2001 : WHAT NOW?

paul_w_ewald's picture
Professor of Biology, Amherst College; Author, Plague Time
What are they up to?

The puppet masters who orchestrated the September 11th attack might be as strategically suicidal as many people make them out to be. That assumption leads to an oft-mentioned scenario for this episode of our history. They destroy a symbol of free enterprise and thousands of civilians. We get mad and blow them away. End of story.

The future might unfolds in this way. But underestimation of the enemy has been a common cause of disaster throughout history, from the underestimation of Romans by the Teutones and the underestimation of the Parthians by Romans a half century later to underestimation of the Soviets by the Nazi's and the underestimation of the Afghans by the Soviets a half century later. Imperial Japan paid dearly for its underestimation of the destructive power of the United States a half century ago. We would be wise consider carefully the possibility that the attack at the World Trade Center is part of a clever strategy rather than simply an act of terrorism.

The horizons of analysts have generally been focused on relatively gradual escalations of destruction that can be grasped in the context of previous experiences with terrorism. We need to consider the entire spectrum of possible scenarios, particularly those on the most damaging end of the spectrum, all in the context of the possible goals of the perpetrators and the tradeoffs they would be willing to experience in order to achieve those goals. Many analysts have mentioned, for example, the danger of repeating the recent Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan, but that possibility is a relatively minor threat. The U.S. has demonstrated competence at learning from mistakes of previous engagements. The greater dangers lie in new opportunities for disaster that arise from the minds and actions of clever adversaries who do not share our values--in this case the values of technological advancement and freedoms of speech and expression.

Perhaps the most important starting point in assessing the spectrum of dangers is to recognize that our terminology may restrict our outlook. The term terrorist may not be appropriate in the current situation, because, by definition, terrorists are committing violent acts to instill terror in the target population. This term causes us to focus on our response rather than the goals of our adversaries. The perpetrators may be global nihilists and may thus be more dangerous than mere terrorists.

The first step in this line of thinking arises frequently in the discussions of the motivation of the perpetrators. It is suggests that the September 11th attack was carried out to provoke the United States and its allies to lash out against Islamic countries, thereby increasing support for the militant fringes of Islam. But the important questions is, "For what purpose?" If the finger pointing at Osama bin Laden is pointing in the right direction, we can look to his rhetoric for clues to the strategic motivations behind the attack. His rhetoric suggests that he is motivated by the American presence in Saudi Arabia because it is holy soil for Islam. He calls for American withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. But is that really his goal?

The actions of bin Laden and his associates use of economic resources to destroy the people and structures of modern society. More economic resources would allow him to create more destruction for whatever long-term goals he may have. The Saudi economic wealth seems the most attractive source of such resources. His fractious history with the Saudi government, his connections there, and his recent criticism of the Saudi government for allowing American presence in Saudi Arabia are all consistent with control of Saudi wealth as the intermediate goal of the current round of destruction. If so the emphasis on the US presence is a clever chess move. By casting the American military presence as an affront to the holiest sites of Islam, he generates animosity against the Saudi government and the US. If the US were to withdraw (for example, to reduce the animosity against the Saudi government) then bin Laden becomes more powerful because he is considered a hero and leader for many in the Islamic world; moreover, an important military barrier to the takeover of the Saudi resources is removed. If the US maintains its military presence in Saudi Arabia and especially if it uses these bases to harm civilians, then the animosity against the US and the Saudi government is heightened, again increasing support for bin Laden and his program for militant Islam.

One way to get control of Saudi wealth would be to push the situation in Saudi Arabia toward a revolution like the one that toppled the Shah of Iran. One way to so push this situation would be to make the United States so angry that it would lash out against predominantly Islamic countries, causing the death of innocent muslims. Or, if such violence could not be instigated, perhaps the rhetoric of the United States could be ratcheted up, creating the sense of a Crusade against Islam.

If Osama bin Laden understands the American mindset even moderately well, he would not expect the United States to pack up and withdraw from Saudi Arabia in response to the attack on the World Trade Center. If that were his preferred outcome the attack would have occurred against Americans or the American base in Saudi Arabia rather than on US soil, as in the Beirut model. Attacks on American soil will strengthen rather than weaken American resolve to maintain our presence in Saudi Arabia. Thus his rhetoric about the American bases in Saudi Arabia was probably crafted to get muslims inflamed against the Saudi government. His following in Saudi Arabia, his familiarity with Saudi society, and his contacts within that society may put him in a relatively good position to generate this response and to use it to topple the Saudi government.

But why control of the Saudi government? It could be just revenge, but his past actions indicate that his mode of operation involves control of the wealth and the things that wealth could by, things such as nuclear weapons. Attempts to gain large numbers of nuclear weapons by countries who would like to have them has not been particularly successful. But two points should be kept in mind. These countries did not have the economic assets of Saudi Arabia to allocate to this purpose, and the net value of nuclear weapons for most countries may be much less than for someone who wants to control a medieval world. Osama bin Laden has reportedly been attempting to acquire nuclear weapons, apparently without success. But his nest egg of a quarter billion dollars is pocket change in comparison with the wealth of Saudi Arabia. We should consider carefully, and imaginatively, what he might have planned for such weapons should he acquire them.

On the basis of statements and actions by bin Laden and his associates, the prospect of destroying modern civilization is not as unappealing for them as it would be for people who value modern civilization. It has become a cliche to talk about bombing an opponent back to the Stone Age. As Walter M. Miller has portrayed in his novel Canticle for Liebowitz, however, this cliche is probably incorrect. There would be enough steel tools, implements, and information to support a lifestyle no more primitive than that enjoyed in the Middle Ages. The life style advocated by the most severe of the militants bears a much greater similarity to medieval lifestyles than does the lifestyles of technologically advanced society. Which of the two sides would be more deterred by the prospect of being bombed back to the Middle Ages, and which side would be more likely to make such threats and carry them out if they had the weapons in hand? The jockeying between the US and USSR over nuclear weapons appears tame--even collegial--compared with the actions that could be envisioned when one side has little interest in the products of post-medieval technology, except as tools to destroy post-medieval technology.

If their intermediate goal is to replace the Saudi government through a revolution analogous to the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah, will the US and other governments of the modern world be willing to do what is necessary to prevent it? If the Saudi government is toppled, what would these governments of the modern world be willing to do to avoid having the wealth of this region being transformed into weapons of mass destruction?

Could such mass destruction actually be accomplished by people who seem to interested in using modern technology primarily to destroy modern technology? The destructive power of modern technology is great--only a tiny fraction of it has ever been used. One wouldn't need thousands of nuclear bombs to bomb civilization back to the Middle Ages, perhaps only a few hundred, well placed in the centers of modern civilization, and enough planning to detonate them simultaneously.

It is not just enough for the modern governments to think like the enemy. For democratic societies the general public must also do so, because government action is dependent on public support. The emotional responses of the public and the action that they take and advocate can either ameliorate or exacerbate the threat. Usurpation of mid-east wealth by global nihilists could have catastrophic consequences that dwarf the effects of the World Trace Center attack. Recognizing this difference can be important in generating public support for activities the reduce the chances of revolutions in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Lesser threats may also be altered by public awareness and action. One of the best example concerns biological weapons. As I argued in a recent book (Plague Time, Free Press:NY), biological weapons are not particularly effective weapons for terrorists. For the same reasons they would not be particularly good weapons for global nihilists. Rather than weakening resolve their use would tend to galvanize. The threat of biological weapons, however, generates concern because the damage they could cause is repulsive and potentially pervasive. If the public realizes this difference between their use as a threat and as a weapon, and are prepared to withstand the impact of their use, their effectiveness as a threat diminishes.

The relative ineffectiveness of pathogens as weapons does not mean that they will never be used, but it does mean that we might be able to reduce the possibility of their use by making their net effectiveness even less than it already is. One of the best ways to lower their effectiveness is vaccination. Those who are making decisions about public health have been slow to move in this direction, apparently because they are applying guidelines that are appropriate in the absence of terrorist threats to situations in which such threats are manifest. The tradeoffs in these two circumstances are different.

It would be ethically questionable to require that everyone use a vaccine such as the vaccine against smallpox, which, like most vaccines, imposes a small probably of serious adverse effects (one in ten-thousand to one in a million vaccines depending on the adverse effect and the care in assessing associated risks). However, choosing not to produce and make available a vaccine such as the smallpox vaccine is also ethically questionable for several reasons, the most obvious being that unvaccinated people may die or becomes seriously ill during an attack. In addition, the ability to administer vaccines safely may be diminished during a crisis situation and people who might have been at a low risk for severe side effects prior to the attack might have developed conditions that place them at high risk by the time of the attack (conditions such as immunosuppression or eczema, for example). Perhaps most importantly, the greater the proportion of the population that is vaccinated, the greater the probability of deterring such an attack. If a population is mostly immune through vaccination, terrorists would have little impetus to initiate an attack, which would tend to make them look impotent and incompetent. In a situation such as the current one, getting vaccinated against smallpox could therefore be considered an activity that contributes to the defense not just of the vaccinated individual but to the country as a whole. Making the relevant vaccines available along with the relevant information about benefits and risks is the ethically sound alternative.

Unfortunately, because those making the key decisions has been so slow to recognize these tradeoffs, there are now woefully insufficient numbers of the relevant vaccines. According to the current schedule, vaccines against smallpox, for example, will not be generally available in until 2004. It is incredible to hear experts argue, as they have for several years, that a suitable vaccine against smallpox cannot be made widely available, even though one had been generally available for most of the past two centuries.

When evaluating and preparing for possible scenarios we need to shift mentally from considering the problem from the perspective of the targets to the perspective of the perpetrators. When we do so the threat of biological weapons shifts from being a primary concern to a secondary concern. This threat could be shifted further to a tertiary concern for particular pathogens if an educated public takes action by encouraging development of and access to vaccines, and by becoming vaccinated.

If the instigators World Trade Center attack really are terrorists rather than global nihilists, then some of the preparations may be overreaction. But most of these preparations should still be useful for terrorists. Access to vaccination is useful in either category of attacker, as is the avoidance of harm to innocent civilians. Taking actions that precisely target those who have carried out and who are planning to carry out attacks should be beneficial in either case, but especially for global nihilists because it removes the immediate threat and the long-term threat associated with recruitment.

Some actions (such as support of Saudi government and provision of vaccines against the most dangerous pathogens) can reduce the attackers' estimates of success. If these estimates are reduced sufficiently, attempts may be postponed. Postponement buys time for countermeasures, and perpetual postponement is equivalent to a permanent protection.

With regard to military options, before we race in to attack we should assess whether the attack is part of the enemy's next move. Overenthusiasm for an attack together with underestimation of the enemy's strategy led the Romans to be slaughtered by the Parthians, and the Soviets to be slaughtered by the Afghans. The current situation offers few military targets and a great potential for collateral damage to civilians, while modern technology offers new and powerful strategies for attacks against us. As we plan our actions to neutralize the enemy in response to the World Trace Center attack, we need to assess and prepare for new ways in which overenthusiasm for a counter-attack could be part of the enemy's plan for a much greater slaughter. Because our long-term strategy depends on their long-term strategy, gaining intelligence information about their long-term goals may be as important as gaining information about their locations and plans for attacks.