Some old rules about fighting terrorism, learned at bloody cost in Northern Ireland and during the Soviet-supported "wars of national liberation," need to be recalled and restated.
Veteran British antiterrorist experts say the first rule is to remember that terrorists feed on overreaction. Democratic societies that alter themselves by introducing draconian security measures that restrict civil liberties undermine the morale of their own people. Unleashing overly harsh retaliation garners sympathy for the terrorists, is counterproductive and risks making new enemies and inspiring more gunmen and bombers.
The second rule is to define your objectives as the struggle continues so that you can achieve them. If you set grandiose goals that are not accomplished you advertise impotence, depressing your own people and prompting mockery by the terrorists -- who then find it easier to recruit.
Both those rules are at the heart of a debate now raging in Washington among military planners, State Department officials, National Security aides and their bosses in the Cabinet and the White House. This also is at the heart of discussions between President George W. Bush and world leaders, many of whom have urged caution.
How do you defeat an elusive and fanatical enemy who fights in unconventional ways and doesn't observe the Geneva Convention or worry about greater geostrategic constraints? And how do you do all of that without becoming like the foe you fight and closing your open society?
Some British politicians have reckoned they ignored those rules for too long in Northern Ireland. British prime ministers would march their troops to the top of the hill, only to have to march them down again. Pledges were made. Forecasts offered of victory. Threats thundered. And overreaction increased as successive governments implemented law-and-order measures that may have made life a little more difficult for the Irish Republican Army and occasionally foiled a plot, but which corroded the democracy and orderly society that the British saw themselves as defending. Out went the right to jury trials in Northern Ireland, out also went the right of a defendant to remain silent, both fundamental principles in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence.
Some U.S. lawmakers, including close friends of the Bush administration, are well aware of these bits of history and are worried about ensuring civil liberties. And there also are mounting fears on Capitol Hill and in European capitals that the administration has been too quick to widen the goal from destroying the perpetrators of the horrific Sept. 11 terror attacks to fighting global terrorism in its every mask and guise.
The civil-liberties debate was engaged seriously on Capitol Hill on Sept. …