Even before the events of September 11, military experts were warning of the dangers posed by the brand of terrorist warfare adopted by Osama bin Laden. The theory of “asymmetrical war” is a strategy employed by the weaker side in a conflict to compensate for — and even to profit from — its enemy’s strengths.
A small bomb placed near the ammunition room, for instance, might cripple a battleship. In fact a small bomb, ferried to the ship in a tiny supply boat, did damage the USS Cole in Aden. Such modest expenditures by the terrorist not only cause costly damage. They also force the stronger side to embark on expensive precautions over a wide expanse of territory while the terrorist can choose his point of attack from an almost infinite number of opportunities.
In his poem “Arithmetic on the Frontier,” Kipling caught the financial asymmetry exactly:
A scrimmage near a border station
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Falls to a ten rupee jezail.
At first glance the events of September 11 — in which the terrorists, armed only with primitive box-cutters seized four planes and drove three of them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, killing thousands — seem to demonstrate the usefulness of such warfare. Look more closely, however, and a very different picture emerges.
Almost every action taken by the terrorists was dictated by their need to evade the regular safety precautions of the airlines and the FAA. They used box-cutters because X-Ray machines made it too risky to bring guns or grenades on board. Because box-cutters might not be sufficient to intimidate a planeload of people inclined to resist, they had to cow other passengers by sheer force of numbers-adding potentially arousing suspicion.
And, finally, because a bomb had proved insufficient to bring down the World Trade Center six years earlier, they had to transform the hijacked planes into flying bombs, aim them at the buildings, and “suicide” themselves in the process.
An advocate of asymmetrical warfare might still judge the operation a success — cold-blooded and ruthless perhaps but also relatively cheap and very ingenious. Again, however, look more closely.
The operation may have been cheap in financial terms — $300,000 is one estimate — but it cost the lives of 19 terrorists who had been expensively trained in munitions, architecture, and flying modern airliners. (Any future such hijackings will require new suicidal devotees and new training courses.) It also demanded years of meticulous planning to outwit what until a month ago were often casual safety precautions.
Consider, by contrast, the extraordinarily rapid response of ordinary Americans to this terrorist “success.” Less than 90 minutes after the planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the passengers on the fourth plane rebelled against their captors and brought it down in Pennsylvania, sacrificing their own lives to save perhaps thousands of others and the White House.
Supporting this heroism, as Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review has pointed out, were two recent developments in American life: cell-phones and round-the-clock news. Within minutes of the attack on the twin towers, the world learned about it via radio, television, and the web. And the passengers on two of the four planes learned the news from family and friends over their cell phones.
Those passengers now found themselves in a uniquely horrific situation. Unlike all other hijackers up to that moment, they could not assume that they would suffer a few days inconvenience and humiliation before negotiations released them. They knew that they were the doomed inhabitants of flying bombs.
The first plane hit the Pentagon at almost exactly the same time as the passengers learned of their fate and before they had time to react. The second was brought down by heroic passengers. And that courageous response took not years of meticulous planning and indoctrination but minutes of spontaneous cooperation by ordinary people used to the everyday procedures of a self-organizing civil society.
Any future hijacker must now contemplate not only improved official security precautions but also the likelihood that the passengers will resist. It sharply increases the odds against him. Asymmetrical war has produced an asymmetrical response.
And the lesson goes beyond hijackings. In making war on modern civilization (a.k.a. “the West”), Osama bin Laden has taken on two forces that together are probably invincible — the first is the patient, methodical, bureaucratic procedures of the modern state, the second the spontaneous organizing power of ordinary people in a democratic society.
What took Osama years of meticulous planning in his remote cave was rendered obsolete within minutes by the courage of a randomly selected group of American travelers. He may not know it yet; he may even score a few more victories; but the Cave Man is already extinct.