There’s No Making War on Terror
By Rosa Brooks
The Mumbai metropolitan area is home to an estimated 19 million people, but it took just 10 men to shut the city down.
Last week’s terrorist attacks involved a handful of men armed only with guns, grenades and homemade bombs. They killed more than 170 people, closed universities and businesses, shut down India’s National Stock Exchange and did incalculable economic damage to a country that boasts the world’s third-largest military and internationally respected police and intelligence services – none of which managed to prevent the attacks.
It should. It should remind you of 9/11, when 19 men armed only with box cutters ultimately killed nearly 3,000 people. And the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191, and the 2005 bombings on London’s Underground, which killed 52. Each of these attacks involved a small number of perpetrators. Each was low-tech. Each caused enormous psychological and economic damage in addition to loss of life, and each occurred in countries with sophisticated security forces.
Get used to it.
Because the Mumbai attack should also remind you of Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168, and the 2002 D.C.-area sniper attacks, in which two men killed 10 people and caused so much fear that for weeks people were reluctant to go to shopping centers or gas stations, and the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, in which one man killed 32 people.
The perpetrators of those attacks weren’t Islamic extremists. McVeigh was a white supremacist; the D.C. snipers were a disgruntled black Army vet and his gullible teen sidekick; the Virginia Tech killer was a psychologically troubled Asian-American student. They had nothing in common except anger and a desire to cause death, pain and panic. And they succeeded.
We can’t even stop school shootings by disturbed teenagers. Don’t imagine we’ll be much better at stopping ideologically motivated terrorists. As long as terrorists keep it low-tech and simple, they’re hard to stop.
Wednesday, the congressionally appointed Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism asserted that “it is more than likely that a weapon of mass destruction” – most likely biological – “will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.” I take that warning seriously. But I also wonder: Why would a terrorist bother to manufacture a nuke or “weaponize” a virus – a complicated, costly, risky and time-consuming process – when all he needs is a few determined people, some cheaply and easily obtained weapons or explosives, and boom? Even the most sophisticated society would be left paralyzed with fear.
If we let ourselves become that frightened.
Terrorism is nearly as old as humanity itself. In the first century A.D., the Zealots of Judea began a series of covert killings of Roman occupiers and Jewish collaborators. The word “assassin” is thought to derive from “Hashshashin,” the name of a Shiite sect active during the Middle Ages whose members donned disguises to kill their victims in public places. The term “thug” is said to come from India – from the 17th to 19th centuries, a cult engaged in “thuggee,” the mass strangulation of travelers in caravans. And like modern terrorists of every ideological stripe, these ancient Zealots, assassins and thugs succeeded in part by sowing outsize fear.
Mumbai should remind us – again – of the folly of the Bush administration’s “war on terror.” Terror is an emotion, and terrorism is a tactic. You can’t make “war” against it. Even if meant as mere metaphor, “the war on terror” foolishly enhanced the terrorist’s status as prime boogeyman, arguably increasing the psychological effectiveness of terrorist tactics. Worse, it effectively lumped together many different organizations motivated by many different grievances – a surefire route to strategic error.
Like crime, terrorism will always be with us, and terrorist attacks will increase as long as we succumb to the panic they’re intended to inspire. But if we resist the temptation to lash out indiscriminately, we can take sober steps to reduce terrorism through improved intelligence, carefully targeted disruptions of specific terrorist organizations and efforts to address specific grievances (such as disputes over Kashmir). With a new U.S. administration about to take office, isn’t it finally time to say goodbye to the “war on terror”? After all, we already have two real wars to worry about.
Brooks is a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.