Obviously, terrorism cannot be treated only as a law-enforcement issue. When terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda find command sanctuaries and build training facilities in countries such as Afghanistan, military power will be required to engage them directly and destroy their capabilities. But today’s terrorists do not rely mainly on state sponsors or even the shelter of states. They form transnational, global networks, seek refuge in anarchic regions, or nest inside well-organized societies, whether democratic and industrialized or authoritarian and backward. As such they confront the United States and its allies in the law-governed world with a challenge that is directly comparable to the challenge of organized crime and that must be dealt with in just the same way—not with superheated but clumsy wars, but with the well-funded, sustained, disciplined, professional, aggressive, internationally cooperative, but understated efforts employed to pursue, prosecute, and punish criminals.

Of course one implication of defining terrorism as a challenge to law enforcement rather than as an enemy to be vanquished militarily is that terrorism will not be entirely eradicated. We will always have crime, and we will always have terrorism, that is, violence used against civilians for political purposes. The question is whether we can build and maintain societies that are satisfying enough for enough people, and resilient enough, to sustain good lives for law-abiding citizens despite the possibility and occasional reality of crimes of violence, whether politically motivated or not.

The challenge of building resilient societies is not only, or even mainly, a law-enforcement problem. It is a problem of opening opportunities for peaceable people of all cultural backgrounds to lead free and satisfying lives. Indeed, the general policy implications for reducing Islamic-oriented terrorism are clear and have even been indirectly noted by the State Department. In response to a question about the violent results of worldwide Muslim anger against publication of the Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohammed wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, State Department press secretary Sean McCormack stressed that “what we have called for is tolerance and understanding, not incitement to violence. And we call upon all governments to lower the temperature, to urge calm and to urge dialogue and not misunderstanding.”

Indeed it does makes sense to encourage tolerance, understanding, and dialogue; to “lower the temperature” as a way to make conditions in the Muslim world less combustible and less hospitable for violent elements. This same logic applies equally well with respect to substantive policies of the United States that lead Muslims to believe the worst about our country and to see us as agents of domination, humiliation, and injustice. Neither law-enforcement efforts nor wars can reduce the fanaticism that produces Muslim terrorists unless we lower the temperature in the Muslim world that creates more jihadis for every one killed or imprisoned. To think otherwise is to believe that water in a pot could be prevented from boiling not by lowering the temperature beneath the pot but by identifying and removing the individual molecules just as they appear ready to burst into steam.

The good news about reducing the temperature in the Muslim world is that official American policies need not change; they need only be implemented. The United States stands for democracy, justice, and peaceful relations among the states and peoples of the Middle East. We are also committed to implementing all United Nations Security Council resolutions. The importance of implementing American policies is the good news. It is also the bad news, because of the domestic political difficulty of pressing any Israeli government to do anything—even something it may wish to do.

Let us be clear about this argument. Our enemies are clever and they know more about us than we do about them. They know that political pressures in the United States constrain American governments to take positions on Israel-related issues that can cripple any American effort to build effective alliances in the Muslim world or redeem its image among average Muslims. They know that when Americans talk to Arabs and Muslims they almost always try to change the topic when Israel comes up. So naturally al-Qaeda will always try to make Israel the topic that is front and center. If we use our influence in concert with European allies and moderate Arab countries, however, we can deprive al-Qaeda of this public-relations trump card by quickly orchestrating a solution acceptable to the vast majority of Palestinians and Israelis. By implementing our own policy on this issue we can significantly ‘‘lower the temperature’’ that inflames the minds of ordinary Muslims helping to provide a constant stream of recruits for the jihadis.

Again, it is not that al-Qaeda and the jihadis care particularly about the Palestinians. They do not. They were not motivated by the Palestinian cause when they struck on September 11, and they will not cease their activities no matter what happens in Palestine. What they do care about is exploiting our political weaknesses to multiply their political opportunities. Accordingly, in virtually all of bin Laden’s interviews and fatwas and in the writings and interviews of al-Zawahiri, vastly disproportionate attention is directed to the ‘‘Crusader-Zionist alliance,’’ the Palestine question, Israeli abuse of Palestinians, and Jewish and Zionist influence in America. In a 2000 al-Qaeda recruitment video Palestine and Israel are mentioned or visually featured 21 times, compared to 10 visual or verbal references to Saudi Arabia, the Hijaz, or Mecca and Medina. Al-Qaeda harps on the Palestinian problem partly because of widespread anti-Semitism among Muslims, but even more because America is so conveniently and so tightly tied in Muslim minds to Israeli governments and to anti-Palestinian policies. Al-Qaeda knows its audience: the masses of Muslims whose hearts they want to inflame and whose minds they want to capture. Regardless of whether al-Qaeda genuinely cares about Palestine per se, its leadership knows their audience does and tends to deeply resent the double standard they see in Washington when it comes to anything related to the Jewish state.

However, no matter how effectively America joins with its allies to bring the power of the law to bear on the criminals who use violence against innocent civilians; and no matter how wise our foreign policy may become or how greatly we may alleviate the hostility in Muslim countries toward the United States, we will never eradicate terrorism. Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, the federal building in Oklahoma City, and abortion clinics in various locales before September 2001, and they will attack other targets in America after September 2001. That is a difficult idea for Americans to accept, that they must live in a world in which vicious terrorist attacks on our soil can and probably will happen.

Of course, Americans tolerate without panic on the order of 5,000 workplace-accident deaths annually, 17,000 homicides, and 50,000 auto-accident fatalities. These victims are as permanently and as tragically dead as those who die from acts of terrorism. But it seems to be a psychological fact that when the threat of death appears to be associated with the intent to do harm rather than as a product of chance or of avoidable circumstances, it is more feared and more likely to impact the way we live our lives. It is in part that psychological irrationality in humans that terrorists leverage into the outsized political impact they hope to achieve.

Therefore, the more rational we can be, the less exploitable or vulnerable we will be to terrorist manipulation and attack. In that regard we need to change the fundamental way we approach the problem. Inevitably, our society will be vulnerable to destructive things that individuals or small groups could do. Trying to eliminate all such vulnerabilities would be as impossible as trying to eliminate all individuals who might have such intentions, and much more expensive as well.

So what do we do? We establish levels of acceptable risk. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to the risk of benzene pollution has been to set ‘‘an upper limit of acceptability of 1 in 10,000 lifetime cancer risk for highly exposed individuals’’ along with ‘‘a target of protecting the greatest number of persons possible to an individual lifetime risk level no higher than approximately 1 in 1,000,000.’’ In other words, the EPA and the public are aware that some people in fact will die as the result of even these low levels of benzene exposure, but we accept those levels, believing that the cost of trying to reduce those odds even more would prevent us from using our resources much more productively.

Lowering the Temperature By Ian S. Lustick
EXCERPT: Trapped in the War on Terror

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06