September 11 Was Mass Murder, Not an Act of War

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As we reflect upon the terrifying events of 11 September 2001, we are haunted by analogies from our past. But historical analogies require careful examination, for choosing among them influences the way we will think, speak, and act. Commentators have compared the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to Pearl Harbor, because both attacks came without warning. With Pearl Harbor as the primary analog, the attacks on New York and Washington were quickly termed "acts of war." That is understandable, but dangerously imprecise. It cloaks massive illegality under the guise of rules of engagement -- the very thing that terrorists deny by their outrageous transformation of civil aircraft into weapons of destruction. The attacks on New York and Washington were also unlike Pearl Harbor in that the destruction wrought by Japanese forces had an obvious and official governmental return address. As President Bush acknowledged in his address to Congress last week, the perpetrators of the recent attacks are a "collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations" and "there are thousands of these terrorists in more than 60 countries." This is not the language of war, but of crime. The analogy with Pearl Harbor limps badly and leads to policy judgments of dubious value. The recent atrocities have a much closer precedent in the events leading up to World War I. On June 28, 1914, Francis Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo. The Austrian investigation into the terrorist attack could not establish a firm connection with Serbia, the likeliest suspect in harboring, if not organizing the assassination. In the meantime, revulsion against the deed abated. When the Austrians decided to act against Serbia (without clear evidence or clear aims--just to "punish" Serbia), they did not have the kind of support that would have prevented the grievance from erupting into global conflict with devastating consequences for decades. This is not the time to launch smart or dumb bombs in a war that cannot be won from the skies. The objective of locating a suspect is a just one. The killing of innocent men, women and children who live in their neighborhoods is not. It will not avenge our painful loss. It will recruit new members for the terrorists. This is not even the time to launch an invasion of infantry divisions in a war that the Russians can assure us will not go well for us, and will only rally impoverished Afghanis around leaders under whom they chafe.

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