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The threat goes beyond terrorism

Published Sep. 2, 2005

There was something symbolic about the fact that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service sent out letters approving visas for the terrorist leaders Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi and that those letters arrived at their Florida flight school on the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 massacre, which the two of them directed. Some things you just can't make up.

It was symbolic precisely because we are forgetting some of the most important truths about Sept. 11 _ so why shouldn't the INS? Sept. 11 was about a very new kind of threat. And it wasn't mere terrorism.

Real terrorists don't want to kill a lot of people. Rather, they use limited, but indiscriminate, violence or hijacking to create noise or fear that draws attention to their cause and ultimately builds political or diplomatic pressure for a specific objective.

That's why Osama bin Laden is not a mere terrorist. He has much larger aspirations. He is a super-empowered angry man who has all the geopolitical objectives and instincts of a nation-state. He has employed violence not to grab headlines but to kill as many Americans as possible to drive them out of the Islamic world and weaken their society. That's why the Sept. 11 hijackers never left a list of demands, as terrorists usually do. Their act was their demand. Their demand is victory.

What enabled bin Laden, as a super-empowered angry man, to challenge a superpower was his ability to invent his own missile delivery system to rival ours. We have computer-guided missiles. He had human guided missiles: 19 young, educated Arab men ready to hijack an airliner and commit suicide with it against a major target. But always remember that Sept. 11 could have been worse. One of bin Laden's human missiles could have carried a nuclear device. The only reason it didn't happen was that the hijackers couldn't get one.

Since that is the case, the proper, long-term U.S. strategic response to Sept. 11 should be twofold: First, we must understand exactly who these 19 suicide bombers were and how they were recruited. We need to know how these human guided missiles are assembled. Second, we need to launch an all-out global effort to make sure that all nuclear and biological warfare materials are under as tight a control as possible.

"Historically, there has always been a gap between people's individual anger and what they could do with their anger," said the Harvard University strategist Graham Allison. "But thanks to modern technology, and the willingness of people to commit suicide, really angry individuals can now kill millions of people if they can get the right materials. We can't change their intentions overnight, but we can make sure that the materials that can transform their rage into something that threatens us all are locked away in places as secure as Fort Knox."

That means investing even more U.S. energy and money in working with Russia to secure its stockpiles because Russia and America have 99 percent of the world's nuclear and biowarfare materials. And, after Russia, focusing on China, India, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. Unfortunately, the Bush team seems to focus only on Iraq. It's not that Iraq is not a problem, but it's not at the top of my list.

What worries me most for my daughters' future is not Saddam Hussein. He's a homicidal dictator who can be deterred, or eliminated, by conventional means. No, what worries me most is the fact that we still don't understand who those 19 hijackers were. What worries me is that nearly every day for the past six months, Palestinian men and women _ many of them secular, not religious _ have strapped dynamite around their waists and blown themselves up against Israeli targets. How do you deter young people who hate us, or Israel, more than they love their families or their future?

It will take us a long time, and much diplomatic therapy, to cure such intentions. But what we can do now is limit the capabilities of such people. We are not the only ones with an interest in this. If suicidal warfare becomes "normal," the Arab regimes won't be spared. Because once people feel empowered by this sort of thing, they won't stop with just the infidels _ they will turn it on their own autocrats. And if it becomes "normal," it will be awful for Palestinians, because how their state is born matters, and a state brought about by suicide bombers will forever be deformed.

And if it becomes "normal" in this integrated world, it will touch your kids and mine in a way that will make Iraq look like a day at the beach.

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service