What's the Message?

Deciphering terrorist actions that have no clear political objectives.

Beirut -- The first images from the Middle East following the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks showed Palestinian refugees exulting. However, assuming a Middle East angle to the attacks, there was a more compelling story from the region than what was, for all its crudeness, celebration by a defeated people for a perceived victory against an uncaring foe. The story was that the perpetrators of the attacks offered the U.S. no obvious message as regards its activities in the Middle East.

Particularly since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has had to face frequent and contradictory accusations that it meddles excessively in international affairs, and that it doesn't meddle enough. This paradoxical reaction has been at the heart of Arab displeasure with the Bush administration in recent months. Many Arabs have openly criticized what they deemed overbearing U.S. behavior in the region, particularly towards Iraq, while also demanding a new administration initiative to resolve the ongoing war between Palestinians and Israelis.

This paradox can be easily explained away by the Arabs' desire to see what they consider a more balanced U.S. attitude towards the Palestinians. However, it leads to an absurdity in the case of the airline attacks -- particularly regarding the explanation that they were designed to protest U.S. policy in the Middle East. Arab states may be appalled at U.S. unconcern, but the attackers were in no way demanding greater U.S. involvement in the region. Indeed, exactly the opposite was the case. That was why the U.S. was left deciphering actions that had no clear political objectives.

This alone differentiated Tuesday's hijackings from those organized by Palestinian organizations in the late 1960s and '70s, or militant Islamic movements in the 1980s. The earlier operations were carried out to secure the release of prisoners, earn ransoms, or enhance the political influence of the perpetrators. Their architects not only sought well-defined ends, but also usually were more than eager to identify themselves.

The airline attacks are far more difficult to read. They seem to have no explicit aim, though that did not mean they had no aim whatsoever: The U.S. was humiliated, the president was, for several hours, barred from his own capital and compelled to flee to the security of a Nebraska bunker. The World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon -- bywords for U.S. economic and military might -- were literally demolished. And nightmares of U.S. vulnerability, reminiscent of the science fiction films of the 1950s (themselves representations of the Communist threat), became real.

Still, what this meant for the Middle East was ambiguous. The Bush administration must not only retaliate against an enemy it does not really know, it must interpret actions that make little political sense -- beyond a desire to maximize death and destruction. That's because the likely U.S. responses can only further anger those behind the attacks. The U.S. will, initially at least, reinforce its relationship with Israel; and might, ultimately, be encouraged to return in force to the region to help solve a Palestinian-Israeli conflict dangerously augmenting Arab antipathy towards the U.S.

The ultimate crime is the one committed for no reason. When an act cannot be explained it is infinitely more menacing. What then of a crime sending contradictory messages? The Bush administration finds itself in a quandary in the Middle East, but doesn't know which policy to adopt in order to reduce its risk. More involvement or less? Which should it be? The attackers wouldn't say.

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