About a hundred thousand Americans are killed annually by medical errors in hospitals . So how come we are not fighting a "War on Error"? We are, supposedly, engaged in a "War on Terror" (WOT), even tho the average number of Americans killed annually by terrorists since 9/11 is less than 3, all outside our borders (not counting those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.) ? Whereas a properly fought war on error would clearly save many lives, a good case can (and shortly will) be made that the WOT is resulting in more deaths. But there are more fundamental reasons why a WOT is a bad idea.
First, the "enemy" consists of those who have committed, or are willing to commit, terrorist acts. This is a very ill-defined group. Who is on the membership committee and what are the criteria for admission? At any time, some previously obscure group, for example the Bozhbjeks of Whatsistan, might join the terrorist side by shooting down a US airliner with a stinger missile while also seizing a busload of touring US students. So there is nobody who can surrender on behalf of all terrorists. There are no war aims other than the complete and permanent elimination of terrorism, an obviously unattainable goal. Therefore a WOT can never end in victory for the good guys. The situation is even further confused because (as will be shown below) the US itself has often engaged in or supported terrorism.
An unending war implies a permanent loss of liberty, as well as a serious on-going financial burden. We see today, as a result of the current wars being waged, ostensibly to combat terrorism, serious losses of privacy as email and telephone communications are now subject to ever-increasing surveillance by security agencies. Our government has seized and imprisoned people (including US citizens) without due process. People captured by the US government in the course of the WOT have been tortured, some to the point of death. The financial stability of the country is in jeopardy, partly because of the huge sums of money squandered on these wars. If the WOT continues indefinitely, we can expect further erosion of individual liberty as we evolve toward a garrison state, with a growing proportion of the nation's energy being diverted toward destructive ends.
Defenders of the governmental power grab argue that the 9/11 atrocity represented a novel threat requiring an array of new security measures. However, tho the 9/11 attack was spectacularly successful (due to the unpredictable total collapse of the twin towers), there is nothing new about the use of terrorism by both nongovernmental organizations and governments.
In 1864, US cavalry attacked an encampment of mostly Northern Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado. These Indians, having recently negotiated with the government, assumed they were at peace with the US. There were few warriors among them. Between 150 and 200 Indians were estimated killed, nearly all women, children, and elderly men. Many of the victims were scalped or otherwise mutilated. This was one of many such episodes involving Indians, distinguished by the number of victims and the fact that it was investigated at the time [5, 6].
From 1899 thru 1902, the US fought a war of conquest against the people of the Philippine Islands [7, 8]. It was a bitter struggle, with many instances of heroism, humanity, and, unfortunately, great cruelty on both sides. The US army, faced with a guerilla army supported by the local population, resorted to tactics that neatly fit the description of terrorism. Whole villages were destroyed by our army, with women, children, and elderly men killed. Tens of thousands of civilians died from disease or starvation when they were driven out of their homes. Prisoners were tortured. In many ways, this was a precursor of the Vietnam War.
The most famous instance of US atrocities committed in Vietnam was the 1968 My Lai Massacre , in which American soldiers murdered over 340 unarmed Vietnamese villagers, including many women and children. It was by no means a unique event. Terrorizing civilians was a common tactic during that war . Another example is the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians by an elite army unit during the previous year , Torture of prisoners was also involved.
In addition to the actual commission of terrorist acts, the US, in partnership with the Soviet Union and other countries, was prepared to incinerate millions of people, mostly noncombatants, with thermonuclear weapons as part of the "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) policy that prevailed during the entire period of the cold war.
While using and threatening to use terrorism itself, the US has also, to this day, been an avid supporter of other governments employing such tactics. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the US has supported brutal regimes, for example in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, that freely employed terrorist tactics against their populations. In many cases, US operatives, such as CIA agents, helped train and organize military and paramilitary units that suppressed opposition by murdering opponents of the regimes, including teachers, union organizers, health workers, and even Catholic nuns and an archbishop [12, 13].
In Nicaragua, in the eighties, the US government helped organize and actively supported the anti-government Contras  who, by frequently attacking civilians, killing many, clearly qualified as terrorists by any reasonable definition.
Most recently, the US has firmly supported the actions of the government of Israel in its devastating assault on the population of Gaza, in the course of which many hundreds of noncombatants including women and children were killed. This episode must be considered in the context of over 60 years of history in which terrorism has been extensively used by both Arabs and Jews. The conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians constitutes a textbook example of how violence and terrorist acts breed retaliation in kind in a never-ending, often escalating, cycle in which each side justifies its actions by pointing out previous terrible acts by the other side. While not disputing the fact that numerous atrocities were perpetrated by Palestinians, I will present examples below that make it clear that Israelis too have openly used terrorism both before and after their state was established.
In 1946, while Palestine was still ruled by the British under a League of Nations mandate, the headquarters of the government, located in the King David Hotel, was bombed by the Irgun, an extremist Jewish group. The operation was approved by the Haganah, the mainstream Jewish military organization. Over 90 people were killed, most of them typists and messengers, junior members of the Secretariat, employees of the hotel and canteen workers .
In April, 1948, as the British mandate was coming to an end and a civil war between Arabs and Jews was beginning, the Irgun, along with the Lehi (Stern Gang), another, even more extremist, Jewish group, attacked the village of Deir Yassin, killing over a hundred unarmed villagers, including women and children . The villagers had not been involved in any violence prior to being attacked.
In September of 1948, shortly before establishment of the State of Israel, the Lehi assassinated Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish Diplomat serving as the UN mediator in Palestine .
In October of 1956, Israeli Border Police killed 48 unarmed Arabs from the village of Kafr Qasim, including 6 women and 23 children, because they violated a curfew announced about four hours earlier .
The above episodes were not isolated acts by obscure people. Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, leaders of the Irgun and Lehi, respectively, at the time of these incidents, were closely involved in their planning. Both subsequently became Prime Ministers of Israel. Neither of them ever expressed remorse over these or other such acts. In fact, Shamir is on record as having said, "neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat" . It is clear that, from its inception, Israel has frequently used terrorist tactics, and continues to do so. Many Israeli Jews, as well as Jews elsewhere in the world, including in the US (you are hearing from one now), deplore such behavior, while others justify it as an appropriate, perhaps necessary, response to terrorism practiced by Palestinians. The US government has subsidized Israeli terrorism, supplying weapons on a generous scale.
Thru the 1980s, the US government supported the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, despite its murderous behavior, which included use of poison gas that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurd civilians .
Is it because of the great job being done by our intelligence agencies and Homeland Security? Not likely, given the gross defects reported in the air transport security system [21, 22], which is probably the most visible, tho, I believe, one of the least important, aspects of guarding against terrorist attacks. It is hard to believe that a determined terrorist, unconcerned about personal survival, would find it all that difficult to detonate a bomb in a crowded public place in this country.
An alternative explanation for the paucity of such attacks is that the number of capable people determined to hurt the US via brutal attacks on ordinary people is actually very small. Maybe the concern about terrorism has been greatly exaggerated. If so, this would not be the first time in our history that fear of sinister outside forces has been inflated to justify assaults on civil liberties. Recall the Eighteenth Century Alien and Sedition Laws, the post World War I Palmer raids and mass deportations, and the McCarthy era hysteria.
A serious effort to thwart all plausible terrorist attacks would entail measures that would alter our lives drastically. It would require a good deal more than requiring travelers to take off shoes at airports. This does not mean that nothing should be done. As with respect to more commonplace crimes, there are sensible things that could be done to make things harder for terrorists. Locking the flight deck doors of airliners (already done), and supplementing air marshals with a program to encourage law enforcement officers, perhaps via fare discounts, to carry sidearms on flights, and maybe a few other simple measures, might be the best we can do to discourage airline hijacking. More generally, the kind of international cooperation employed to combat other types of criminals ought to be effective against terrorist organizations. The most effective defense would be to reduce sharply the number of people supporting and joining them.
The US has routinely supported many oppressive governments (as shown above), and maintains hundreds of military bases all over the world . It has been among the top two arms exporters (usually number one) for many years . This behavior has antagonized huge numbers of people, creating a large pool of potential recruits for terrorist organizations. Policy reversals in these areas would have a major impact in reducing the threat of terrorist attacks, and are justifiable on other grounds as well.
The Iraq war and the Afghanistan war (now in the process of being escalated, probably into another disaster ) are both justified as being components of the WOT. Rather than helping reduce terrorism, these are more like recruiting and training operations for terrorists. I find it interesting that Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose views in general are quite different from mine, has written an article  that also takes a dim view of the WOT, making arguments only partly overlapping the above, but which I do agree with.
The greatest terrorist danger is that some group might smuggle a nuclear bomb into a US city. Preventing this can best be done by reducing the prevalence of nuclear weapons worldwide. What is needed is a serious program of nuclear disarmament. As the principal nuclear power, the US should lead the way. Not by trying to coerce other countries into giving up or not developing nuclear weapons, but by significantly reducing our own stockpile of such weapons and then negotiating a worldwide treaty, with appropriate inspection procedures, to get rid of them altogether. The possibility of terrorists obtaining such a device will remain very real as long as thousands of nuclear warheads exist all over the world.
Comments can be sent to me at unger(at)cs(dot)columbia(dot)edu
Return to Ends and Means