Distributed September 24, 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Neta Crawford
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 750 Words


Neta Crawford

Fear itself: Why retaliation doesn’t work

In Northern Ireland and Israel, history shows a pattern of escalation – that violence has only bred more violence. Similarly, previous U.S. retaliation against suspected terrorists has not brought an end to terrorism.


Many in the United States want swift and massive retaliation against the terrorists and anyone who harbored them on the assumption that such retaliation will deter future attack. Others compare the United States to Israel and Northern Ireland, saying “now we know” what they must feel like and why the Israeli government strikes so hard against terrorists and why the British have such strict security measures.

Yet comparisons to Northern Ireland and Israel suggest that retaliation does not work. In Northern Ireland and Israel, history shows a pattern of escalation – that violence has only bred more violence. Similarly, previous U.S. retaliation against suspected terrorists has not brought an end to terrorism.

Why doesn’t retaliation work?

First, many advocates of retaliation wrongly assume that those who are attacked will be afraid – and that the fearful and injured will back down. But the fearful and injured rarely capitulate.

Even though terrified, and for some time incapacitated emotionally, Stalin did not back down when Hitler’s forces conducted a surprise attack against his military. Rather, the Soviets mounted an enormous effort to defeat the Nazis. Similarly, the British rallied against Nazi terror bombings. The United States did not back down after Pearl Harbor. Nor has the Iraqi government yielded, even after war, years of sanctions, and regular air assaults. Quaddaffi did not resign after a U.S. assault that killed a member of his family.

Similarly, the response of terrorists to U.S. assault – even if it is in retaliation for attack – is just as likely to be increased resolve. Thus the cycle of violence will be stoked if the U.S. responds to this violence with aggressive military action.

Second, many wrongly assume that great power military force works against guerrilla warriors. The terrorists, like other guerrillas, mingle with innocent civilians living in the city and countryside and not in barracks or on front lines as concentrated targets.

The history of colonial wars and decolonization efforts in the 20th century suggests that wars against guerrillas cannot be won unless the great power is willing to annihilate the population where guerrillas reside. But annihilation, which would surely involve killing innocent people, cannot be acceptable, and would only sow the seeds of future resentment and terrorist acts in retaliation. We would justifiably resent attacks on New York or Boston in retaliation for those cities “harboring” IRA terrorists.

If massive retaliation is likely to fail at best, or to unleash years of reprisals and an escalation at worst – what could be done instead? There are at least two other options. First, as some have suggested, we could treat these events as crimes against humanity. The United States could then, if it fully joined the International Criminal Court, use its apparatus to apprehend, put on trial, and imprison the criminals responsible.

The United States could also use its diplomatic and economic might to eliminate the root causes of terrorism. I am not suggesting a dialogue with terrorists. We cannot speak with anyone who is shooting at us until they lay down their weapons, at least for the moment. However, we can work to ameliorate the political frustration, economic distress and resentment against the United States that creates new terrorists and their supporters. We can urge bankers to end the use of secret accounts, where terrorists hide their assets. We can strengthen resources for international law enforcement so war criminals can be monitored and apprehended.

These are long-term solutions. Law enforcement against suspected criminals and policy changes on the order necessary to deal with this problem will test our patience. Yet the impulses for revenge must not be satisfied because to respond with violence would be disastrously counterproductive. The best defense may not be a good offense in this case; the best defense is prevention.

The responsible thing for the President and Congress to do would be to lower the rhetorical temperature in Washington and halt the contest to sound more bellicose and patriotic than the last politician or official. This is a long-term problem that cannot be solved by declarations of war or speedy attacks.

I hope we do not have to explain to our children and grandchildren 20 or 40 years from now, that this was indeed the start of the nightmare they face. The administration and Congress should ratchet down the pace of action and give the victims of these attacks and American citizens what they deserve – a thoughtful analysis of all the costs, risks and potential effects of an economic, diplomatic and military response to terrorism.


Neta Crawford is a visiting associate professor (research) at the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies at Brown University and assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

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