October 21, 2003 -- Osama bin Laden's latest screed threatens further attacks "inside and outside the United States" and goes on to name various U.S. allies as targets as well. Bin Laden apparently continues to believe that further attacks on American and allied civilians will cause the West to retreat into pacifism. This is a grave misreading of the American character.
A recent rumor on the Internet suggests that al-Qaeda may have a plan well underway to attack Western targets from the sea, using a fleet of merchant freighters purchased sub-rosa. It is disturbing to imagine such an attack, which could involve a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon and could kill and injure on a scale beyond that of the 9/11 attacks. It would be horrifying to live through it and to experience its consequences. Furthermore, in a grim irony, it would fix U.S. policy in the opposite direction from what the terrorists desire.The terrorists of al-Qaeda and similar groups believe that if they can impose significant enough damage on Western institutions and civilians, they can frighten the West into retreating from Arab and Muslim lands. Their model of Western response to terror attacks is based on the U.S. retreat from Somalia following the "Black Hawk Down" episode, or the retreat from Lebanon after the bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut. But the models they should really attend to are Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor.
Why Fort Sumter and Pearl Harbor? In both these cases (the Civil War and World War II), the U.S. was directly attacked. But in neither case did the attacker seek to conquer the U.S. (or the rump Northern U.S. in the case of Fort Sumter). Rather, both the Confederate States and the Japanese Empire sought only to be allowed a free hand in their own spheres. The U.S. could have accepted peace in both cases and would have been left with a substantial sphere of its own. Indeed, it could be argued that the U.S. would not have suffered much in its essential interests if it had let bygones be bygones.
But the U.S. response in both cases was total war: war of conquest, war to the last ditch, war at tremendous cost in men and money, war for a cause. And, on a lesser scale, America responded in the same vein to the attacks of 9/11, which provoked the conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those wars were undertaken to eliminate the sources of the threat and to spread the cause of American liberal democracy in the Muslim world. There is no reason to think that further attacks on American soil would provoke any different response.
World conquest? Even as the foremost military power, the U.S. has not yet come close to its potential. To eliminate a major threat to its security and ideals, the U.S. could probably increase military spending seven-fold to more than 20 percent of GDP for at least a few years. It could probably build a military force numbering in the tens of millions and arm it with the best technology. It could strike back as often and as deeply as necessary. The conquest of the entire Middle East—or even more—could be its goal, with all that such a war would entail. The U.S. doesn't have a huge empire not because it can't take one, but because it—quite rightly—doesn't want or need one. But its perception of its needs would change in the face of a major new attack on American soil. It would respond by tracking down its enemies and counter-attacking to eliminate their bases of support. The bigger the threat, the bigger would be the commitment to counter-attack.
This isn't a world we want to see. We don't want more attacks on American cities. We don't want to live through the futile destruction of American blow and terrorist counter-blow. And we don't want the terrible costs of major wars. We don't want the loss of freedom at home that more security strictures would bring. We don't want the hatred and killing, nor the devastation that would fall upon all the countries involved.
But bin Laden and his fellow terrorists should make no mistake: It could not end happy for their cause. The U.S. does not retreat when it is attacked, and it does not like to retreat from ideological enemies in any case. The peace movement in America would wither away in the face of further attacks, and warlike American responses would continue unless and until the futility of such actions was thoroughly and totally demonstrated. Consider the body counts from the Civil War and World War II. Consider that a negotiated peace was never sought by the U.S. in either of those wars. It won't be sought this time, either.
Major terrorist attacks on America can't cripple the U.S. militarily. And they can only increase the American will to strike back. In this role, America would not be like Israel, outnumbered and restrained by world opinion. America would act as the superpower it is: unconstrained and overwhelming. May the day never come.
William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.