News+Opinion » Jack Hunter

Was Sept. 11 an act of war or terrorism?

Dual Meanings



Questioning the wisdom of bringing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York for trial in a federal court, columnist Pat Buchanan asks, "Are we at war — or not?" It's a good question.

Most Americans consider the 9/11 attacks both an act of war and an act of terror. But are there other terrorist acts that can rightly also be considered acts of war? Are there acts of war that can also rightly be considered terrorism?

According to a recent CNN report, "The Obama administration has dramatically ratcheted up the American drone warfare program in Pakistan. Since President Obama took office, U.S. drone strikes have killed about a half-dozen militant leaders along with hundreds of other people, a quarter of whom were civilians."

Meanwhile, according to New York Times counterinsurgency experts David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, the U.S. has "killed some 700 civilians" using drone strikes in Pakistan. The authors add, "This is 50 civilians for every militant killed."

The U.S. is unquestionably at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now, apparently, Pakistan. But might the families of the hundreds of civilians killed, just in Pakistan alone, consider our actions terrorism? The United States can assure them it's nothing personal — their losses are unfortunate casualties in a time of war. This does not make the continued attacks on civilians any less terrorizing.

In 1996, reporter Leslie Stahl asked then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a 60 Minutes interview about the civilian casualties caused by U.S. sanctions on Iraq. Said Stahl, "We have heard that a half-million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" Replied Albright, "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it."

So according to Albright, the deaths of a half million innocent civilians was "worth it" in order to achieve certain political goals. Is this not the logic of a terrorist?

It was certainly the logic of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Mohammed "met with bin Laden to discuss the targets: the World Trade Center, which represented the U.S. economy; the Pentagon, a symbol of the U.S. military; and the U.S. Capitol, the perceived source of U.S. policy in support of Israel. The White House was also on the list, as bin Laden considered it a political symbol and wanted to attack it as well." Al-Qaida obviously believed the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Capitol, and the White House were all political symbols, and that attacking them would make a statement. To achieve this goal, Mohammed, bin Laden, and al-Qaida obviously believed the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent civilians were "worth it."

Collateral damage is a necessary aspect of any modern war, but the idea that every Sept. 11 the entire world should remember the slaughter of innocents on American soil — while we still regard an even greater number of U.S.-caused civilian casualties justified — strikes me as monstrously perverse. It's one thing to think long and hard about whether waging war or imposing sanctions on foreign nations is worth high civilian casualties; it's quite another to not think about it at all. Most Americans haven't a clue as to how many innocent people are killed overseas in their name.

What would we do if unmanned drones operated by a foreign country were continuously bombing the mountains of North Carolina, killing hundreds of civilians? What would we do if sanctions were imposed on us by China, causing the death of a half million South Carolina schoolchildren, many perishing due to malnourishment and a lack of medical care? My guess is every redneck from Charleston to Chesapeake would be fighting back, creating an "insurgency." And to the occupying forces, they would be considered "terrorists."

For their crimes against the U.S., Mohammed and his fellow conspirators should've been executed long ago. But 9/11 was entirely predictable. In his 1999 book A Republic, Not An Empire, Pat Buchanan predicted that a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil was likely due to the same interventionist foreign policy I've described here. The columnist even fashioned a scenario in which Osama bin Laden set off a nuclear device in a Seattle port as his example.

Given our actions, we would be getting off easy if anti-U.S. sentiment was limited to angry Iraqis throwing shoes at American presidents.

If most Americans consider 9/11 both an act of war and terrorism, we should not be surprised when our enemies — or those who just get in the way — end up subscribing to the same dual definitions concerning us. The tragic lesson — one that we still have not learned — is that terrorism will always beget more terrorism, regardless of whether we call it "war," or not.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.

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