As I restlessly lay awake early yesterday, with CNN on my TV and dawn breaking over the holy places of Jerusalem, my ear somehow latched onto a statement made by the U.S. transportation secretary, Norman Mineta, about the new precautions that would be put in place at U.S. airports in the wake of Tuesday's unspeakable terrorist attacks: There will be no more curbside check-in, he said. I suddenly imagined a group of terrorists somewhere here in the Middle East, sipping coffee, also watching CNN and laughing hysterically: "Hey boss, did you hear that? We just blew up Wall Street and the Pentagon and their response is no more curbside check- in?"
I don't mean to criticize Mr. Mineta. He is doing what he can. And I have absolutely no doubt that the Bush team, when it identifies the perpetrators, will make them pay dearly. Yet there was something so absurdly futile and American about the curbside ban that I couldn't help but wonder: Does my country really understand that this is World War III? And if this attack was the Pearl Harbor of World War III, it means there is a long, long war ahead.
And this Third World War does not pit us against another superpower. It pits us — the world's only superpower and quintessential symbol of liberal, free-market, Western values — against all the super-empowered angry men and women out there. Many of these super-empowered angry people hail from failing states in the Muslim and third world. They do not share our values, they resent America's influence over their lives, politics and children, not to mention our support for Israel, and they often blame America for the failure of their societies to master modernity.
What makes them super-empowered, though, is their genius at using the networked world, the Internet and the very high technology they hate, to attack us. Think about it: They turned our most advanced civilian planes into human-directed, precision-guided cruise missiles — a diabolical melding of their fanaticism and our technology. Jihad Online. And think of what they hit: The World Trade Center — the beacon of American-led capitalism that both tempts and repels them, and the Pentagon, the embodiment of American military superiority.
And think about what places in Israel the Palestinian suicide bombers have targeted most. "They never hit synagogues or settlements or Israeli religious zealots," said the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit. "They hit the Sbarro pizza parlor, the Netanya shopping mall. The Dolphinarium disco. They hit the yuppie Israel, not the yeshiva Israel."
So what is required to fight a war against such people in such a world? To start with, we as Americans will never be able to penetrate such small groups, often based on family ties, who live in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan or Lebanon's wild Bekaa Valley. The only people who can penetrate these shadowy and ever-mutating groups, and deter them, are their own societies. And even they can't do it consistently. So give the C.I.A. a break.
Israeli officials will tell you that the only time they have had real quiet and real control over the suicide bombers and radical Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, is when Yasir Arafat and his Palestinian Authority tracked them, jailed them or deterred them.
So then the question becomes, What does it take for us to get the societies that host terrorist groups to truly act against them?
First we have to prove that we are serious, and that we understand that many of these terrorists hate our existence, not just our policies. In June I wrote a column about the fact that a few cell-phone threats from Osama bin Laden had prompted President Bush to withdraw the F.B.I. from Yemen, a U.S. Marine contingent from Jordan and the U.S. Fifth Fleet from its home base in the Persian Gulf. This U.S. retreat was noticed all over the region, but it did not merit a headline in any major U.S. paper. That must have encouraged the terrorists. Forget about our civilians, we didn't even want to risk our soldiers to face their threats.
The people who planned Tuesday's bombings combined world-class evil with world-class genius to devastating effect. And unless we are ready to put our best minds to work combating them — the World War III Manhattan Project — in an equally daring, unconventional and unremitting fashion, we're in trouble. Because while this may have been the first major battle of World War III, it may be the last one that involves only conventional, non-nuclear weapons.
Second, we have been allowing a double game to go on with our Middle East allies for years, and that has to stop. A country like Syria has to decide: Does it want a Hezbollah embassy in Damascus or an American one? If it wants a U.S. embassy, then it cannot play host to a rogue's gallery of terrorist groups.
Does that mean the U.S. must ignore Palestinian concerns and Muslim economic grievances? No. Many in this part of the world crave the best of America, and we cannot forget that we are their ray of hope. But apropos of the Palestinians, the U.S. put on the table at Camp David a plan that would have gotten Yasir Arafat much of what he now claims to be fighting for. That U.S. plan may not be sufficient for Palestinians, but to say that the justifiable response to it is suicide terrorism is utterly sick.
Third, we need to have a serious and respectful dialogue with the Muslim world and its political leaders about why many of its people are falling behind. The fact is, no region in the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, has fewer freely elected governments than the Arab-Muslim world, which has none. Why? Egypt went through a whole period of self- criticism after the 1967 war, which produced a stronger country. Why is such self-criticism not tolerated today by any Arab leader?
Where are the Muslim leaders who will tell their sons to resist the Israelis — but not to kill themselves or innocent non-combatants? No matter how bad, your life is sacred. Surely Islam, a grand religion that never perpetrated the sort of Holocaust against the Jews in its midst that Europe did, is being distorted when it is treated as a guidebook for suicide bombing. How is it that not a single Muslim leader will say that?
These are some of the issues we will have to address as we fight World War III. It will be a long war against a brilliant and motivated foe. When I remarked to an Israeli military official what an amazing technological feat it was for the terrorists to hijack the planes and then fly them directly into the most vulnerable spot in each building, he pooh-poohed me.
"It's not that difficult to learn how to fly a plane once it's up in the air," he said. "And remember, they never had to learn how to land."
No, they didn't. They only had to destroy. We, by contrast, have to fight in a way that is effective without destroying the very open society we are trying to protect. We have to fight hard and land safely. We have to fight the terrorists as if there were no rules, and preserve our open society as if there were no terrorists. It won't be easy. It will require our best strategists, our most creative diplomats and our bravest soldiers. Semper Fi.