LRB"The London Review of Books" invited twenty-eight of their writers to comment on the events and consequences of 11 September 2001. This one deals with the "acceptable losses" of terrorism.One of the 20th century's least celebrated discoveries was that terrorism works. The Irish led the way: Britain retired from the field in 1922 not because it had been militarily defeated but because it couldn't stomach endless terrorist atrocities. Eighty years on, the British Government has been bullied into submission again by the IPA, but in the meantime lots of other terrorists (freedom fighters, if you like) have managed the same thing: the Stern Gang in Israel, the FLN in Algeria, Flosy in Yemen, Zanla in Zimbabwe and so on. In all these cases, the metropolitan power ultimately decided that the game wasn't worth the candle and retired back home. The supine nature of British foreign policy derives in part from the fact that Britain has been more often successfully bullied by such tactics than anyone else.
The big point about the present crisis is globalisation. The US says it cannot respond to this terrorism by simply "going home" and has therefore declared the whole planet off-limits to terrorism. It will be an epic struggle. Terrorism works by standing on its head the normal military objective of killing the maximum number of enemy soldiers while taking minimal casualties oneself. But why fight soldiers when it hurts the enemy so much more to kill their civilians? And why worry if your casualties are worse then theirs? In the end they'll get fed up and go away and then you'll have won everything. Now the logic has been pushed further still: the terrorists assume a 100 per cent casualty rate among their own soldiers and happily take their losses up front.The terrorists believe the US can still "go home." By which they mean, pull out of the Middle East, stop supporting Israel, stop harassing Gaddafi and Iraq. But America's dependence on Middle Eastern oil means that such a retreat would imply a de facto retreat from superpower status. Underneath the dreadful images lie these enormous strategic choices.--- R.W. Johnson