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Where Do We Go From Here?

In the last four articles on the war against terrorism, we covered many issues. We discussed ongoing military operations, the delicate diplomatic equation in the immediate region, and the changes needed in the Middle East and in American policy to stop the cycle of hatred that breeds terrorists. We now conclude with two potentially uncomfortable topics-fighting the war in the shadows around the world and making Americans safe, yet free.

This war will be “fought” in dozens of nations in myriad ways. Aside from engagement in Afghanistan and likely military action against Iraq, most actions will be at a level so low we won’t know they’re happening. They could range from American commandos joining other nations’ security forces in anti-terrorist operations, to low-scale espionage that will never be heard of, to the type of conventional law enforcement and intelligence actions we are already witnessing in North America and Europe. This will last a long time and continue to provide flash points as tensions rise in different countries. Nevertheless, they should not escalate into military conflict.

This low-intensity conflict highlights a subject uncomfortable for citizens of liberal democracies. We need spies in the shadows with broad options available. One major reason terrorist attacks succeeded is that our intelligence agencies have suffered massive budget reductions and operational restrictions since the early 70s and particularly in the past decade. If we applied some of these restrictions to domestic law enforcement, we would never have a hope of catching mafia bosses or drug lords. Many top criminals are in prison only because authorities cooperated with or reduced the punishments for lesser criminals to obtain vital information on major criminals.

The hard reality is that there are many bad people in the world and they’re not hanging out with girl scouts and choirboys. To know what they’re up to, we unfortunately have to deal with some pretty nasty characters. This is extremely distasteful for us and we try to be on the side of right whenever possible. It’s not easy and never black-and-white.
What price would have been too high to eliminate Hitler in 1938? Would we have been willing to cooperate with partisans we knew murdered civilian Nazi supporters? Would dealing with a corrupt dictator be acceptable to have prevented the atrocities in Rwanda or Sierra Leone? Would we be prepared to cooperate with an Afghan fighter who tortured a prisoner for information that could have warned us of the events about to unfold on September 11th? Thousands of lives would have been saved. These are painful questions no one discussed in LVDM, but ones our leaders must face in a world in which there is no white, but plenty of darkness and a million shades of gray. How dark a gray are we willing to tolerate? We are negligent members of a democracy if we don’t force ourselves to consider these issues, for we elect people to make these tough calls. Their decisions indirectly become our doing.
We face similar questions at home. We will be asked to sacrifice certain privacy rights to help the government catch terrorists. How much change will we accept? Arrested suspects enjoy more rights in the US than in most other countries. What if one of the groups of hijackers had been caught at 7:00 am September 11? They possessed information that could have warned the pilots, or at least the buildings could have been evacuated. But they would have had the right to a lawyer and to remain silent. Nothing would have changed about that day.

I do not suggest denying people their rights. Most agree that some principles are not worth compromising, no matter what the price. Doing so would change who we are and what we stand for. Now imagine a nuclear weapon hidden somewhere in Manhattan. Protecting one suspect’s rights could allow millions to die. We were prepared to hurl nuclear warheads at hundreds of Russian cities in order to counter an attack on North America or Europe; will we be prepared to protect one man’s rights when a similar threat is at hand? No enemy has ever forced us to question our beliefs and our limits of tolerance the way this one will. Citizens of democracies must ask themselves painful, gut-wrenching questions. What do we really believe? What are our limits? Let us pray that success in the other elements of this war will render these questions hypothetical.
Going forward, let’s remember the basics. We now wage a war forced upon us no less than WWII was. We must learn from our mistakes that made this war more likely while not cowering from the challenge of fighting and winning it. The enemy is not a culture or a religion but a network of sophisticated, well-trained murderers who, as long as they live, will strive to kill Americans. However difficult, they can and must be found and eliminated.

If we desire help in this struggle now and in the future, we must pay attention to the Middle East in a deeper way than before. We must reconsider hypocritical policies that have bred hostility, while imploring governments in the region to take an honest look at their own policies that foster hatred of non-Muslims. Above all, we must reject the notion that a violent clash of civilizations is inevitable.

So what now? I’m no expert; I’ve merely tried to highlight key issues of an infinitely complex problem. To better understand these issues, there are great resources available. While sources like CNN provide current answers to the “what,” we can find many sources such as The Economist that do a superb job of discussing the “why?” and “what next?” But the best resource for understanding the issues involved is here, all around us. We are unlikely to again be surrounded by people from so many different nations who are so knowledgeable about their regions and cultures. We must use this unique opportunity to learn from each other. We should also use the veterans of the armed forces here-there is greater knowledge of military tactics within HBS than in all CNN analysts combined.

November 12, 2001
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