Munich, Belfast, and New York

I just finished watching Munich (which I’ve never done in one sitting before), and was struck by the absolute stupidity of Mossad in Operation Wrath of God. I sympathize with the Israelis’ desire for vengeance: I felt a similar desire after September 11th. But. (There’s always a “but.”) There is no point in vengeance, not in the struggles we face against militant groups. As we started to prepare for the invasion of Afghanistan, we saw a new piece of doublespeak: the War on Terror. The War on Terror? Even if you set aside the idiocy of waging war on a tactic and say that it’s a war against al Qaeda, there’s the unavoidable fact that we could never win.

What we are trying to do right now is exactly what Israel has been trying to do for fifty years: fight the losing side of asymmetrical warfare. While Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda and others hide, plan, and attack, we treat them like we would an army. This is doomed to failure, as many people more knowledgeable in military tactics than I am have pointed out. When we drop a bomb on an enemy’s stronghold in symmetrical warfare, we generally avoid civilian casualties since armies generally don’t have bases in major population areas. When you bomb a stronghold in asymmetrical warfare, however, you inevitably kill civilians. As the Nazis found out in WWII, bombing civilians doesn’t hurt the morale of the populace—it creates more soldiers. So too when we kill Iraqis, or Israel kills Palestinians, the insurgents, militants, and terrorists gain support.

So, when fighting militants and terrorists, we have a choice between two models. The first, used incessantly by Israel in dealing with Hamas and Hezbollah, and by Russia in fighting Chechen groups, is to treat terrorism as a military threat. Certainly, this can be justified—the militants and terrorists are using force to attack a country. However, as I mentioned before, this is asymmetrical warfare, something that the US, Israel, and Russia cannot hope to win

The other model, used by Britain in its dealings with the IRA is to treat terrorism as a law enforcement problem. This method is much more useful. First, it allows us to get away from the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” rhetoric and find a solution, like the ceasefire in Northern Ireland. But more importantly, it changes the balance of power. Whereas by treating terrorism as a military problem we give the terrorists an upper hand, by treating it as a law enforcement problem we have the upper hand. The FBI has a huge amount of experience finding, arresting, and prosecuting deadly groups such as the mafia, and the CIA also has experience with the essential tools of surveillance and espionage. The army, on the other hand, has no experience fighting guerrillas (except in Vietnam, where we lost miserably) or terrorists.

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