by the United States -- losing aircraft, having the raiding party decimated or captured, or incurring huge collateral damage -- will appear to be another major victory for the terrorists.

A quick and clumsy response could very well bog down U.S. forces in protracted operations on difficult terrain. The United States should not play this game.

Instead, show patience. Gather evidence. Track the directorate of al Qaeda and its main lieutenants, for surely they have all gone to ground and dispersed. Network with scores of foreign intelligence agencies, especially those of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Egypt and Israel, that have agents and monitoring capabilities on terrorists and their cells.

Identify the guilty to America and the world. Act only when there is a high probability of success. And that will take time and extensive planning.

What of those who harbor the terrorists? It was a mistake for President George W. Bush to proclaim: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." A distinction must be made. Attacking Afghanistan, Iran and/or Iraq would have seriously adverse consequences.

First, Afghanistan's Taliban was undoubtedly as surprised as everyone else by the attack. Second, the governments of these countries have priorities other than inciting and confronting overwhelming U.S. armed might. Third, attacking them would unite all factions in these governments and their populations against the United States and Israel.

This would expand support for the terrorist organization. This would be war. And does the United States want to promote -- in alliance with Israel -- a wider conflict against major oil producers? Does the United States want to endorse the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, perhaps the most hated person in the Arab and Islamic world? Is Washington willing to use sufficient force in the air and on the ground to compel these states to give up the terrorists and the officials who harbor them? This is not war and should not be made one.

The object of war is not to destroy and eliminate a state for all time. A Carthaginian peace involves genocide or mass murder. But the object of a campaign against such a dangerous terrorist organization as al Qaeda is to destroy and eliminate it for all time.

Al Qaeda cannot be reformed, cannot be lived with, and cannot be allowed to exist. Its leaders must be removed from operational command, its popular support diminished, its sanctuaries denied, and its rank and file compelled to melt away.

Although military forces must necessarily be involved in performing these tasks, their role is more that of police than of warriors. Like police work, the apprehension of the perpetrators presages public trials that serve to condemn and punish their bloody deeds. Specific officials who harbor terrorists should likewise be indicted. Unlike the brute force of terrorists, trials are the civilized means of ensuring justice. The rule of law thereby contrasts with the rule of the jungle.

Of course, like police, soldiers might find it necessary to shoot when apprehension is resisted, although killing all the suspects would be a political set back. Diplomacy, too, has a role in eliminating the terrorists' political cause.

Peace in the Middle East is long overdue. The anger over the Palestinian issue feeds the likes of al Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and others. Bush's hands-off policy has not enhanced the security of Israel. Ultimately, Israel and Palestine will have to be reconciled.

And that will not require war, either.

Nicholas Berry is a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times. [nberry@cdi.org]