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Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2001 / 2 Tishrei, 5762

Jonathan Rauch

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What leaders said about the attack--and what they meant -- IN the minutes and hours immediately following the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers in New York City and that severely damaged the Pentagon in Washington, many people said many things, some of them revealing. Now, the news media have a long tradition of reading much more into official statements than is really there, and if you accuse me of doing that in this article, I won't vigorously disagree with you. On the other hand, the moment after a stunning tragedy is a time when diplomats' guards come down. They forget to spin, and they simply react. Such are the moments, sometimes, when we see what is what and who is who.

For instance, Hubert Vedrine, the French foreign minister, said, "I am horrified by the news we have just heard," and then added something peculiar: "When we know more about this, we will have to think about ways to eradicate the causes of terrorism around the world. But first of all, we must fight against all forms of terrorism."

Just what he meant by "the causes of terrorism around the world" was unclear. Guns? Plastique? The worldwide glut of black ski masks? Reading between the lines, I suspect that he meant the root causes of terrorism need to be addressed. Around the world, after all, there are millions if not billions of oppressed people, poor people, people with grievances, people who burn with resentment or who are burdened by poverty or inequality. So by all means, fight terrorism in the short term. But if the underlying disease is eventually to be controlled, the world will need to be a fairer place with fewer grievances. To prevail, the great powers will need to be tough on terrorism, but also tough on the causes of terrorism.

Reading Vedrine charitably, one might reasonably say that he was merely making the point, which was both obvious and justified, that police and intelligence countermeasures alone can never be enough. Perfectly true. Yet on a day when terrorists hijacked four airplanes and used their occupants as human missiles targeted at two skyscrapers and the Pentagon, it seemed more than a little bit odd to mention, in the same breath as "fighting against all forms of terrorism," the need to eradicate the "causes" of terrorism. From an American point of view -- old-fashioned though it may be -- the cause of terrorism is terrorists.

A number of Americans are a touch nervous about the pending establishment, under European Union auspices, of a European rapid-reaction force. France is leading the countries that want this new force to have a considerable degree of military independence from U.S.-led NATO. Indeed, Hubert Vedrine himself said, in 1997: "Unless it is counterbalanced... [American] power brings with it risks of monopoly domination." One can only hope that the European security force, should it get off the ground, will pay as much attention to fighting actual brutes and bullies as to fighting the causes of brutality and bullying.

In London, Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, immediately offered whatever help Britain could provide "to bring the perpetrators to justice." His offer was characteristically British in offering not just sympathy but assistance. Perhaps equally notable was that Straw, like so many people on the day of the attacks, instinctively fell back on language redolent of courts and law. In his statements immediately after the catastrophes, President Bush promised to "hunt down and punish" the terrorists, a phrase that pointedly left the door open to military rather than just legal action. But the world's foreign policy establishment is fast moving in Jack Straw's direction -- away from power politics in international affairs and toward the legal process.

This is something new under the sun. The idea of extraditing a warlord-dictator such as Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and trying him for war crimes in a faraway international tribunal would have struck earlier generations as bizarre. They would have said that such thugs are best dealt with politically or, if that's impossible, militarily. Translation: Depose them, defeat them, or kill them. But try them? With witnesses, defense teams, and the whole nine yards? Allow the whole process to drag on for months or years, as the international tribunal for Rwanda has done? Spend months deciding whether to extradite a former Chilean dictator from Britain to Spain to stand trial for human rights abuses that his regime committed way back when against Spanish citizens?

Intellectually speaking, the idea of treating national dictators and international terrorists as common criminals has a lot going for it. But in real life, global power politics is messy -- often a lot messier than the law. Using an international legal process to punish tyrants and terrorist organizations risks stretching the law to the breaking point by asking it to do the jobs of politicians and generals. It also risks tempting prosecutors and judges to dabble in affairs best left to diplomats. And it shifts decision-making power away from national leaders, who are accountable to electorates, and toward international legal bureaucrats, who are accountable to the law as they understand it.

Winston Churchill, a civilized man if ever there was one, opposed trials for the Axis leaders after World War II. He thought that the top Nazis should simply be rounded up and briskly shot, military style. Churchill believed that the Nazis' enormities went beyond any definition of crime. Churchill lost the argument and, given that the Nuremberg trials turned out for the best, it's just as well that he did. Still, his point was a fair one.

To today's legalistic sensibilities, summary military executions seem suspect at best, repugnant or even criminal at worst. But there is a case for them, based on a warrior's rather than a lawyer's view of justice. In a war, a monstrous adversary is not a defendant, he is an enemy. He needs to be destroyed, not judged. When a country is faced with a dire threat from dangerous and wicked people, it should kill them.

Israel understands this. Its policy of assassinating key Palestinian militants -- extrajudicially, of course -- has been condemned around the world as both being immoral and perpetuating the "cycle of violence." Having seen, now, what suicide bombing means, Americans may better appreciate that the Israeli policy of pre-emption, unsavory as it is, is the only possible defense against people who are eager to kill themselves in order to kill you. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought I detected a knowing nod in the statement, immediately after the attacks, of Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the Israeli defense minister: "I sympathize with the American people. It's simply a terrible thing." Translation: "We know all about this. It's horrible. Now, alas, you know about it, too."

Perhaps most revealing were the statements from the Arab world, statements that pointed in as many contradictory directions as the Arab world itself. Almost immediately, and to his credit given his own history as a terrorist leader, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat went on television to condemn the attacks. "We were completely shocked," Arafat said, and his visibly shaken demeanor suggested that he meant it.

Arafat, however, is not in the driver's seat of the Palestinian uprising and its terror bombings, or at least is not driving by himself. One reason he declined to negotiate a peace deal with Israel last year was that he was afraid of being assassinated if he did so. There are good and peace-loving Palestinians, but they do not include, for example, the middle-aged Palestinian lawyer -- carrying a briefcase and clad in shirt and tie -- who told Reuters shortly after the twin towers collapsed, "We are happy because America supports Israel with weapons to kill Palestinians." Nor do they include the Palestinians seen on television rowdily celebrating the attacks as a grand victory against America.

The Jordanian ambassador was quick to offer reassurance that the celebrants were nothing more than "a few kids on the street." He said they hardly spoke for the bulk of Arabs, who were as outraged as everybody else. Fair enough. But it is not those civilized folks who are waging and supporting a war of terror on the civilians of Jerusalem and now New York. It is people like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Islamist militant group Hamas, which has bombed and killed scores of Israelis. Disclaiming involvement in the World Trade Center attack, Yassin said: "We in Hamas, our battle is on the Palestinian land. We are not ready to move our battle out of the occupied Palestinian territories."

"Not ready?" As in: not yet ready? The sheikh did not renounce mass attacks on civilians; he merely said that attacking America was not his game at the moment. But if someone else wants to blow up New York City -- hey, to each his own. This fellow looks to me like one of the "causes" of terrorism. Hubert Vedrine, call your office.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, National Journal