The toughest challenge facing the Free World might not be defeating the terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere. The toughest challenge might be to avoid descending to the terrorists' level. Certain advantages accrue to those without scruples, morals or inhibitions, those who think that any means justify their ends. When rebellious clerics defied Saddam Hussein, he didn't send emissaries, offer concessions or consider whether there might be "legitimate grievances" to address. He executed those who opposed him and buried them in mass graves. And, following the Stalinist model, he often took the added precaution of executing those who had not opposed him - but who might one day be tempted to do so.
In 1982, Saddam's fellow Baathist dictator, Hafez Assad, faced an insurrection by religious extremists in the Syrian city of Hama. Assad didn't ask why people in Hama hated him. He didn't worry about whether Amnesty International or The New York Times would criticize him for using excessive force. He pounded Hama with artillery that fell on the rebellious and the obedient alike. As many as 25,000 people were killed.
This wholesale slaughter of Muslims did not roil the fabled Arab street. Nor were there protest marches in Paris and San Francisco. And the current Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad, learned from his father. Last month, in response to pro-democracy protests, he reportedly killed as many as 70 people in Syria's Kurdish north. None of this received much media attention, and don't expect the United Nations to worry about it.
That the American-led coalition would follow Saddam/Assad rules when dealing with insurgents in the Sunni city of Fallujah or the Shi'a holy city of Najaf is inconceivable. But could that change? The other day, I received an e-mail from a reader in Utah. He said he thought I had been wrong to say, in a previous column, that suicide terrorists cannot be deterred.
"This can be accomplished," he instructed, "by governments and cultures that have the guts and backing to do it."
He said that he has personally known Saudis who would give their lives for a cause - but would not take actions that would sacrifice the lives of their families. He added: "Maybe we wouldn't have to take out the bomber's entire gene pool to teach the lesson, maybe we would. Even if we did, we wouldn't have to do it very many more times after that."
I wrote back, saying that to do as he suggested would make us terrorists. He agreed.
"Yes sir," he replied. "We would have to engage in terrorism ourselves. The jihadis use terror because it works. ... We know that they see diplomacy, negotiation, compromise and compassion as weakness to be exploited. Did you notice what the Saudis did immediately after 9/11? They got all the bin Ladens (the al Qaeda leader's relatives) out of the U.S. as fast as possible. Know why? In our place, they would have taken the whole bunch into custody for 'questioning.' They are probably still wondering why we didn't do that."
In Iraq, Saddam loyalists and Islamic militants are blowing up police stations, murdering aid workers, taking civilian hostages and intentionally drawing fire on women and children - violating the oldest and most basic laws and customs of war. As far back as medieval times, distinctions were drawn between combatants and civilians, between those who fight and those who should not be intentionally targeted. Such restrictions, intended to mitigate the ferocity of war, were a hallmark of civilization.
Ironically, the hard-liners on the right who would encourage us to fight terrorism with terrorism are being abetted by intellectuals on the left who refuse to recognize terrorism as unequivocally immoral, who insist that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," who believe that terrorism for a cause they don't support may be wrong but terrorism for a cause they favor - well, it's the weak man's weapon, isn't it? And besides: Who are we to judge?
If that's right, if the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is in the eye of the beholder, what argument can be made against the suggestion of my Utah reader that we eliminate bin Laden's relatives to send a message, or that we warn Maqtada al Sadr that he's about to join the CIA's friends-and-family plan, or that when confronted with a tough situation we ask ourselves: "What Would Saddam and the Assads Do?"
Perhaps the answer is simply this: To use terrorism to defeat terrorism is to become indistinguishable from our enemies. To use barbarism to defend civilization is to forsake civilization.
But if this war gets uglier, if we begin losing too many soldiers and civilians, and if the moral relativists succeed in persuading us that there is no bright line between bin Laden and George Washington, between the Fallujah insurgents and the French Resistance, the temptation to reconsider could become powerful. Before that happens, we'd be wise to start thinking seriously about who we are and what it is we truly believe.