It now appears all but certain that the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden was the mastermind behind last Tuesday’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Most press and intelligence accounts place Mr. bin Laden’s whereabouts in Afghanistan, under the aegis (or at the very least the acquiescence) of the Taliban-led government, which has thus far rebuffed U.S. requests for bin Laden’s extradition. Afghanistan’s reluctance to hand bin Laden over to the United States., coupled with its leaders exhortations to its citizens to prepare for the imminent “holy war,” is now the greatest challenge facing the United States in the wake of the attacks.
Our leaders are gradually offering clues as to how we will respond. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz announced last Thursday that the U.S. response would include “ending states who [sic] sponsor terrorism” (The New York Times editorial page was certainly not alone in asking what exactly “ending” a state means). On Meet the Press this weekend, Vice President Cheney confessed that he’d love to have Mr. bin Laden’s “head on a platter.” For his part, President Bush (who should be commended by all Americans for his resolute and decidedly presidential performance) said Monday that bin Laden is wanted “dead or alive.”
It seems safe to conclude that what could ordinarily be dismissed as mere testosterone-induced posturing will be translated into concrete action, most likely in Afghanistan. But what of Afghanistan’s 26 million citizens whose only crime is residing in the same country as bin Laden? Perhaps the most chilling response was offered by Sen. Zell Miller, who said, “I say bomb the hell out of [bin Laden and his followers]. If there’s “collateral damage” (the lovely Pentagon euphemism for innocent civilian casualties), “so be it. They certainly found our civilians to be expendable.”
The Apocalypse, as it were, is upon us.
To be sure, justice must be served. The fundamental question lies not in the wisdom of the end, but in the means to it. Simply put, is bombing bin Laden, at the risk of incurring “collateral damage,” really the way justice will be served? Or perhaps even more fundamentally, would the sort of retributive justice for which most Americans (including many of our leaders) are clamoring really be justice at all?
I think not.
There are some people in this world (and, indeed, even in the United States) who regard our nation as a virus spreading under the guise of globalization, attaching itself to and eviscerating every culture it touches. We should make no attempt to placate these paranoid delusions, and we should accept the fact that, regardless of how we respond to this tragedy, in many people’s eyes we will remain “infidels.” Thus arguments against a retaliatory strike on the grounds that it will only reinforce some people’s hatred of the U.S. are fundamentally flawed; these people despise us and they always will despise us. Hatred of the U.S. is their raison d’être.
We should act with restraint in responding to our national calamity not in an effort to placate our enemies, but in consideration of our collective morality. Any sort of “seek-and-destroy” mission against bin Laden and his followers will almost certainly result in some civilian casualties. Allowing this to happen will make the United States no different than the perpetrators of last Tuesday’s attacks (a question concerning Mr. Miller’s above reasoning: if they find our civilians “expendable” and we theirs, what makes us different?). Satisfying Americans’ bloodlust by assassinating bin Laden and his followers will have a similar effect.
Instead, I propose that we respond to these terrorists’ barbarism not with barbarism, but with the very ideals for which America stands. Instead of punishing bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan, let us punish him in our federal courts. Allow him to see firsthand the workings of one of the most enlightened and democratic systems of justice ever to exist. Allow him to see that what he has spent a lifetime trying to subvert will never be subverted, because we will never resort to tactics which he has so willingly embraced. Allow him to see that he may have destroyed our buildings and murdered thousands of our people, but he will never be able to destroy the principles and ideals on which this nation was founded. President Bush said Sunday that these terrorists “hate freedom. They hate America because they hate what it stands for.” All the more reason, Mr. President, to make our response one befitting a freedom-loving and civilized people.
America, Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill,” is great not because of its missiles and tanks, but because, through all of its trials and tribulations, its commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy has prevailed while other nations of the world have succumbed to feelings of vengeance and hate.
Congressman Bob Barr remarked last week that “[we] are not interested in reading [the terrorists] their Miranda rights. We are interested in taking them out, lock, stock, barrel, root and limb.” I couldn’t possibly disagree more. Never in the history of our great nation has demonstrating our commitment to democracy — particularly civil liberties, one of its central tenets — been more vital to its survival.
Chris McCall ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in German and political science.