How the United States responds to this week's terrorist attacks
in New York and Washington involves the most difficult, and in some
ways the profoundest, questions a nation and its leaders can face:
To what extent is retaliation justified, especially when the
attackers are difficult to pinpoint? Are the attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon "acts of war," requiring a
declaration of war in return, even though no single nation may be
responsible? Perhaps most difficult, how does America balance
justice and the rule of law - foundations upon which this country
was built - with the deeply emotional attraction of revenge for its
In practical terms, the options are limited. These might include:
limited military attacks involving bombers and cruise missiles (as
the Clinton administration tried against Afghanistan and Sudan),
assassination of those thought to have plotted the attacks, invading
any country suspected of being directly responsible, rallying the
world community to declare war on terrorism, or changing certain
aspects of US diplomatic policy.
But each includes its own set of difficulties, and even hard-
nosed military and intelligence experts see Tuesday's massive
attacks on American soil in philosophical terms involving the
nation's essential values. "It takes a Plato or an Aristotle to
look at this one," says Stanley Bedlington, a retired senior
counterterrorism analyst with the CIA.
Historians, ethicists, and religious leaders often place such
incidents in the context of "just war" theory - the belief that any
response be limited to military targets or personnel. "Just because
somebody murders our people doesn't allow us to murder theirs,"
says G. Scott Davis, professor of religion and ethics at the
University of Richmond, Va. This includes assassinating those
considered to be dangerous enemies, which the US has disavowed.
For many in Washington, exiled Saudi Osama bin Laden is the prime
suspect, and Afghanistan - where the suspected terrorist is living
under the protection of a government ruled by the Taliban Islamic
militia - is very likely complicit in Mr. bin Laden's activities.
"This was too elaborate to have been carried out by a bunch of
guys in a garage somewhere," says Paul Bremer, the former
ambassador who chaired the National Commission on International
Terrorism last year. "At the very least, there was a state or
states looking the other way while the planning went on."
Just hours after the attacks, President Bush made it clear that a
state need not have "sponsored" terrorism in order for it to be the
target of retaliation. "We will make no distinction between the
terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them," he
told the American people from the White House Tuesday night.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers express deep anger and frustration at
what many see as a security and intelligence failure. Still, many
lawmakers take a cautious approach to any quick military
"The issue now is, what is a proportionate military response to
something like this? …