What should we do about terrorism?

By Scott Tibbs

The bombing of American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in early August brought the subject of terrorism back to the front burner of American political discourse. Now, we struggle with a question that has been gnawing at us for twenty years: what do we do about it?

General Responses

In general, the top three responses to acts of terrorism are economic sanctions, air strikes, and law enforcement against the terrorists. In addition, some pundits and policy analysts have suggested assassinating terrorists. Each response has its drawbacks.

Sanctions are only possible with broad multilateral support, as the rouge state would simply trade with other willing states. In addition, sanctions have not been effective in the past. We have had sanctions on Iran Iraq, Cuba, and North Korea for years, and those governments, while slightly weakened, do not look to change anytime soon. Law enforcement is the standard response to individual terrorists, but if the terrorist resides in a rouge state, bringing them in for trial is difficult if not impossible.

I do not have a moral problem with assassination. People like Osama bin Laden are murderers, and I do not oppose eliminating such individuals. But as policy, assassination is probably the worst option. First, it is illegal, and US law would have to be modified to allow it. Second, it would merely make the target a martyr, encouraging his followers to even more violence. Third, it would make our own elected officials a target. Since we live in a free society and do not hide or leaders in bunkers, our Cabinet officials, members of Congress, and even our President would be vulnerable to reprisal.

I believe that, when the evidence is solid, bombings are probably the best response to terrorism. However, we must be cautious to make sure we bomb the correct targets. The bombing of the alleged chemical weapons plant in Sudan, for example, was probably rushed, and the evidence that the factory actually produced chemical weapons is questionable. The bombing of the terrorist base in Afghanistan, however, was good policy. International law allows for military retaliation for the purposes of self-defense, and we must let terrorists know we are not afraid to retaliate against their violence.

But bombing is not a perfect solution. It could well encourage more terrorism in the short run. But in the long run, bombing could be a strong deterrent to terrorism.

Massive Retaliation?

Terrorism in 1998 and beyond may be far more dangerous than the terrorism we dealt with in the 1980's. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD's) caused by lax controls on the arsenal in the former Soviet union, as well as the ability of rouge states to produce such weapons, have seen to this. Policy analysts at the CATO Institute have suggested we may see 500,000 to 1,000,000 people slaughtered in a major American city by a terrorist with a biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon. In this case, what do we do? One possible response to such a devastating attack is massive retaliation. If, say a terrorist with ties to Iran were to set of a biological weapon in New York City, we could respond with nuclear weapons. A massive carpet bombing of Iran would also be an option so as not to irradiate the entire Middle East.

While the thirst for revenge in the event of such a massive attack would ensure popular support for massive retaliation, any people would be very squeamish about using nuclear weapons. But in the event of such an attack, simply punishing the offender may not provide ample deterrent against future use of WMD's on Americans. Many terrorists are more than willing to give their own life for their cause as evidenced by suicide bombings. But the threat that their entire nation would be wiped out in the event of such an attack would cause the terrorist to think twice about such actions. In addition, the governments of rouge states would have a huge incentive to keep their agents in line, so that they do not fall victim to massive retaliation. Unfortunately, we may have to deal with this question sooner rather than later, so our congressional leaders and our President should begin preparing the American people now for what could happen in the near future.

Final Thoughts

Finally, we should reconsider policies that encourage terrorism. We should not be militarily engaged in areas where national security interests are not involved. We should not generate anger, hostility and potential violence unless national security is involved. As policy analysts at the CATO institute have suggested, we should conduct a cost-benefit analysis of foreign policy in areas where we could experience terrorism. However, in areas where our policies are correct, we must not back down. Changing a policy just to avoid terrorism only encourages more violence. We cannot retreat from our role in the world, but we can take steps to discourage and avoid violence when possible.

Eric Seymour

Robert Schiener

Joel Corbin