Most Americans were shocked by the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Suddenly, like a bolt out of a clear blue sky, radical Muslims who hated us for no conceivable reason had killed 3,000 innocent people for reasons both mysterious and nefarious. Our response was knee-jerk: we had to get even. The "evildoers," Bush told us, were led by Osama bin Laden. He, and they, lived in Afghan caves. We would bomb those caves, he promised, until America was safe again.
In truth, Afghanistan had always been a sideshow of anti-Americanism, a mere backlot funded and armed by Pakistani intelligence. Most of the training camps, extremist groups and Al Qaeda itself were in Pakistan. Gen. Musharraf, our new "ally," was virulently anti-American and pro-Taliban. Bombing Afghanistan never made sense as a way of "getting" the 9-11 guys because the 9-11 guys were all Saudis and Egyptians. Bombing may do the trick, but you'd have to bomb the right country -- and Afghanistan isn't it.
We wanted to get even for 9-11, but we missed the point: 9-11 was an act of revenge for more than a decade of perceived insults and abuses. Muslims around the world watched in anger and despair as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, first in the Gulf War and later as the result of U.S.-imposed trade sanctions and daily bombing raids over Iraqi cities. They were appalled by the continuing carnage in the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a meat-grinder that claimed a grossly disproportionate number of Palestinians.
For many Muslims, from Amman to Tashkent to Karachi, President Clinton's 1998 cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan were the last straw. Despite ironclad proof that the Sudanese plant destroyed in the attack manufactured nothing more deadly than aspirin, the U.S. government refused to apologize for its mistake.
After years of trying to grab our attention with smaller Attacks -- on the World Trade Center in '93, U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, on the U.S.S. Cole -- there still wasn't any serious discussion of American actions in the Muslim world among American leaders or journalists. That's when jihadis decided to launch a big-budget, theatrical assault not even the thickest-headed American could ignore. Sayonara, World Trade Center.
Why They Hate Us
"There are people that hate our freedoms, that really can't stand the thought that people are able to worship freely or speak their mind freely, or be able to realize their dreams regardless of who they are," Bush says. "They don't like that, and therefore they want to strike out at America again."
Actually, they don't give a fig about our freedoms. Islamists don't want to impose Islam on America, they want to make Muslim countries more radically Muslim. They also want us to stop messing with them.
When terrorists make demands, take them at their word. When bin Laden says he wants us to remove our military bases from the Arabian Peninsula, drop trade sanctions against Iraq and stop arming Israel, believe it: that's exactly what he wants. It may or may not be wise to give into these demands, but dismissing them as the rants of cave-dwelling freedom-haters is lunacy. Terrorists resort to violence because they don't believe that writing letters to the editor, lobbying Congress or other "legitimate" means of disagreement stand a chance of success. Ignoring their concerns entirely -- not to be confused with giving in to them -- is sure to infuriate them further, which will merely increase the frequency and scale of future attacks.
Who They Are
You can't effectively fight your enemies unless you understand their motivations. Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and similar groups are composed of men -- most with wives and children -- who don't consider themselves terrorists. If anything, calling them terrorists only hardens their resolve and their belief that Westerners don't "get it." From their point of view they belong to resistance organizations. (One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist; in August of 1944 Charles de Gaulle's Free French were transformed overnight from brigands and bandits into the Internationally recognized government of France.)
Desperate, determined individuals whose political and other concerns are systemically excluded from mainstream discourse by those in power form resistance organizations. Their structure is loose and internally secretive; every leader is dispensable. Few members know other members save the person who recruited them and one or two more they themselves recruit. They lead low-key lives and don't attract attention to themselves. They don't attend meetings. Their cellular structure and secrecy makes them hard to find and catch in significant numbers.
Historically, governments have typically responded to resistance groups ("terrorists," if it makes you feel better) by applying standard tools of repression: mass arrests, infiltration, torture, reprisals against members' relatives and associates. These tactics hardly ever work. The African National Congress, Free French and the Solidarity movement all faced formidable, better-armed adversaries in the Afrikaners, Nazis and Soviets. And yet the former eventually seized power from the latter. In fact, repressive tactics radicalize moderates and fence sitters, increasing the ranks of the resistors. Who doubts that Hamas recruits new members among those who watch Israeli bulldozers knock down their neighbors' homes?
How to Fight Them
I'm not a pacifist. Military action is necessary to defend a nation's borders from invaders. But you can no more bomb a resistance organization out of existence than you can track down every one of the estimated 40,000 Al Qaeda members living outwardly bland lives all over the globe. So how do you stop them?
The short answer is that you can't -- not entirely. As long as explosives are cheap and the world breeds despair, there will be someone willing to walk into Times Square with an Uzi and a last will and testament. But we can turn once again to history for a solution.
Despite occasional flare-ups, Northern Ireland's "troubles" are a shadow of the crisis they once were. The Irish Republican Army, after decades of armed attacks against British occupation forces and their Protestant paramilitary allies, has disarmed. Sinn Fein has been mainstreamed (some might say co-opted) into Irish politics. Here in the United States, the Weather Underground -- once the most feared domestic revolutionary organization of the late '60s -- disintegrated when Nixon began pulling troops out of Vietnam. In both cases, the groups evaporated when their cause -- in the first example, the alienation and oppression of Northern Irish Catholics, opposition to the Vietnam War in the second -- vanished.
Both the IRA and the Weather Underground were composed of relatively small numbers of committed members who received financial support from larger numbers of sympathizers. During the '80s many Irish bars in Boston and New York promised to send a portion of their profits to the IRA.
Similarly, Islamist groups draw their financial strength, the asset that allows people from impoverished Third World countries to fund a $200,000 attack against the U.S. on 9-11, from millions of sympathetic Muslims. That broad-based outrage, in the form of millions of dimes and quarters dropped into collection plates in mosques worldwide, should serve as a signal that, just maybe, American policies in the Middle East and elsewhere should be reassessed.
What About Punishing the Evildoers?
Obviously, the perps of 9-11 should be brought to justice. Perhaps the Bushies are already working with Saudi and Egyptian authorities to track down members of the specific groups that planned and executed 9-11. If so, these guys, once arrested, should be put on trial for crimes against humanity at the World Court at The Hague. This would show the world that the U.S. seeks impartial justice rather than ham-fisted vengeance.
Addressing Islamist demands -- not caving in outright -- would eliminate most of the broad-based Muslim support for jihadi groups. Moreover, they'd do us more good than harm. Withdrawing our support for the corrupt Saudi dictatorship might lead to a less pro-American regime, for example, but it would begin to inoculate us from the mostly-justified criticism that we pro-democracy Americans promote oppression wherever it suits our business interests.
Stopping or reducing our $3 billion per annum flow of arms to Israel would allow us to truly act as an impartial negotiator in the Middle East, not to mention put a dent in the deficit. We could still offer to defend Israel in the event of an invasion, and while that stance wouldn't sate Osama et al., it wouldn't spark much anger among the great Arab mainstream.
It's a simple equation, really: Parse Islamist demands into the acceptable and unreasonable, ignore the ridiculous and respond constructively to the mainstream. Take away the cause's raison d'être and the cause goes away. To be sure, there may always be a few lunatics willing to blow themselves up for Allah -- but their bank accounts will be small, and so will their bombs.
Ted Rall's new book is "To Afghanistan and Back."