Friday, April 02, 2004

A Colloquy on War and Terrorism

Able. Is it right to go to war against a country that has not attacked us?

Baker. No.

Able. What about Nazi Germany?

Baker. Well, Nazi Germany was in league with Imperial Japan, which had attacked us.

Able. So it's all right to go to war with our enemy's friend?

Baker. Well, only if the enemy has already attacked us.

Able. Hadn't we already been attacked by al Qaeda, not once but several times, before we went to war against Saddam Hussein?

Baker. But Saddam wasn't a friend of al Qaeda.

Able. You don't believe that Saddam condoned the giving of support to al Qaeda by members of his regime, even if he wasn't directly involved?

Baker. Well suppose Saddam's regime had nothing to do with al Qaeda, after all there are many who question the Saddam-al Qaeda link. That leaves Saddam as a potential enemy, but he didn't pose an imminent threat to us.

Able. Did Hitler pose an imminent threat to us in December 1941?

Baker. No, but Saddam was no Hitler, that is, he lacked the wherewithal to attack us any time soon, if ever.

Able. It doesn't matter to you that he was an oppressive dictator and a known enemy of the U.S., and that -- at a minimum -- his presence emboldened other regimes in the Middle East to support terrorism?

Baker. We shouldn't have invaded Iraq until it became clear that Saddam posed a direct and imminent threat to the U.S.

Able. In other words, we shouldn't spray a nest of hornets if only one of them has stung us? We should wait until more have stung us?

Baker. But our pre-emptive war caused much innocent blood to be shed.

Able. How much more innocent blood will be shed if we don't go after terrorism at its roots?'

Baker. But what if our pre-emptive strategy inflames hatred of the U.S. and creates even more terrorists?

Able. What if our pre-emptive strategy also deters would-be terrorists by creating fear of, if not respect for, the U.S.? (Look at what's happened in Libya, for instance.) What if our pre-emptive strategy makes it harder for would-be terrorists to act on their hatred? There is -- and was -- already an ample supply of America-haters in the Middle East (and elsewhere). Nothing we do, or don't do, is likely to reduce their numbers significantly. They hate America not out of poverty or ignorance (though many of them are poor and ignorant), but because most humans have a need to hate something. The U.S., with all its power and wealth, is an easy target for hatred. Does hatred justify terror?

Baker. Of course not, but surely there must be a better way than pre-emptive war.

Able. Shall we all join hands at the United Nations and denounce terrorism? Well, that's already been tried, and a lot of good it's done. Tell me what you would do. Go on, tell me, I'm waiting…

Baker. We need to detect and prevent actual terrorist operations through improved intelligence.

Able. I agree. But I don't see that as an alternative to pre-emptive action overseas. We need both better intelligence and pre-emptive action, especially because there are many things intelligence cannot do. It cannot keep out terrorists who are already in the country. It cannot keep out terrorists who can easily cross our mostly open borders with Canada and Mexico. It cannot keep out terrorists who come into the country on seemingly legitimate business and then vanish from sight. It cannot prevent any of these terrorists from making weapons of terror from materials that can be bought or stolen. We can reduce such risks by making it easier for law-enforcement agencies to detect terrorist plans and conspiracies, as we have through the Patriot Act.

Baker. I'm glad you mentioned the Patriot Act…

Able. Me, too. You're aghast at some of the leeway it gives law-enforcement agencies, though we always run the risk that they will abuse their already considerable power. But you're also aghast at the doctrine of pre-emption. I guess that your anti-terror strategy is to hunt down terrorists after they have struck.

Baker. That's not fair.

Able. It's a logical consequence of your position. You either fight terror or you let it happen to you.