The Magazine

G-Men East of Suez

A serious anti-terrorism policy would unleash the military, not deploy the Justice Department

Oct 30, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 07 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Where the attack on the USS Cole may well lead us -- and this is easily the most terrifying scenario -- is to a courtroom in Holland. The continuing trial of Libyan intelligence officers for the bombing of Pan Am 103 is the logical end of the criminalization of terrorism. If the two Libyan officers are not convicted, which seems ever more likely, Muammar Qaddafi obviously wins. (The two gentlemen are, by the way, guilty as charged, even though proving that in a court of law may not be possible.) If the two Libyan officers are convicted, Qaddafi, who unquestionably authorized any actions by these Libyan intelligence officials, also wins since the U.S. government has already agreed to end the Pan Am 103 affair with this trial.

The only way we could ever make Qaddafi pay for blowing an American jetliner out of the air is through the use of military force. But the primary purpose of the criminalization of terrorism is precisely the avoidance of the use of force. Thus, the sponsors of terrorism, if they happen to be tough, rich, dictatorial rulers, have the happy prospect of eventually beating and embarrassing the United States in court. As our attention has been focused on violent events elsewhere in the Middle East, we haven't noticed that Qaddafi is on the verge of becoming, once again, a hero to the region's radical forces. Though we can probably rely on Saddam Hussein to trump Qaddafi as a rallying point for the Middle East's radicals, the Libyan's inevitable victory in Holland is likely to generate very unpleasant repercussions throughout the Middle East. We will probably rue the day that the Bush and Clinton administrations chose to prosecute Qaddafi's operatives instead of bomb him.

One can only hope that a Gore or Bush II administration will not repeat past mistakes. Yet the reluctance to use military force in the Middle East is clearly a bipartisan American reflex. The fear that serious military responses to terrorist attacks can lead to an endless series of attacks and reprisals is an understandable foreboding. But what ought to be clear is that whoever perpetrated the attack on the USS Cole isn't going to desist voluntarily. Two men vaporized themselves to express their hatred of the United States. By any true-believing standard, their act was a glorious success, quite sufficient to inspire others to follow. We cannot counter such determination and passion in a courtroom. We cannot counter it without demonstrating, as ancient Rome knew well, that there must be a frightful price for provoking a giant. Our enemies, and the friends of our enemies, must know that an easygoing, corpulent, wealthy Western nation is, when it wants to be, an indomitable, bloody-minded force that will seek awful vengeance upon its foes.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a former case officer in the CIA's clandestine service and the author, under the pseudonym Edward Shirley, of Know thine Enemy: A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran.