The point isn't that we shouldn't hunt terrorists. Obviously, it's good news that Bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah was just nabbed in Pakistan—and that his high-level colleague Mohammed Atef was killed during the Afghan war. But, in deciding when, where, and how to hunt terrorists, we should bear in mind that hunting them is more fraught with downside than, say, hunting bank robbers. (See, for example, Nicholas Kristof's New York Times columns on Bush's ham-handed campaign against terrorists in the Philippines.)
And we shouldn't be beguiled by short-run success. If terrorist bombings indeed abate after the current incursion, prepare yourself for the inevitable Charles Krauthammer column touting the success of Sharon's iron-fist policy. It's a natural sequel to Krauthammer's column belittling the significance of the "Arab Street" after the Street failed to boil over and depose any Arab regimes in the wake of the Afghanistan war. In both cases, the fallacy is the same: failing to see 1) that metastasizing hatred can work slowly, beneath the surface; 2) that, increasingly, hatred needn't be mediated by a regime (or a quasi-regime, like the Palestinian Authority) to be lethal; and 3) that the lethal leveraging of hatred—the hatred-death conversion factor—will probably grow exponentially over the next five to 10 years, as lethal technologies advance and spread. (Hamas recently moved from crude fertilizer bombs to sophisticated plastic explosives.)
Unfortunately, Krauthammer's time horizons mirror those of many politicians in a democracy. If your goal is to keep your poll numbers up for a few months or even years, it may pay to be crudely, crowd-pleasingly tough on terrorists while avoiding the messy and frustrating spectacle of addressing terrorism's causes: Just do the immediately popular things and hope that the long-run cost of your negligence doesn't show up until your successor takes office. If that is your ambition, Ariel Sharon is a fine role model.
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