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Suicide Bombs Here

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SUICIDE BOMBS HERE

By RALPH PETERS

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December 9, 2003 -- RECENTLY, a government agency asked a range of "experts" to rate the likelihood of different forms of terrorist attacks occurring in the United States. The only terrorist method I rated as fully certain to strike our homeland was suicide bombing.

Why do suicide-bomber attacks appear inevitable? Because the suicide bomber is a weapon of genius - a cheap, efficient response to our overwhelming military, technological, economic and cultural power.

When we speak of smart weapons, we think automatically of precision-guided munitions controlled by multi-billion-dollar "systems of systems." But the primitive suicide bomber, on a lucky day, is every bit as precise as our most sophisticated weapons.

And where our arms are constrained by laws and our sense of humanity, the suicide bomber discards all sense of humanity, insisting he obeys his god's law alone.

Suicide bombers are cheap, too. All it takes to create havoc is one committed young person, a few local supporters and a crude explosive device. The smart-bomb may fly through the office window, but the terrorist simply walks in the front door.

The term "asymmetrical threat" has been in vogue in military circles. Customarily, it refers to the sort of thugs we face in Iraq or to inventive counter-technologies a power such as China might develop. But the suicide bomber is the ultimate asymmetrical threat.

For the price of a single confused young person's life and some inexpensive gear, a well-targeted suicide bombing in Manhattan could whack the stock market, create an atmosphere of general fear and cost our economy billions in hasty, clumsy response measures. As a tool for making war on a superpower, it's a magnificent conception.

And suicide bombing isn't even a weapon meant to win a war. It's a tool meant to punish, to slaughter. It's a revenge weapon, whether it involves a hand grenade or a "dirty bomb" packed with radioactive material. It represents nihilism posing as religion. No matter what goals our enemies announce, their underlying purpose is destruction.

Thus far, we've been blessedly lucky. We've watched the horrible suicide-bombing campaign terrorists wage against Israel from the safety of our homes and offices with a sense that, well, those things happen over there. Some Americans even criticize Israel's attempts to pre-empt suicide bombings as acts of aggression.

Wait until it happens here. Many of those who criticize Israel will change their tune after a suicide bomber walks into a colleague's classroom or their favorite coffee shop.

As soon as a suicide bomber slips into a crowded subway station or shopping mall, we shall hear a partisan clamor that the War on Terror has failed. The truth is that we all should be grateful for the safety our nation has enjoyed since 9/11 - while recognizing that even the most incisive counter-terrorism efforts will not stop every terrorist.

This is a war, and we must have realistic expectations.

The advent of suicide bombings in our cities or against our nation's infrastructure will challenge us on many levels. We'll over-react initially, imposing excessive controls on everything from department-store entrances to commercial deliveries.

But if we cripple our own freedoms, the terrorists win. We must always take care not to do greater damage to ourselves than the terrorists can do to us.

There's an ever-shifting line between wise security measures and self-destructive absurdity. Coping with terrorism involves trial and error, an ever-renewed struggle between measures and counter-measures. Meanwhile, we need to brace ourselves for domestic suicide bombings and to think hard about potential responses.

The basic rule is this: Avoid compounding the terrorist's success through self-inflicted wounds. He seeks to close our open society, to limit our freedoms. The best each American could do after a suicide bombing would be to refuse to give in to fear, to carry on with his or her daily routine.

The land of the free must always be the home of the brave. Every display of cowardice or panic rewards and encourages the terrorist. Since those horrendous suicide bombings on 9/11, terrorists have tried repeatedly to strike our homeland, but have been frustrated by the skill and dedication of government agencies at all levels.

A fundamental problem for the terrorists has been that they haven't been able to develop a significant pool of disaffected young Americans willing to blow themselves up for hateful religious visions.

God has blessed America. This isn't the decayed civilization of the Middle East. Young Americans enjoy great hopes for the future. They have better things to do than to commit public suicide at the behest of bitter old men pretending to be prophets.

Yet, searching among a population of nearly 300 million people, the men who have appointed themselves as a bloodthirsty god's executioners eventually will identify a few unstable young men and women anxious to end their personal problems in an act of glorified violence. The brutal middle-managers of terror are also trying to import foreign suicide bombers. Sooner or later, a terrorist scheme will come together.

But the terrorists will not and cannot win. They'll only renew our determination. We'll hit back even harder. They'll shed our blood, but we'll do even more to frustrate their dreams of a global dictatorship of merciless dogma.

The only winners will be the media, who will magnify each suicide bombing until it seems to have happened a hundred times and to have done a thousand times more damage than it did.

In the age of global communications, the television image, too, is a weapon of genius. And our enemies know it. Ultimately, the suicide bomber's real target isn't the casualties. It's the cameras.

Ralph Peters is the author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World."

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