Before September 11, 2001, acts of terrorism in the U.S. were dealt with as crimes rather than as warfare. President Bush (W.) very deliberately decided to consider the horrible events of 9/11 as an act of war rather than as a crime. By selling it as an invasion of American soil, perhaps President Bush hoped to create a narrative of events similar to Pearl Harbor and World War II.
His decision certainly inaugurated America’s “war on terror.” America had already gone to war against another abstract notion rather than an actual nation. Thirty years earlier, we had famously gone to war against drugs courtesy of President Nixon. The utter failure of our efforts to solve drug crimes by re-branding it as a war didn’t seem to dissuade President Bush or us.
Wars end only after one side surrenders. How precisely does one imagine that terrorism will surrender, I wonder? In other words, how do we end a war on terrorism? Are we obligated to continue to spend money and send our citizens to die so long as there are people utilizing terrorism to try to achieve their end? Do we seriously imagine that by flexing our considerable military muscle all would-be terrorists will eventually cower and refrain from trying to attack us?
Crimes, on the other hand, end when a perpetrator is brought to justice or when the case is closed after all leads are exhausted. There is no illusion that a particular type of crime will be eradicated. The pursuit of criminals follows an arc of justice. Wars are less concerned with justice and more concerned with destroying the enemy.
It is odd when I hear the same people who insist on calling 9/11 an act of war complain about the process of bringing its perpetrators to justice. What constitutes justice in the case of an act of war? If justice is achieved by imprisoning or killing the individual soldiers involved (as if it were a crime), then what justification do we have for invading foreign lands? Can we have it both ways? Can we insist on simultaneously prosecuting the crime and the war? Do we think that by doing both we express more righteous anger?
Trying to do both is an unholy combination. It justifies arguments that the accused should not have the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. It allows us to apply the no-holds barred style of war to a trial. Yet even if we were to execute every perpetrator of 9/11, it would not satisfy our blood-lust that we want to name as “Justice.”
There is a price for this unholy combination. It is not just the terrorists who lose. Every American loses a bit of the very freedoms that wars are fought to defend. If terrorism is an act of war rather than a crime, then the same absolute fever for its eradication must apply to preventing future acts of terrorism.
With a mere crime, our society balances the rights of citizens against the power of the government to prevent crimes. But there is zero tolerance against acts of war. To allow even one act of war on our soil would make us appear to be weak. Our macho indignation cannot abide by that.
So now with every new foiled plot, we add one more indignity to anyone who chooses to fly on a commercial airplane. We allow one more invasion by our government into our rights. We pick on the airlines it seems because that was the weapon of choice on September 11th. But it doesn’t stop there. Wiretapping and other violations of our constitutional rights are swallowed by a public who have been whipped into a frenzy about this “war.”
Like the drug war, none of our efforts seem to have made any real progress toward the implied goal of ending terrorism. Is America safer as a result of all this? I suspect that in fact we have played into the hands of terrorists. Terrorism is designed not to inflict material damage to an enemy, but rather it is designed to leverage meager resources toward inflicting symbolic damage that terrorizes the enemy.
If the goal was to strike terror in America, then one would have to say that the best allies of the terrorists have been our leaders who continually overreact to every threat. Oddly what seems to be driven by our machismo has resulted in our appearing to be scared and impotent. I wonder where we would be today if our leaders had taken the course of considering 9/11 a horrific crime rather than an act of war. Perhaps then we would have brought the perpetrators to justice and limited Al-Qaeda to only fifteen minutes of fame.