The scale and savagery of Tuesday's attacks should prompt our leaders to fight terrorism with force. Presidents for years have deceived us with empty promises denouncing terrorist assaults and vows to pursue perpetrators until they are "brought to justice." But this country has played games with terrorists, trying to stop them through slow and cumbersome criminal-law procedures rather than hitting them hard and destroying their capacity to attack Americans. The sad results of this failed policy -- the disintegration of the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon inferno -- are now engraved in the minds of millions. U.S. presidents are responsible. Instead of using the military to eliminate terrorist groups, they have relied on the FBI and federal prosecutors to investigate and try only those few low-level operatives we are fortunate enough to arrest. This misguided policy has allowed the suspected mastermind of Tuesday's carnage, Osama bin Laden, unlimited time to plan and implement new attacks of increasing seriousness.
An anti-terrorism policy based on criminal prosecution has also created the misleading impression that the U.S. government is providing the American people with meaningful protection. It is not.
In reality, our policy of fighting terrorism with criminal-law procedures is uncomfortably like playing "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?" In the computer game, player investigators are assigned cases involving spectacular crimes -- for example, stealing the Golden Gate Bridge -- committed by members of Carmen's extensive gang. Investigators then dash off to collect evidence, flying from place to place, based on clues received from witnesses and documents. If successful, an investigator gradually puts together enough evidence to establish probable cause. The investigator must secure a warrant, and then is allowed to arrest the correct person when he or she appears on the screen. Every successful arrest is a win, even though the boss -- the daring and elusive Carmen San Diego -- remains at large, arranging for other gang members to commit new crimes. Successful investigators are congratulated and promoted. Even when at long last Carmen San Diego is sometimes caught, she is reincarnated and the game goes on. The way we go after terrorists in many ways mirrors the game. Each prosecution is aimed at specific individuals known to have perpetrated specific crimes. Some are convicted and imprisoned. But bin Laden -- the boss -- remains at large. Prosecutors were deservedly proud when, on May 31, 2001, a jury in New York found four defendants guilty of conspiring with bin Laden to bomb American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, three years earlier. The bombings killed 224 people, including 12 Americans. Convicting terrorist henchmen establishes that they are subject to the rule of law, brings a sense of justice to survivors and relatives, and lends credibility to the pledge that terrorists who kill Americans will be punished. It can also expose some of the methods of terrorist groups.
While bin Laden and some of his top associates were indicted along with the four actually tried, they cannot be reached by the criminal process so long as they stay in Afghanistan, which refuses to extradite or prosecute them.
A real effort to stop bin Laden and his group as enemies of this country would focus on bin Laden himself and every other member of his organization, Al Qaeda, regardless of their susceptibility to prosecution for particular crimes. The objective would not be convictions of particular Al Qaeda members, but ending the threat it poses. Most important, prosecution doesn't solve the underlying problem. It doesn't get rid of those responsible for acts of terrorism. That's something to worry about, because we may not have seen the worst. The CIA and FBI confirm that bin Laden is attempting to obtain weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, chemical and biological killing agents. Anti-terrorism efforts must be judged by whether they prevent attacks. Prosecutions cannot shut down terrorist organizations operating in hostile and uncooperative states such as Afghanistan, which harbors bin Laden. Nor is Afghanistan likely to be convinced by successful prosecutions to surrender bin Laden.
Prosecutions are especially ineffective in deterring fundamentalist terrorist groups able to recruit individuals willing to sacrifice their lives in suicide bombings. These terrorists are not "cowards," as they were called by President George W. Bush; they are crazed killers, ready to die for their perverted cause.
The U.S. government must treat bin Laden as an enemy of the United States. That requires more than the prosecution of underlings, a freeze on Al Qaeda's assets or economic sanctions against Afghanistan. It requires a shift from responding to terrorist attacks as ordinary crimes to using military force to prevent attacks. We need a president who orders his staff to end the threat -- and a staff capable of implementing his order. Terrorist attacks have succeeded because of a reckless indifference to security standards. The U.S. military housing complex, Khobar Towers, near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, lacked essential perimeter protection. Seventeen sailors were killed on the destroyer USS Cole while it was docked in Aden, Yemen, on October 12, 2000, when slipshod security allowed an unknown vessel to come close enough to blow a hole in its hull. The World Trade Center bombing in 1993 might have been prevented if Arabic-language documents seized earlier from terrorists had been translated. Terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon last Tuesday were able to elude security at three East Coast airports and seize four planes. These lapses would not be tolerated if we truly regarded ourselves as being in a battle with an enemy. Resorting to force requires great care. Mistakes or collateral damage can undermine its effectiveness. While the US is free to act unilaterally in self defense, it must be prepared to admit its mistakes. President George H. W. Bush apologized for the 1988 destruction by a U.S. Navy warship of an Iranian passenger airliner, and the United States negotiated a settlement with Iran.
The use of force can lead to reprisals against the United States. It can create a cycle of violence. It may make terrorists like bin Laden heroes to other Muslim militants.
But criminal prosecutions can also lead to reprisals and make heroes of terrorists. Anyway, criminal prosecution will never stop committed militants. An effective use of force stands at least a chance of wiping out, or deterring, terrorist acts. The key is not merely to use force symbolically, but to use enough force to knock out the capability of terrorists to commit acts of terror. In no war would a combatant expect an enemy to cease its attacks merely because of a single largely symbolic use of force, such as President Clinton's strike against bin Laden in Afghanistan.
Only in the world of computer games such as "Carmen Sand Diego" can we expect to avoid the real risks involved in failing to confront and destroy the enemy's real "boss." It is time to stop playing games and give terrorists like bin Laden and Al Qaeda the attention they deserve. Let us stop talking about "bringing them to justice" and start doing what justice requires.