The New Anti-Terrorism

William Cohen
William Cohen; drawing by David Levine

It is the Washington idiom but it sounds more like Hollywood—doom, disaster, Armageddon, absolute action. It is the guaranteed new threat to take the place of the run-down cold war, keep us all on our toes, out of pocket, in line, under surveillance. The name of the new game is “catastrophic terrorism” and it is very frightening, not just because it conceivably could happen but even more because of what people who choose to dwell on the possibility, however remote, want to do about it.

“Catastrophic terrorism” is defined as going far beyond what US Secretary of Defense William Cohen calls “the conventional type of terrorism.” That is the work of “cowards,” he says, who “rejoice in the agony of their victims.” They then “retreat to villages where they hide behind the skirts of women and the laughter of children, and dare you to strike back. And strike back, we will.”

But the threat of reprisal will not work against “biological and chemical weapons and cyber-terrorism,” he said, because it is too hard to find out who used them. “Deterrence is not going to be sufficient to prevent their use in future. We have to depend upon defense. We have to depend upon intervention, and we have to promote the safety of our citizens both here and abroad.”

Mr. Cohen spoke on December 8, before the bombing attacks on Iraq. But his arguments came close to Washington’s justification for the Iraq raids—essentially to “degrade” Saddam Hussein’s capacity to use exotic weapons, since there could be no credibility in any claim that bombs could eliminate them. For one thing, United Nations monitors have not been able to find out exactly where they might all be; for another, components and poisons can be distributed in various places for future assembly.

Similar arguments, drawing the same conclusion but going much further in dramatizing threats, are made in an assertive article in the November/December 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs written by two former high-level Defense Department officials and a former staff member of the National Security Council. They are Ashton Carter, John Deutch, and Philip Zelikow. Cohen’s speech and the article appear to launch an intense new campaign focused on weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, now the preferred initials in place of ABC, or atomic, biological, chemical weapons.

The two texts call for elaborate measures and expenditures for preventing and if necessary dealing with such attacks—quite different from standard military procurement and preparation, since the assumption is that the threat could come from anywhere, anytime. Whole new intelligence services are required, and crisis management plans, along with “repeated training and exercises,” to be put into immediate effect regard-less of constitutional rights. As Mr. Cohen put it,

We need more information from a variety of sources. And the more information we gather, the more compromise there is on the right of privacy, which is…

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