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When are we Going to Learn that War is the Worst Possible Way to Fight Terrorism?

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Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration has embraced the news about the London conspiracy as if it were manna from heaven.

With our "liberation" of Iraq now turned into a civil war that threatens to trap and drain us indefinitely unless we can find some face-saving way to get our troops out, the administration has been desperately trying to go on selling its war in Iraq, which--outside the White House--has a steeply diminishing number of buyers. Now comes a fresh, blood-tingling example of what we are fighting against: a plot to blow up as many as ten planes en route from Britain to the United States. The London conspiracy, says President Bush, "is a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation."

Let's look closely at this statement. Fascism, first of all, is a philosophy of government that subordinates the individual to a nation-state whose ideology is personified by an authoritarian leader such as Hitler or Mussolini. What state is being served by the mostly Pakistani men who have been accused in this latest plot and who come from a nation that is now our ally? Who is their leader? Everything we know about terrorism tells us that it is nothing like fascism in its method of organization, that it has no one leader, that its cancerously-proliferating cells operate largely on their own. Its structure is so incoherent that just before we invaded Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein for supposedly giving aid and comfort to the terrorists of 9/11, Osama bin Laden released a tape in which he denounced Saddam as a secular traitor to Islam and demanded his overthrow--which of course we have long since obligingly provided. Robert Pape, who has thoroughly studied suicide bombers, has shown that they are overwhelmingly motivated not by their hatred of freedom or their love of fascism but by their longing to stop the occupation of the Middle East by Western powers--especially the United States.

But the biggest problem with the president's statement is the invincible ignorance it displays. In reminding us that we are at war, he shows that he has still failed to learn the lesson fairly shouted by the latest news: war is anything BUT the answer to terrorism. War only breeds more terrorist attacks. What aborts them is patient surveillance.

Ever since 9/11, we have been literally waging war against terrorism. Given a seemingly divine right to pursue what the president originally called a "crusade," we have bombed and shot our way across the Middle East: first in Afghanistan, where we killed some 4000 civilians in order to liberate the country from the Taliban, who--nearly five years later-- are still wreaking havoc in the country; then in Iraq, where we have killed over 30,000 civilians to establish a government that cannot even manage Baghdad, where killings now average 50 a day; and now in Lebanon, where Israeli airstrikes--fueled by our money, carried out with our bombs, kept up with our blessing--have killed some 900 people in the past four weeks, most of them civilians. The wars have cost us over 300 billion dollars, more than 2500 American soldiers (closing in on the number killed by attacks of 9/11) and wounded some 20,000 of them.

In return for all this blood and treasure, how many serious terrorist plots have we foiled? Not counting that feeble little fantasy conceived by half-wits in Florida, the answer is none. You can be quite sure that if this administration had actually managed to foil a serious plot, we would have heard about it. But we have as yet no evidence that the FBI or the CIA can do what the British did. Instead, the Bush administration reads the London conspiracy as one more argument for open-ended war in Iraq.

It is nothing of the kind. The crucial lesson here is that the British have just cleaned our clocks. They've shown us how to do what we should have done years ago, well before 9/11, to stop terrorist attacks before they happen rather than letting them happen and then waging endless wars to retaliate for them--and in the process killing thousands of innocent civilians. Since last December, when British agents started tracking the group of suspects and one undercover agent infiltrated them, the British patiently collected the intelligence they needed to judge the scope of the plot and calculate the best possible moment at which to arrest the plotters. They did it without killing or wounding anyone, and at the same time gathered the evidence they need to convict the plotters--not to hold them indefinitely in the absence of any evidence at all. The British have thus shown us how a civilized society fights terrorism.

Are we civilized enough to learn from them?