During the Revolutionary War, British General William Howe's men captured the American Nathan Hale spying on British fortifications. Hale is immortalized among Americans for his final words, "I only regret that I have but one life to give my country". Few people remember that Howe was originally inclined to let Hale live, being impressed with his manners and courage. However, some British officers contended that Hale had been involved, possibly a leader, in the burning of Manhattan in 1776 (while a member of Knowlton's Rangers) to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. While mulling this charge against Hale, Howe was also advised that Hale allegedly participated in sniper attacks as a member of Ethan Allen's "Green Mountain Boys". Howe chose to believe that Hale had been a sniper, which in his view was an illegal and cowardly act, and he forthwith ordered Hale's execution. This incident was representative of the time; Americans revered Hale, Allen, and Washington as heroes while the British regarded their style of warfare as cowardly and unacceptable behavior for civilized military officers.
Even the British, of course, nowadays consider Washington a legitimate hero, but context is essential in grasping the meaning of public debates. It was said that Alexander ordered the immediate execution of enemy archers captured in battle, as he considered it unmanly to kill only from a distance. Of course, this was also the general whose siege tactics included catapulting the corpses of animals killed by plague into cities they attacked. In ancient China, an archer was allowed to shoot at his opponent, but could not fire his second shot until his opponent, if able, returned fire himself. Custom varied in different places and times, but was firm where it was known.
The Aztecs had a strict rule against deliberately killing an enemy on the battlefield, which sounds magnanimous until you consider that they thought it wasteful, the deaths serving a much more useful purpose as human sacrifices in ceremony. And of course in more modern times, there are the distinctive combat styles of the Nazis and the Soviets – the Nazis would commonly accept surrender from a town’s leaders only if they personally executed a number of ‘undesirables’ (partisans or Jews, for example), to show their loyalty to the Reich and by the way seal their own complicity in murder, while the Soviets often broke families apart in contentious zones, raising the children as parentless wards of the State in order to keep them “clean” of their heritage and any tendency to avenge dead parents.
All of this seems to apologize for the character of the terrorist. In fact, however, when examined more closely it reveals just how false the “culture” of the global jihad truly is. The Aztecs were brutal, yet controlled in their selection of victims and manner of killing. On the other hand, as mighty an empire as Britain was in its heyday, the British were extremely scrupulous about protecting innocents – not because the innocents had “rights”, but because as they considered themselves a superior people the British restrained themselves. Yet culture after culture has learned that it cannot compel its enemies to abide by its protocols. The Aztecs could not force the Spaniards to fight as they did, nor could Rome make Hannibal fight by its rules. Ask the British about their war in Ireland, or the Soviets about the mujahadin. Or for that matter, why China is having so much trouble crushing Tibet? No plan to fight terrorism is going to be effective unless you understand your enemy’s plan, boundaries, and limits.
Boundaries and limits are two very different things. The short explanation is that boundaries are what you will not do, while limits set off what you cannot do. Nations and cultures which enjoy a sense of superiority are likely to establish ethical boundaries which subversive groups do not use. It is an unresolved debate whether such boundaries are helpful or a liability in the war, the decision must be considered case by case but for here it is important to recognize that this difference exists in most asymmetrical conflicts.
For the civilized world (for here, we may simply say those nations which generally cooperate with the United States in security matters and which generally work to prevent terrorist operations in their territory or using their resources), winning against terrorists includes the identification of their limits – determining then implementing what would cripple their operational ability. Essentially this means attacking the three legs of recruiting, logistics, and communication of terrorist groups. The chief focus of the Bush Administration war in the Middle East employed these objectives to good result. Regardless of policy, the Obama Administration has both the resources and personnel to continue this focus effectively in a number of different ways.
The greatest threat from any terrorist group is the wide range of targets, methods, and tools it may use. The first attempt against the World trade Center in 1993 used a truck bomb, but in 2001 very different tactics were used. We are soberly reminded of the IRA taunt after an attempt on the Royal Family that evil men ‘only need to be lucky once’. No matter how Obama is seen by the world, it is certain that terrorists will attack the United States again as soon as they are able, and likely personally attack Obama as well.
Every President is a high-profile target, and the celebrity image of Barack Obama is certainly not masking his profile. This is not to say that things would be different for anyone else in the office, but that there is a clear and significant personal risk for Obama regardless of his policy or strategy choice. If by some chance that was not enough to lock his focus on the problem, President Obama should consider that his wife and daughters are also high-profile targets, especially to terrorists who consider Americans weak for valuing women as equal to men. The naïve idea that if we retreat that our enemies will leave us alone, is quickly dispelled by even a brief look at the history of terrorism, from the Black Hand in the 19th Century, to the various incarnations of Socialist radical groups in the 20th Century, to the Jihadist movements of the 21st Century.