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Sebastian Mallaby, Columnist

The (Probably) Right Answer to Terrorism

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, October 18, 2004; Page A19

Iraq generates one awful image after another. The grisly home-video beheadings. The tortured prisoners of Abu Ghraib. The Arab journalist dying after a U.S. helicopter strafing. And then there is Michael Moore's footage of Marine recruiters sweet-talking poor kids into a war -- a war chosen by privileged and comfortable people; by people, in other words, like me.

War, especially morally ambiguous war, breeds guilt and recrimination. This was true in Vietnam, as Americans remember well, but it was equally true for the French during their war in Algeria. Inevitably, guilt and recrimination are in plentiful supply today, and journalists deserve their fair share of it. I supported the war out of the mistaken belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; I continue to be hawkish today, out of a belief (perhaps again mistaken) that withdrawing in defeat would be a terrible disaster. But a friend once asked me whether I'd be willing to see my own son enlist. I could not find the words to answer.

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When I write that I support the war, the e-mails arrive in a big whoosh of red, and there's no hope of reading all of them. I scan screen after screen of reproachful readers' names, thinking of those other names carved into the panels of the Vietnam memorial. I avoid the messages with expletives in the subject line, and click on a neutral-looking note headlined "column 10/11."

"Bush is a dangerous man," the message screams. "Do we want this out of control nincompoop making life and death decisions? I think not!"

I try another one. "After reading your column," this reader says, "I discarded the newspaper onto my kitchen table -- and again confronted those lonely, despairing feelings that my country had lost its soul . . . You were trying to be reasonable, after all, and yet you had made a hard right turn and arrived at the jingoism and, yes, fascism of our nation gone nuts."

Nincompoop? Fascist? The language is extreme, but then young Americans are dying, and so are Iraqis young and old, and so perhaps is America's moral standing. As e-mail after e-mail tells me, the war in Iraq may alienate the world so totally that we'd do better to pack up and go. How can we expect to stabilize a nation whose people hate us? How can we imagine we'll be safe if the whole Middle East despises us?

Beyond these questions lies a bigger issue: a doubt not just about Iraq but about the entire war on terrorism. Perhaps this "war" should not be thought of as a war at all: Perhaps conceiving of it in military terms condemns us to lose it. If we behave like a new empire, we will alienate the people whose cooperation we need. So we better secure the homeland, hone our intelligence services and return to the law enforcement approach to terrorism that we pursued before Sept. 11; and we better not compromise values such as openness and tolerance and fairness. The battle against terrorism is really a battle of ideas. Our values are our sharpest weapons.

I understand this argument. I grew up mainly in Britain, where the rule in responding to the terrorism of the Irish Republican Army was not to respond excessively. When Margaret Thatcher's hotel was blown to smithereens in 1984, she did not disappear onto an air force jet, as George Bush did on Sept. 11. Instead, she appeared before the television cameras in her earrings: "Life must go on," she declared defiantly. There was pressure from the right wing of her party to respond to force with force. But Thatcher determined that the most forceful response of all would be business as usual.

Is that the right answer now? I support the Iraq war because I doubt it. The fanaticism of suicide-ready terrorists, coupled with the proliferation of horrible weapons, causes the analogy with European terrorism to break down: The threat we confront is on a different scale, and the response needs to be different. If we were faced with the prospect of a few hotel bombings, we could afford to be restrained: We could put values such as freedom before physical security. But today we face the possibility that someone wants to nuke New York. I am not willing to rely on the Statue of Liberty for protection.

Perhaps I am just paranoid? The nature of catastrophic risks is that you can't even begin to measure them. There's no pattern of past nuclear attacks from which to derive the chances of another one, so nobody can know what the right level of response is. In preferring not to go back to pre-Sept. 11 policies -- to the time when America was popular, but al Qaeda was plotting its attack -- I'm guessing that the danger of more and worse attacks is real. In preferring to continue the Iraq war, I'm guessing that it's worth crushing the terrorists in the Sunni Triangle, because otherwise they will come after us. And I am guessing, moreover, that the world's only superpower does actually have the means to face down the suicide bombers and stabilize Iraq, provided its determination does not waver.

These are all just guesses, and guesses are the best we have, but reproachful readers are entitled to guess otherwise. In times of war, guilt and recrimination are inevitable, perhaps even healthy. My e-mail address is just below this article.

mallabys@washpost.com


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