Directly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war talk began, as if war were the obvious remedy for terrorism. The president vowed to “destroy the infrastructure of terrorism” and defeat “states that sponsor terrorism.” By January, our quarrel was shifting from Osama bin Laden to what President Bush labeled an “axis of evil,” comprising Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Now, apparently, the first of these states, Iraq, is in the crosshairs. But every time I hear about “destroying the infrastructure of terrorism” – the supposed justification for this war – I am troubled by the fact that terrorism doesn’t need an infrastructure to succeed. Indeed, lack of infrastructure is the hallmark of terrorism and its key advantage. Historically, it is groups without state power who have resorted to terrorism, groups without trains and factories and government buildings, and without the capacity to field armies.
In this respect, terrorism is like crime, a parallel that ought to give us pause. Our military might, money and technology can certainly defeat Iraq but it couldn’t stop one man man from killing 168 men, women and children with a fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City; or a sniper from shooting dead 9 people (so far) just outside the nation’s capital; or two high school students from slaughtering 13 of their classmates at Columbine High School in a Colorado suburb. None of these criminals who terrorized and slaughtered others needed their own infrastructure. They used the infrastructure of the society they were attacking. So did the men who destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. They didn’t have their own flight schools. They used ours. They didn’t have their own airplanes. They used ours. They didn’t even make box-cutters. They bought the ones we made. If we had obliterated Iraq before 9/11, would we have weakened their ability to carry out their terrorist project? Of course not.
Using the metaphor of war in our national conversation about terrorism is rooted in wishful thinking. War is something we can just declare, wage and win.
It is easier to understand, reducing a subtle, complex phenomenon with tangled roots to a monolithic entity, like a nation-state. We call it by a single name, al Qaeda, reducing it to an identifiable organization that can be eliminated if only its headquarters and officers could be found. We even spoke of a single Napoleonic mastermind, Osama bin Laden; but he vanished into thin air, so we’ve fallen back on the usual suspect of the last decade, Saddam Hussein.
Thus, the war on terrorism has become, more traditionally, a war in which one state goes up against another. Whoever loses the capacity to function first is forced to say “I give up.” It’s a familiar model which we have adopted unthinkingly in our fight against a very different problem. The phrases “defeating terrorist states” and “destroying the infrastructure of terrorism” turn out to mean, simply: “defeating states” and “destroying infrastructure.”
Suppose we do conquer Iraq – and then North Korea, and then Iran (and then Sudan, and Libya, and Syria, and whichever other countries come to be designated as “terrorist states”) – will we have defeated terrorism?” Surely not. Terrorism is born of grudge and grievance. Some say that the grudges are invalid and the grievances imagined, and that those people should get over it. Maybe. And if wishes were horses, such opinions would be relevant. But in the real world, we have to deal with the fact that terrorism does have sources. We have to confront the fact that terrorism is nourished by dislocation, chaos, impotence and secrecy. We must note the correlation between what we call terrorism and the very modern phenomenon of failed states and unraveled societies, from Sudan to Afghanistan to Lebanon. The United States will undoubtedly defeat Iraq, but the victory will as likely add another muddy patch of stateless anarchy to the globe as herald a new era of democracy and freedom there.
If anything, reducing a functioning society to anarchy by destroying its infrastructure and killing great numbers of its citizens is likely to increase whatever legacy of grudge and grievance is already in place. It is also likely to increase the number of dislocated individuals living in furious impotence and stewing in secrecy. This may be a price worth paying if the core problem is another nation trying to conquer ours. If Saddam Hussein has a shot at conquering the United States and intends to try, that would be a legitimate case of war to argue. Instead, it is the problem of terrorism that a war with Iraq is supposed to solve.
That is no solution at all. With America virtually alone in its drive to war, it is hard to imagine how such a solution could do anything but make the problem much worse.
Tamim Ansary is the author of a memoir, “West of Kabul, East of New York.” Ansary, who lives in San Francisco, writes a regular online “humanities” column for Encarta, MSN’s learning and research site.