Did the terrorists lure us into a trap?

November 01, 2001|By Andrew Bard Schmookler

ORKNEY SPRINGS, Va. - I wish we Americans would spend as much time as we do talking about anthrax trying to understand just what this war is about.

Wars aren't won by pure might alone but also by the quality of the strategic decisions guiding that might. And judging by our public discussion, we're not asking some important strategic questions.

How much have we even bothered to ask, for example, what the terrorists were trying to accomplish Sept. 11? It seems that, because their attack caused us pain and grief, we assume their purpose was to hurt us. And so we assume that what this war is about is making ourselves secure from further assault.

But does that correspond with how the terrorists see the war? And if it doesn't, shouldn't we know what it's about to them? They're the ones who declared war on us, so the real stakes in this war surely must involve the goals of our enemies.

Some knowledgeable interpreters of Osama bin Laden's terrorist movement say that its real goals are not about us but about fomenting revolts in the Islamic world. Our attackers want the more moderate regimes the West deals with to be replaced by more militant and fundamentalist regimes like the Taliban of Afghanistan.

According to this view, the terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center not to hurt us but to goad us into taking actions that will polarize the Islamic world and create the conditions for successful Islamic revolutions. We figure merely as means to those ends.

I don't know if this interpretation is true. But I do believe that it matters if it is true, and that it is dangerous to disregard questions like this, proceeding as if it is sufficient to call our enemies evil and to lash out reflexively to destroy them.

It matters because, for example, if our enemies' goal is to hurt or destroy us, the danger of further catastrophes should be paramount in our minds. But if their goal is to goad us into making war against Islamic societies, the danger of other heavy blows may be small while we wage this war; the greater dangers to us may come from our own wrong moves.

That is, if their purpose in attacking us was to get us to strike back, we should worry about playing into their hands. It's like a game of chess in which our opponent seems to have set it up for us to make a particular move. Is it a trap?

To me, going after al-Qaida and the Taliban, using a multilateral coalition - as the Bush administration is doing - looks like the right move. (And perhaps likewise even for taking the war beyond Afghanistan - as the administration is evidently contemplating - to other countries such as Iraq and Sudan.) But it gives me pause to make the obvious move when I consider the abilities our enemies have already demonstrated for devising effective strategies to turn our own strengths against us.

Consider the Sept. 11 attack itself. Who would have believed that a couple dozen people could leverage a handful of ceramic knives (and a little flight-school training) into bringing down the twin towers of the World Trade Center? However evil and horrendous the act, it shows strategic brilliance. Can you think of any other event in world history where someone, by design, parlayed so little into such a devastating blow?

Now consider the possibility that, in this new war, we're up against the same strategic intelligence that masterminded that assault. However much we may hate him, we would be fools not to give him the respect of trying to see the board through his eyes.

Here is a foe who, on Sept. 11, ingeniously used our power to undo us for his purposes: from his knives he gained control of our fuel-laden planes and turned them into firebombs at the precise level of those towers where heat could bring the whole structures down.

Now he's provoking us to deploy our power into the world in counter-attack. From our side of the board, it looks as if our actions will hurt him and help achieve our goals of restoring our security. But we should be careful not to assume it impossible that what we're doing can be our undoing. What feels reflexively right to us might prove a trap.

We need to ponder more deeply what this war - which our enemies foisted upon us - is being fought about. Know thine enemy. Know thyself.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

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