This Is War, and We Must Win

We can never be safe as long as people exist with the will and capacity to commit such acts.

By SHARE

This is war. In this happy, free, open country, our initial inclination is to think of terrorist acts as isolated, individual crimes. We ask how we can improve airport security, how we can tighten border security, how we can obtain airtight evidence against perpetrators.

But all these things are beside the point. There is no way we can protect innocent people in a free society from this kind of terrorism. We can never be safe as long as people exist with the will and capacity to commit such acts. The only way to protect our civilization is to destroy these people.

Which means war. But war against whom?

Conversation in the halls of the Pentagon and State Department immediately after the attacks centered on Osama bin Laden. Only his organization, it was said, could have masterminded such an operation. We will surely know—perhaps we already know—with reasonable certainty whether this was a bin Laden operation. But our purpose should not be to put a few terrorists on trial. Our purpose should be to win the war made against us.

For the overwhelming likelihood is that these terrorist attacks could not have occurred without the cooperation and active participation of one or more governments. Most likely, only a government could provide false documentation, diplomatic pouches, logistics, and worldwide intelligence assets, without which these attacks could not have occurred. And who else but a government could better provide the training that enabled suicidal terrorists to pilot airplanes into particular buildings? Trained pilots do not become suicide bombers, but suicide bombers can be trained as pilots.

"No distinction." And which governments would have trained them? Quite likely the governments of what the United States has solemnly certified as terrorist states—Iraq foremost among them, Libya, Iran. We know as well that bin Laden has been given safe harbor by the governments of Afghanistan and Sudan. On Tuesday night President Bush rightly made it clear that such governments would be held responsible: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

The foremost candidate is Iraq. Laurie Mylroie in her recent book, Study of Revenge, examined the formerly secret grand jury proceedings in the case of Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yousef also was caught, before he could carry it off, in a second conspiracy, to blow up U.S. airliners in the Pacific. The September 11 attack looks like a combination of the two. "We will discover," Mylroie wrote, "that the World Trade Center bombing [of 1993] did indeed have state sponsorship—from Iraq." We may well discover—may already have discovered—that Iraq is also behind these attacks.

To act, we do not need airtight evidence. We need only the reasonable certainty on which any great nation is justified to act when it is at war. Destruction of terrorists and the governments that have aided and harbored them will teach a needed lesson to anyone contemplating similar attacks on the United States in the future. Failure to destroy them will teach a different lesson—that you can help terrorists wreak terrible violence on the United States and suffer nothing in return.

That is, after all, the lesson that terrorist states have heretofore been taught. Our failure to destroy Saddam Hussein in 1991 left him free to bring tyranny to his people and sponsor terrorism against us. Our treatment of the bombings of the Khobar Towers, the embassies in Africa, and the USS Cole as matters of criminal justice has left the terrorists and their state sponsors free to strike again.

The next step should be a declaration of war against the terrorists who perpetrated these acts and the governments that have aided and harbored them. It will be said by some that we must pause and act only with the acquiescence of our allies and the United Nations. But that is an echo of the qualms of those who believe the United States can be morally justified only when it has the approval of others. A congressional declaration of war—the first since 1941—would leave no doubt of our commitment to win this war. As in 1941, it is not clear yet exactly how we will do this. But that did not stop President Franklin Roosevelt from declaring, "No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory." So we must, and will, again.