Shortly after the end of the War of 1812, a strange event took place which changed the world. Naval officers, then diplomatic officials of the American and British governments agreed to cooperate to seek out and destroy pirate operations in the Caribbean Sea. The new policy took decades to fully effect, but eventually ended piracy in the Western Hemisphere as a major threat. The episode is significant not only because of the drastic shifts in policy, but also as a rejection of the contemporary belief that piracy was impossible to eradicate, a problem the civilized would have to accept and deal with as an unpleasant reality. It is further significant that the effort to wipe out piracy was not limited to one nation, nor was it the property of only one political party. The effective resolution of international terrorism by Jihadist factions requires a similar purview.
The shock of the 9/11 attacks united the nation – for a moment – and focused attention on the true cause and foundation of the culprits. But soon after, groups reverted to their nominal postures, which behavior may be generally categorized as reactive, passive, and proactive.
The majority of Americans hold a position regarding terrorism that may be described as reactive. That is, their desire for a certain action is in response to something that happens to provoke that reaction. Therefore, when thousands of Americans were killed in the 9/11 attacks, most Americans wanted to find and attack the men responsible. Most Americans supported the invasion of Afghanistan to remove the Taliban, because of clear connections between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The war in Iraq was also initially popular, because of Saddam Hussein’s behavior which appeared to demonstrate support for terrorism (which was true) as well as a threat of WMD use (which turned out not to be true). Reactive opinions tend to shift focus over time, preferring predictable routine to unusual conditions.
Some Americans opposed any military action whatsoever with regard to the terrorist attacks. This position is the passive position. These people want terrorism to treated as a crime, with the nominal legal framework used to pursue and punish the attackers. The problem with the passive approach is that it has already been shown to be ineffective against large groups, as the planners and leaders stay out of legal reach. The 1993 bomb attack against the World Trade Center built a case against only the lowest-level participants, for example.
The third group contends that the best strategy in attacking terrorism is to strike at its source. This group is the proactive or peremptory group. The position is often controversial, as is evidence by shifting public and congressional opinion on the Iraq war, but has a solid core of support, especially among military. The proactive strategy has not been used successfully very often, although there are historical precedents in the Napoleanic Wars, the campaigns of Genghis Khan, and the Six Day War of 1967, among others.
The significant lesson in addressing these three groups, is to understand that all three exist to varying degrees, and any effective plan must take all of them into consideration.