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The War Ahead

Guest Column
Puneet P. Newaskar

I am in this country because I believe firmly that there are a lot of things America does right. I may not have been born and raised here, but I am equally outraged by this despicable attack on the U.S., its core values and humanity itself. There was a panel discussion on campus two days ago (organized by the MIT Center for International Studies) at which one expert said, “This is a pivotal point in U.S. history. We cannot let this go unanswered.” I agree wholeheartedly. This is a war that has been forced upon this country, and now that it finds itself thrown on to the battlefield, it must fight. Let me clarify my position by saying that I am in favor of strong and decisive military action, but a targeted and focused one. Not indiscriminate carpet bombing of a country ravaged by years of civil war.

I am from India, and although we won our independence from Britain largely on the strength of Gandhi’s principle of non-violence and passive civil disobedience, that philosophy will do irreparable harm if used against the “enemy” we are facing today. British colonialists may have imposed tough laws on India, but they were human and had a conscience. It is clear these people do not. They were human once, but the strange ways of the world have robbed them of their humanity. In the state they are in, inaction will achieve nothing. It will not be seen as a gesture of peace and forgiveness, urging them to give up arms. Rather, it will be interpreted as a sign of weakness and impotence, inviting further attacks with little fear of reprisal. It is precisely because of this inaction that they have become emboldened to such a sick and scary level. The pattern of attacks against this country, over the years, make one thing crystal clear. The terrorist network behind this has thrown open a challenge to the United States. They have rallied their troops, they have sung their war cries, and they have struck deep at the heart of their declared “enemy.” It is now time for this country to muster the will and resolve to answer that challenge. This attack was planned for months, if not years. There was no wavering or hesitation in the minds of the terrorists that executed this with cold-blooded precision. There cannot be any wavering or hesitation in our minds as we respond intelligently, but furiously.

Furthermore, it is not just American lives and American security that are at stake here. It is really global peace itself and freedom from fear of countless millions that hang in the balance. This attack should serve as a wake-up call to the world about how much damage these people are capable of. Some believe that the only reason a nuclear weapon was not used on Tuesday is that they do not yet have that capability. But they are frighteningly close. Terrorism has been a cancer that has killed and affected too many, for too long. Even if the “primary suspect” was not directly involved in this attack, he applauds the act and has already committed enough crimes against humanity to merit the harshest punishment.

Few realized, until now, how far this cancer has spread. The terrorist network runs deep and strong in 60 different countries, spanning a myriad of “causes.” These people have made life a living hell for so many, and will now be inspired to come up with their own “grandiose” schemes of terror. And they will, sooner or later, carry them out unless they are all systematically and methodically wiped out. Every single, last one of them.

In all likelihood, this will be a bitter war of attrition. You can be sure that they will fight desperately for survival and keep killing innocents. But, if our resolve is stronger, when the dust settles we will have prevailed. This is a war that I am convinced has to be fought, for the greater good.

That said, it should be pointed out that there are nuances to this war that will make waging it rather difficult. Firstly, Afghanistan is not the only country harboring dangerous elements of the kind that may have hijacked those planes. Invading them all is not a feasible option. Intense diplomatic and political pressure must be brought to bear on the states that, directly or indirectly, support terrorism. They must be made to pay an “exorbitant price” (as stated recently by Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post). But that price cannot be measured in the lives of their innocent civilians. I will admit that significant sections of their populations support the same causes that terrorists have espoused, and some even favor their means. But if cruise missiles start striking their towns and cities, flames of anti-American sentiment will be fanned that would swell the ranks of would-be terrorists. The U.S. must, therefore, tread with extreme caution here. They must make some level of distinction between passive sympathizers and known terrorists, at least as far as military action goes. The accountability that is lacking in many of these countries has to be developed, but it cannot be forced upon them with bombs. As the U.S. ferrets out and punish harshly those who are clearly guilty of financing or carrying out terrorist activity, they must find ways to marginalize them within their own societies and erode their base of support.

The rest of the world is solidly behind the U.S. in its quest for justice, and the horrific scenes from Tuesday played out on TV screens everywhere have already achieved some degree of that marginalization. The U.S. may lose that advantage by using “any and all means at its disposal.” Some collateral damage is inevitable. Most terrorists live and operate among civilians; that is their camouflage. But efforts must be made to minimize such casualties. Whatever restraint the U.S. displays in this regard will bolster the support they have, even from otherwise-hostile quarters. Developing consensus as they build momentum in this war will be of paramount importance.

In my opinion, the saddest part about this whole mess is that circumstances do exist that drive ordinary people to such depths of desperation and lunacy. The long-term strategy against terrorism does not lie in Cruise missiles and SWAT teams, but in addressing some of the root causes, some of the age-old hatreds and fears that dehumanize young men and women and turn them into suicide bombers.

Clearly, they are convinced there is no other way for them to turn.

Hopefully, someday, we can change that. And if we fail in doing so, this cycle of violence will last well into our lifetimes, and those of generations to come.

Puneet P. Newaskar is a graduate student in the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.