Responding to the attack of September 11, 2001

Note: Before writing this, I participated in a Usenet newsgroup discussion from September 11 through September 13. That contains my immediate comments, but in no real organized format. I do have a record of those comments. They may be more wide ranging that what is here as the included response to other discussions.

If we become like our enemies, we lose

The conflict we find ourselves in is far more ideological than other conflicts we have found ourselves in before. And so, it is possible to be defeated not only in the mundane terms of failing to reach stated military-like objectives, but by adopting our enemies' ideals. Our enemies are wrong in a large number of ways. Some are listed here.
They have little regard for civilian deaths
In our response – both immediate and longer term – we must never seek to harm civilians. And to practical extents we must strive to avoid those. Otherwise, we become like our enemies and lose.
They lump people by nationality, ethnicity and religion
According to press reports, there have been three murders in the US in recent days that can be attributed to people striking out at those who appear Muslim or Arab. In addition to the murders, there have been countless threats of violence and many acts of violence. I say that those who commit those acts or make those threats are morally no different than those who engaged in the attack on 11 September. The only difference is of scale..

Any attack or threat against a Muslim or Arab for being a Muslim or Arab is an attack on America. It reflects the same kind of thinking (if "thinking" is the right word for it) that the terrorists engaged in. So we must defend the rights and safety of Muslims and Arabs. Otherwise, we become like our enemies and lose.

They fight for blood-lust and revenge
The desire for revenge, to see someone pay, is strong in many people. It may never go away. But there is nothing that can be done to murderers that will ever satisfy such a desire. We must not be tricked by our passions in to pursuing destructive courses of action. What we do must be based on reasoned ways to achieve reasonably arrived at goals. We must not seek blood for the satisfaction of getting blood. Otherwise, we become like our enemies and lose.
They think that policy can be influenced this way
I have long believed and advocated that the US should not be supporting Israel to nearly the extent that it does. But we cannot let anyone believe that our policies (right or wrong) can be influenced through such acts. Any (badly needed) revision of US policy toward Israel now needs to be delayed.
They think that this is a holy war between different civilizations
While there may be a strong religious element to our enemies' thinking, we should not legitimize that by thinking of this in terms of a "crusade". I am growing concerned about the slogan "God Bless America" as the catch phrase. We must maintain our commitment to religious pluralism. No test of loyalty or patriotism should be based on any religious test.


In the previous section, I listed things that we (the US) shouldn't do. And I listed some bad reasons for doing certain things. But that does not mean that I consider all violent/military response wrong. In fact, I think that there is a real need for a military response. This section describes the rationale for that.

Suicidal zealots cannot be deterred

We must recognize from the outset that "punishing" the people behind the attack serves no purpose other than retribution. They want to die fighting the US. They expect it. Killing those particular individuals will prevent those particular individuals from continuing their campaign against the US, but that is all. The situation which created and enabled those people will create and enable more of the same. There certainly is a real and unambiguous need to damage the particular organization responsible, since it is obviously the most capable such organization. But we can't pretend that doing so will substantially improve our safety over the longer term.

Unseat the Taliban

The real deterrent action must be against regimes which knowingly harbor, finance, abet or otherwise help such organizations. A government or regime must not be allowed to make war indirectly by supporting terrorists. The terrorists may be suicidal, but a regime – particularly a tyrannical one – fears most being unseated. Unseating the Taliban has a clear and unambiguous deterrent effect. Failing to act against the Taliban sends a terrible signal to any existing or future regime which might wish to attack the US without taking responsibility for the attack.

Cooperation from the Taliban at this point – turning of bin Ladin and others – is not enough. The time for the Taliban to cooperate with the US on terrorism was after the embassy bombings and after the attack on the USS Cole, but before the attack on September 11th. Anything short of that suggests to any regime which may in the future wish to sponsor, support or abet such attacks on the US that they can do so as long as the turn of those directly involved in the planning afterwards. But we must make it absolutely clear what the penalty is to any regime for supporting such action.

How to unseat the Taliban

As I have argued above, it is necessary to unseat the Taliban. Unfortunately, I consider it nearly impossible as well. Or doable only at great cost (particularly to the people of Afghanistan). Here are options, and reasons why they have problems or won't work at all.

So the best bet is to support the Northern Alliance despite all the problems that that will involve, combined with very very quiet work with Iran.

Innocent victims of anything we do

As I have said above, we must maintain a high regard for the lives and well-being of innocent victims. We must strive to avoid harm to civilians. This is one of the things that separates us from our enemies. But that doesn't mean that we must forgo all actions which might harm innocent victims. Consider a regime that is willing to use "human shields". I we won't attack where a human shield might be harmed, then regimes which use such human shields will have a free hand to do whatever they like in the world without fear of reprisals. That is not the kind of world I want my daughter to grow up in.

Even a regime that doesn't explicitly use human shields does so implicitly if they know that our reluctance to make war is out of fear of hurting their populations. If we are unwilling to do anything that could hurt civilians, then that means we would be unwilling to make war. If the world comes to believe that life we would be unwilling to make war, then the world becomes a much more dangerous place and only more such attacks can be expected.

If we can find actions that will work as a deterrent and run no risk of hurting anybody, that would be outstanding. But I don't think that there are any such actions. We must be extremely concerned about hurting or killing people, but not to the extent that it leaves us with no actions whatsoever.

What Bush did wrong

For the most part the president has said and done all the right things. But there were a few mistakes, and I will list them not in any display of disunity, but merely as an expression of my opinions like the rest of this document. While I am not a particular supporter of the president, I do have a great deal of respect for his foreign policy team.

"Crusade" remark
In one encounter with the press, the president in trying to communicate that the new kind of war would be long and on multiple fronts referred to it as a kind of "crusade". That was a terrible choice of words. It will be taken wrong to suggest that this is a war against Islam. I believe that he has apologized for the choice of words.
Made good threats he can't keep
In his speech on the night of the 11th, he said that we will "not distinguish between those who committed this crime and those who harbored them". That, as I have argued above, is the correct policy, but only if we can and will do it. Since then, we have seen a withdrawal from that policy. It would have been better not to say it if he couldn't keep it.
Broadening the war
A war to end evil itself is going to far. Don't broaden it. Go after the particular organization involved in this attack and those who supported them. Don't use this as an excuse to go after other things.
Failure to rally the world community
The president's main task is to rally support. He is the least capable president for that task. Support will be forthcoming for a variety of reasons, but there would be more of it were he a more internationally respected individual. His infatuation with missile defense means that crucial Russian support will only come at the price of our silence about Chechnya. Arab support will be half hearted, due to his insensitivity to the difficulties Arab leaders face in supporting the US. He forgets that the coalition against Iraq was a coalition against a secular state, not an Islamic one. He forgets how popular anti-Americanism is in many parts of the world and being seen to be an American stooge is not something any politician (elected or monarchal) can tolerate.

He must constantly reassure Pakistan, Iran and Russia that the US is not seeking to establish increased long term influence in the region. Maybe he is doing that, but considering how well he has handled missile defense up to now, I have my doubts.

He has four ex-presidents around who can help in this task. He should be deploying them as special envoys specifically do this sort of thing.

Retributionist tone
This "dead or alive" or "bring them to justice or justice to them" talk is very unhelpful.

Why are we hated?

This section not written yet. But the gist of it will be that undemocratic allies have used the US as a scapegoat for all things unpleasent in their countries. Some "allies" actively promote absolutely horrendous anti-American lies. It is true that most Americans are oblivous to the rest of the world and have limited imagination about how things can be different in different places, but for the most part it is the rest of the world that has an extremely distorted view of the US.

Nation building in Afghanistan

This section not written yet, but the over all picture as that we cannot ensure that there will be a nice, open friendly government there. We should step back from "nation building" in this case (except financially) and give the lead to Pakistan, Iran, Russia and the former Soviet republics that border Afghanistan. We need to tell that to those countries now.

New US security measures

As usual the most intellegent thing I've read about security issues comes of Counterpane. See the Crypto-gram Newsletter of September 30, 2001.

"Freedom is not Free"

The slogan I've been using around this website is "freedom is not free". That not only speaks to the actions that must be taken to deter such attacks in the future and fight regimes that would support such attacks, but also in defense of our civil liberties. There is a security risk to living in a free and open society, that freedom can be used by those who would attack it. But if we want freedom, than we must also be careful to defend our own civil rights.

Not yet finished.

Not defining "terrorism"

This section was added October 18, 2001.

A great deal of opposition to the US military action in Afghanistan has centered around the fact that one person's "terrorist" is another person's "freedom fighter". There are two basic sorts of arguments I want to make here. The first is that in this instance, the definition simply doesn't matter. Suppose we consider the attack on September 11 as an act of war instead of an act of terrorism. Indeed, a case can be made for that if we distinguish between the effect of the attack and a possible intent of it.

A military interpretation of the attacks

We know that one intent was to provoke a war between the US and Islam, as the leader of the group which organized the attack has basically admitted as much. But there is more. Consider the intended targets: The WTC towers (which were hit and collapsed, but did not destroy much beyond themselves); the Whitehorse (which got substituted by a secondary target, the pentagon); some other prominent DC building (almost certainly the US capital). Also we have reason to believe that there was some "credible and specific" information suggesting that Air Force One (the president's plane) was a target.

Keep in mind that it is necessary to think like a crazy revolutionary when thinking about intent. They hoped to shutdown the financial district of lower Manhattan, kill the President, and kill much of Congress. It is not implausible to assume that they thought that such action would seriously destabilize the US. Considering that many people confuse the functioning of the financial markets with the functioning of economy, an attempt to shutdown the financial center of the US could be seen as an attack not just on a symbol of the American economy, but on the economy itself.

Likewise, an attempt to kill the President and much of Congress could be seen by those how don't really understand the strength of the US constitution as an act that could seriously destabilize the US. In many parts of the world, the leaders of a country are from a small elite and govern through a serious of personal loyalties, nepotism and exchange of favors and patronage. In such a place, killing the head of state and much of the national assemblies and staff really could bring down a country. We have seen the attacks as brutal attacks on symbols in an attempt to terrorize. But that may be a mistake. It may have been intended as an attack on the foundations of the society itself. That view is consistent with previous targets (embassies and a war ship.)

Once it was clear that the only real result was terror, the attackers have followed up with threats to capitalize on that. But it may very well be that the terrorizing nature was merely a side effect of a larger, more "military" target.

The response must be the same

But it doesn't really matter whether we treat the attacks as an act of war or as a terrorist attack. The response and the need for deterrence don't change. The organization responsible has attacked previously and has very credibly threatened that they will continue to attack as long as they are capable. The regime which hosts them, chose to host them even after the previous attacks on embassies and the Cole. If they harbor a group which makes war on the US, then they must be unseated, whether we call the attacks an act of war or an act of terrorism. It is because of this that I don't see that much is at stake in how we define terrorism.

Hypocritical moralizing

Opponents of a strong response to the attacks have also been playing with definitions of "terrorism" to play a various versions of a game called "moral equivalence". The worst of these people refuse to distinguish morally between say, the accidental killing of a child who gets caught in the cross fire (which you didn't start) on the one hand, and the setting of a bomb in a shopping mall or night-club on the other. Other aspects of moral equivalence fail to distinguish between the kinds of standards of 50 years ago in a very hot war (Hiroshima, Dresden, etc) and what we do today. I wonder how many of the those who sympathize with the attackers expected a response which involved nuclear weapons or carpet bombing of Kandahar, yet such a response, from an American perspective, is unthinkable.

Doubling the standard

One form of hypocritical thinking is to hold a double standard. And one form of that is in the from of opposition to retaliation based on the fact that the US has not always acted perfectly. Such people point out their favorite flaws in US foreign policy and seem to think that this somehow precludes any military action by the US. It is sort of a "let no one who is without sin cast any stone, no matter how attacked." Often these same people will act as apologists for some enemies of the US, entirely ignoring the sins of those enemies. Surely that is a double standard.

The double standard has no merit in determining the appropriate response to the attacks, but it is not entirely without merit. First of all, the argument can be used to deflate some of the moralizing tone of a "war against evil". This is not a war against evil, this is a war against enemies who have shown a capability to attack us. It is also a war of deterrence against regimes which support those enemies. There is clearly an ideological dimension to war, in that one side is open, the other religiously intolerant. One side tends to support democracies and economic growth, the other supports strict theocracies and a caste based economy. One side provides food knowing that that some will go to its enemies, while the other tries to starve its domestic opponents. But still, those pointing out the sins of previous US policy do correctly deflate some of the moralizing rhetoric of the US.

The other virtue of the double standard is that the US really should be held to a higher standard than the rest of the world. First, people should always hold their own governments to a higher standard, and so as a US citizen I hold my government to a higher standard than I hold others. But more universally, the whole world should hold the US to a higher standard because of both its position in the world as the only remaining super power and because of what the US claims to stand for. But there must clearly be a limit to how much we should double the standard. Those who double it to a degree that rules out any retaliatory action have clearly gone too far.

Version: $Revision: 1.5 $
Last Modified: $Date: 2001/10/18 13:43:54 $ GMT
First established September 22, 2001