Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 26 March 2024

 The Bitter Choices in Fighting Terrorism

President Biden’s churchgoing appears to be paying off. The first big international terror attack planned in the newly strengthened terrorist haven of Afghanistan struck Russia, not the U.S. Let’s hope Mr. Biden’s luck holds. A similarly audacious attack on America that was orchestrated in Afghanistan and involved operatives who entered through America’s chaotic southern border would hit the Biden administration like a nuclear bomb.

For now, it is Vladimir Putin who must manage the attack’s political aftermath. So far he is doing all he can to blame Ukraine and the U.S. for ISIS-Khorasan’s raid Friday on a concert hall near Moscow. This is neither surprising nor particularly effective. But what Mr. Putin must now face is a problem for everyone.

Between the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, the global backlash against Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, a string of jihadi successes in Africa, the failure to clear the Red Sea of Houthi attacks, and now a daring strike in the heart of Mr. Putin’s police state, the terrorists are crushing it.

Not that the terrorists are all on the same side. From the government of Iran to the militias it has spawned across the Middle East, the Shiite terror-sphere hates the Sunni terror-sphere almost as much as they both hate Western civilization. The Sunnis are divided among themselves. ISIS hates al Qaeda and they both hate the Shiites. But none of that stops Shiite Iran from arming, training and funding Sunni Hamas to murder Jews, nor will it stop other forms of tactical cooperation when it comes to slaughtering Americans, Russians, Europeans or Indians.

We oversimplify when we characterize these movements as “terrorist.” Fear is only one of the emotions these groups hope to spark as they wage war against the rest of the human race. Their goal is to manipulate a range of feelings through atrocity, hostage-taking and propaganda.

The widespread publicity about ISIS’s atrocities and slave markets wasn’t intended only to terrify enemies. It was intended to inspire potential recruits and supporters. We are winners, their recruiters say to disaffected youth around the world. Join us to kill your enemies and take their women as slaves even as you serve and please Almighty God.

Victories raise the spirits of current fighters and make it easier to recruit new ones. When the Americans left Afghanistan in disorderly haste, when fanatical Hamas paragliders raped their way through a music festival in Israel and uploaded their exploits to the internet, and when ISIS-K murdered more than 130 people in the heart of Mr. Putin’s Russia, morale in both terrorspheres soared.

Leaders must measure the demands of compassion against the needs of strategy.

Beyond fear and hope, our enemies also seek to use compassion as a weapon to divide us and ultimately paralyze our response. Even in hawkish Israel, the resolve to fight Hamas is pitted against the desire to free the hostages. Distraught friends, relatives and sympathetic members of the public agitate for something, anything, to free the hostages in Gaza at almost any cost. This is understandable and even commendable. But public safety requires that leaders measure the demands of compassion against the requirements of strategy. Hard, bitter choices are part of the job.

Israelis taken on Oct. 7 are only a small minority of the civilians Hamas holds hostage. As Hamas fighters lurk in and beneath schools, hospitals and civilian homes, looting aid shipments and murdering dissidents, Gaza’s civilian population has become a human shield. While some of the worldwide sympathy for Palestinian civilians caught up in the horrors of the Gaza war reflects pure hatred of Israel, many of those protesting Israel’s campaign are driven by natural human sympathy for innocent people ensnared in the horror of war.

Israel and all others fighting depraved terrorists must exercise great care to avoid civilian deaths. But ultimately these criminal organizations have to be destroyed. Had Franklin D. Roosevelt let concern for civilians in Germany and Japan paralyze his war strategy, the Allies would have lost World War II and many more innocent people would have died.

The fight against the re-energized forces of fanaticism won’t be easy. We must deny them the victories that inspire potential recruits. We must be steadfast against the fear they provoke, neither cowering and appeasing nor lashing out blindly to fight on their terms. And while never giving up on the compassion that is part of what makes us human, we must not let concern for their captives stand in the way of breaking the power of the guilty. To do anything else concedes the ultimate power over our world to hate-maddened killers and thugs.


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