Displaying a remarkable faith in the power of violence, many media pundits blamed the destruction of the World Trade Center on the failure of the US government to behave aggressively enough after previous acts of terrorism. “We have been merciful in the past with the terrorist thugs who have attacked this country,” the Philadelphia Daily News editorialized (9/12/01). “We have condemned them and imposed economic sanctions, but we have not hunted them down with murder in our eyes.”
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 9/12/01) wrote:
One of the reasons there are enough terrorists out there capable and deadly enough to carry out the deadliest attack on the United States in its history is that, while they have declared war on us, we have in the past responded (with the exception of a few useless cruise missile attacks on empty tents in the desert) by issuing subpoenas.
The Washington Post‘s David Broder (9/13/01), considered a moderate, issued his own call for “new realism—and steel—in America’s national security policy”:
For far too long, we have been queasy about responding to terrorism. Two decades ago, when those with real or imagined grievances against the United States began picking off Americans overseas on military or diplomatic assignments or on business, singly or in groups, we delivered pinprick retaliations or none at all.
It’s worth recalling the US response to the bombing of a Berlin disco in April 1986, which resulted in the deaths of two US service members: The US immediately bombed Libya, which it blamed for the attack. According to Libya, 36 civilians were killed in the air assault, including the year-old daughter of Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy (Washington Post, 5/9/86). It is unlikely that Libyans considered this a “pinprick.” Yet these deaths apparently had little deterrence value: In December 1988, less than 20 months later, Pan Am 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in an even deadlier act of terrorism the US blames on Libyan agents.
Likewise, a few months after a suicide bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in April 1983 that killed 63 people, the United States used battleships to pound hostile targets in Lebanon. This is hardly “issuing subpoenas,” but this violence did not deter another, more deadly suicide attack in October 1983, killing 241 US and 58 French military personnel.
More recently, in 1998, Bill Clinton sent 60 cruise missiles, some equipped with cluster bombs, against Osama bin Laden’s Afghan base, in what was presented as retaliation for the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. One missile aimed at Afghan training camps landed hundreds of miles off course in Pakistan, while a simultaneous attack in Sudan leveled one of the country’s few pharmaceutical factories. Media cheered the attacks (In These Times, 9/6/98), though careful investigation into the case revealed no credible evidence linking the plant to chemical weapons or Osama bin Laden, the two justifications offered for the attack (New York Times, 10/27/99; London Observer, 8/23/98).
Despite the dubious record of retaliatory violence in ensuring security, many pundits insist that previous retaliation failed only because it was not severe enough. As the Chicago Tribune‘s John Kass declared (9/13/01), “For the past decade we’ve sat dumb and stupid as the US military was transformed from a killing machine into a playpen for sociologists and political schemers.” This “playpen” dropped 23,000 bombs on Yugoslavia in 1999, killing between 500 and 1,500 civilians, and may have killed as many as 1,200 Iraqis in 1998’s Desert Fox attack (Agence France Presse, 12/23/98).
One op-ed in the Washington Times (9/14/01), by retired Defense Intelligence Agency officer Thomas Woodrow, gave an indication of what some might consider an adequate level of violence:
At a bare minimum, tactical nuclear capabilities should be used against the bin Laden camps in the desert of Afghanistan. To do less would be rightly seen by the poisoned minds that orchestrated these attacks as cowardice on the part of the United States and the current administration.
No Boy Scout
The Wall Street Journal (9/13/01) urged the US to “get serious” about terrorism by, among other things, eliminating “the 1995 rule, imposed by former CIA director John Deutch under political pressure, limiting whom the US can recruit for counter-terrorism. For fear of hiring rogues, the CIA decided it would only hire Boy Scouts.” One non–Boy Scout the CIA worked with in the 1980s was none other than Osama bin Laden (MSNBC, 8/24/98; The Atlantic, 7–8/91)—then considered a valuable asset in the fight against Communism, but now suspected of being the chief instigator of the September 11 attacks.