When the military prepares for action, the public debate is usually a simple either/or: Will there be peace, or will there be war? Not so now. Fresh from the bloody assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there are at least six choices before us, each with its own subgenres and mutant variations. None is perfect, and one is actually insane. But each is worth examining, if only to understand what people actually mean when they call for war, peace, or some other path they can't quite articulate.
Here, then, are our choices, beginning with the least violent and ending with the most:
1. The Gandhi Option
Some favor no military response to the attacks at all. In its flaky form, this position involves wishing really hard, perhaps while holding someone's hand, that hatred and violence will disappear from the world. Not every pacifist is so naive, though, and there is a more sophisticated case for military inaction.
This argument points out that terrorists do not come from nowhere. They respond to particular policies of the country under attack. If, as the evidence suggests, the assault was masterminded by Osama bin Laden or his allies, then it may well be easier to adjust our foreign policy than to hunt down every terrorist in the Middle East, especially since that hunt might inspire yet more Middle Easterners to turn to terrorism. Wouldn't it make more sense just to stop these clumsy interventions into other people's battles? Why make ourselves a target for every tin-pot maniac in the Third World?
A variation on this argument notes that many of our present foes--including Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein--were originally built up by the United States to fight the enemies of an earlier day. One can only wonder what our allies in a new war might do to us several years later.
There are two problems with the Gandhi option. The first relates not so much to the position itself as to some of the people who have been advancing it. Obsessed with finding what "we" might have done to "deserve" this--as though anyone deserves to die this way--the hairshirt faction has conjured a list of sins far removed from anything that could have inspired the attacks. When the filmmaker Michael Moore speculated about the terrorists' motives, for example, his rambling ruminations touched on missile defense, America's withdrawal from the Durban conference on racism, and even our rejection of the Kyoto accords on global warming. Evidently, Moore believes that we are being attacked by European diplomats.
In the real world, we are being attacked by a group that--judging from the fatwah issued by Osama bin Laden in 1998--objects to America's military presence in Saudi Arabia, to its sanctions against Iraq, and to its support for Israel. The point of reexamining U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the attacks is not to find everything about it that you might want to change, from Star Wars to Kyoto. It is to find the parts that might be putting us in danger, even if you've supported them until now. In the next few months, a lot of Israel's American supporters will be wrestling with a difficult choice: Israel's security, or their own? Many will choose the latter.
The other problem with Gandhianism goes deeper. Watching the World Trade Center towers collapse last week, desperately aware that thousands of people were inside them, most Americans did not merely crave greater security. They wanted justice. If nothing is done to capture the people responsible for that atrocity, it will be hard to claim that justice has been done.
2. The Kojak Option
And so we come to option two. A terrible crime has been committed. The immediate perps are now dead, but the conspirators behind them are alive and free. They may be plotting further, even worse assaults. We still aren't sure who they are or where they are, but we have some significant leads. So it's time for some expert policework, to track down and capture the people who did this.
The advantage to this approach is that it meets the demand for a response while keeping that response targeted at the criminals. As such, it upholds justice in two ways: by meting it out to the murderers who killed 5,000 people in one day, and by refusing to replicate their crime by killing anyone unfortunate enough to live in the same country as the terrorists.
There are two disadvantages. One of them I'll describe later, as it undermines the next two alternatives as well. The other is that, in tracking terrorists through the mountains of central Asia, it won't be easy to stick to all the legal niceties that policemen are supposed to observe. And if it comes down to letting the likely culprits escape or abandoning due process, most Americans will choose the latter. At the very least, they will say, let us consider response three:
3. The Bronson Option
If we cannot be policemen, let us be vigilantes. We could still limit ourselves to hunting the perpetrators, taking care to leave innocent civilians out of the fight. But we won't have to prove their guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, we could combine the goals of a policeman with rules more akin to those of war. (Some libertarian variations on this idea call for literal vigilantism, with privateers rather than soldiers leading the fight.)