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Responding to Terrorism Symposium

September 13, 2001

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Arthur Waldron is Lauder Professor of International Relations and a member of our History Department. Professor Waldron joined Penn's faculty in 1998 after leaving the Naval War College where he was Professor of Strategy and Policy. Professor Waldron has written extensively on Chinese history and China's place in the world during the first half of the 20th century. But, he has larger interests in the subject of war and offers popular undergraduate courses in warfare and the impact of war from ancient times to the present.

Mililary Aspect of Terrrorism

Terrorism has many aspects: it has social and political roots and connections that make it inseparable from larger problems of social equity. I could talk about all of that but my colleagues will do far better. So I will limit my own remarks to the military aspect of terrorism--that is, what kind of a use of violence is it, what are its effects, how is it to be dealt with?

Let me say that this was probably the most impressive act of terrorism in history, so far. Targets of great symbolic and practical significance were hit and destroyed, thousands of people were killed--and all of this was done in complete secrecy. Total surprise was achieved. Furthermore, the sword was borrowed. No need to smuggle explosives: these were supplied courtesy of American and United Airlines in the unparalleled precision operation of the simultaneous hijacking of four airliners--using box cutters and knives.

Most impressively, this was the work of a handful of people. Perhaps fifty at the most, I think. Had they come out and fought in conventional fashion, we would have had no need even for the U.S. Army or the National Guard. They would have been no match for the New York City Police Department.

But the terrorists this week did not accommodate us. They fought unconventionally, or asymmetrically, if you will, inflicting disproportionate damage and--as is obvious--creating a national and international effect the immense size of which is entirely disproportionate to their numbers.

And this is the first point about terrorism. It is the weapon of the few, or of the weak. It is a multiplier, a way of increasing the influence of those who resort to it, not by dint of logic or even the justice of their appeal, but by the sheer disproportionate amount of harm they cause.

It used to be that the need for secrecy and therefore to keep numbers very small limited the military effectiveness of terrorists. All a few men could do was throw a few bombs or, if lucky, kill someone important. That was the caricature "mad bomber" of the end of the nineteenth century, when there was a wave of politically destabilizing assassinations and other terrorist acts. But if those terrorists had grown bigger--if they had tried to form a true private army--they could easily be infiltrated and dealt with.

Today, however, largely as a result of technological advances and a degree of sponsorship by a network of states, terrorists have far more resources. They have easy access to explosive such as Semtex, invented in Czechoslovakia during the period of Soviet occupation, and almost impossible to detect. Even a semi-competent amateur drug chemist can easily produce toxins such as Sarin and Ricin, which can kill thousands--released, for example, into a subway. They have far more money than ever before, from oil and narcotics and friendly governments, and a whole series of states within which they can move without being challenged. Some have anti-aircraft missiles. Ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear weapons but things like anthrax bacilli, are next. I suspect many of you here today will, in the course of your lives, witness far more horrible acts of destruction even than those we saw on Tuesday.

Now if this is perhaps the most impressive act of terrorism in history so far, it is also perhaps the most catastrophic American intelligence failures since Pearl Harbor. How was it we had no clue what was about to hit us? For the best way to stop terrorism is not through security measures, identity screening, posting of guards, etc. It is by intelligence and advanced warning, "foreknowledge" as the great Chinese strategist Sun Zi wrote:

Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge. What is called foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits, nor from gods, nor by analogy with past events, nor from calculations. It must be obtained from men who know the enemy situation. [ Art of War, tr. Griffith, XIII.3-4].

That is to say, you need men on the spot, infiltrators, spies. And here we are woefully inadequate. Listen to these remarks by one intelligence specialist:

The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing. [Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former senior Near East Division operative, quoted in the Financial Times, 12 September, 2001, p. 14]

I had the honor last year and earlier this year of serving as a member of the top secret investigative commission led by General Tilelli, former Army Commander in Korea, and established by the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet at Congressional insistence, to review the CIA's work on China. We could look at anything we wanted and more or less roam at will--and although the report remains Top Secret, press reports suggest that it was very negative and unfavorable to the Agency.

Obviously, I can't comment on that but I do believe that our intelligence agencies have two problems, neither of which is directly budget related. The first is a preference for technical means--i.e. satellites, communications monitoring, and so forth, which produces vast amounts of material. The second is a failure sufficiently to emphasize "humint"--human intelligence--which, as Sun Zi correctly observes, is the only way to judge your adversary's intent.

If I were president right now, I would immediately replace the current Director of Central Intelligence with someone equipped to do at the Agency what Mr. Rumsfeld is attempting at the Pentagon: namely, a long overdue housecleaning, from top to bottom. In particular I would emphasize the need for brainpower, rather than manpower alone, and attempt to revive the Directorate of Operations.

That said, what do we do?

The temptation is to do something: as they say, to "take the gloves off." But no such option exists and attempts to do so will only make things worse. Here I would point out the predicament of the Israelis, who today face a military threat unlike any they have faced before and for which, quite frankly, they are at a loss for a military solution. The reason, of course, is that there is no purely military solution, as some imagined in the heady days just after the Six Day War. But by the same token, any solution will also have a military component.

We don't need what we call a "firepower demonstration" in which is it is shown that advanced aircraft and missiles in large quantities can, if fact, utterly to obliterate some wretched shepherd's hut in the mountains of Afghanistan, or kill thousands of mountain goats, or worse still, thousands of innocent civilians.

Nor do we need to appoint a "terrorism tsar" and engage in a lot of empty talk.

Here is what we need to do, and I think Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz captured it today when he spoke of the need for a "sustained campaign."

First, we have to reconstruct the operation that hit us with such devastating impact. We have to determine exactly how it was carried out and by whom, and what we did wrong to allow it to happen.

Then we have to go to our allies and not-so-allies and talk about joint action. The most important thing I learned in my seven years at the Naval War College was that alliances, even more than technology, are the key to success in warfare. That means working closely with the British, the French--who will sympathize, I think, because a few years ago the Algerian extremists had a plan to hijack a plane and take out the Eiffel Tower--and the other Europeans, but also the Indians, and the Russians and the Chinese, who will want to horse trade over Chechnya and Xinjiang, where they are busy killing their own Muslims in the name of combating terrorism. And of course the Pakistanis, who are key. I was greatly encouraged to hear on the radio, just before coming over here, that Secretary Powell is already in touch with them. We have to make clear that this is a war on extremists and terrorists, and not on Muslims. If it turns into the second, then we will have lost it before we have even begun.

Finally, once we have unraveled the whole thing, we eliminate the terrorist network root and branch, and kill the people responsible for the murder of innocent Americans.

Some quail at the thought of actually killing terrorists. I was once told about the briefing of Warren Christopher before the ill fated Desert One attempt, in the Carter Administration, to rescue our hostages from Iran. There will be sentries, the briefer told Mr. Christopher, and we will neutralize them. "You mean you will shoot them?" asked Mr. Christopher. "Yes," came the answer. "You mean in the knees or something, you won't kill them of course." Mr. Christopher responded. The briefer nearly fainted. The fact is that in war, and in particular in an operation as delicate as Desert One was (which failed) lethal force is essential.

Under our law, terrorism is seen as a kind of homicide, so once they are caught, terrorists go to jail. But it is not a type of homicide, it is a variety of war and should be treated as such. Certainly we must make efforts of every kind to create a world in which no one will be driven to such desperation as to become a terrorist or a suicide bomber. That is part of the solution, no doubt. But so, unfortunately, is bloodshed part of the solution.

Let me quote Clausewitz:

We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed. The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms. ( On War, tr. Howard and Paret, p. 260)

That is the reality. But lethal force is a very volatile quantity in international relations, to be used with care and precision.

Let me conclude with the following. Above all it will be up to you in the audience to solve this problem. You hear about war from the old, like me, and from the genuinely elderly, the veterans of World War II. But remember that when those men saved our country, they were young. Think of Saving Private Ryan. Those soldiers were your age or younger and many of them never had the opportunity to grow old. Ours is a deeply flawed and imperfect country, but it is also the freest and most accepting society I know of. But it can never be taken for granted. It was not somehow put here by the ancestors, permanently, for our benefit. It survives only because generation after generation of young Americans have, at some point, understood the stakes--in the Civil War, in World War II, and renewed our civic bonds with their own firm commitments. This is not someone else's country, it is our country, it is your country. With the events of Tuesday my feeling is that your turn is now at hand. Today, I think, you who are undergraduates now are beginning for the first time to feel that responsibility--to keep America free, and democratic, and sovereign--descending on to your shoulders. It is an awesome and sacred burden. But I have no doubt that you will rise to the occasion. I wish you all well.

Back to SAS Symposium on Terrorism Introduction

Terrorism Symposium Addresses:
(click on names below)

Brendan O'Leary
Arthur Waldron
Seth Kreimer
Ian Lustick
Robert Vitalis

Almanac, Vol. 48, No. 4, September 18, 2001


September 18, 2001
Volume 48 Number 4

A $10 million gift to the Wharton School from alumnus Al West Jr. creates a Learning Lab.
The Penn community gathers to remember the thousands of victims of the terrorist attacks.
The Penn community reaches out to help the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund and the Blood Drives.
Penn Police take extra precautions to secure the campus.
Counseling services for Penn faculty, staff and their families as well as group counseling through the EAP are provided free of charge.
Recovering from trauma, loss and disasters is complex, as explained in a booklet from CAPS. Emergency consultations are available.
The SAS Symposium on Responding to Terrorism includes the views of five Penn faculty members who discuss the various considerations of responding to the recent attacks.
A Penn student who expressed her views on WXPN shares them.
The 9th Annual Penn Family Day is set for October 20 with food, football, face painting and fun at the University Museum.