Ullman: "Part of the price we pay for modernity..."

Richard Ullman, the David K.E. Bruce Professor of International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School, spoke recently with staff members of the Princeton University Communications Office about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Ullman has served as a staff member of the National Security Council and of the policy planning staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense; as director of studies of the Council on Foreign Relations; as a member of the editorial board of The New York Times ; and as editor of Foreign Policy . In 1999-2000, he was a member of the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State. He also is an FAA licensed glider pilot.

Does this attack reflect a long-term shift in the scale of terrorist activity?

Every hijacking I have ever heard of was used either to gain freedom for the hijackers themselves or to use the passengers as bargaining chips for persons in jail elsewhere. Now for the first time a terrorist organization has perceived what must surely have been obvious -- that a big aircraft loaded with jet fuel is an enormously powerful weapon. The other thing that they realized is that it does not take a genius to steer an aircraft already aloft into a large target. Anyone with a couple dozen or so hours of flight instruction and a certified death wish would thus become a terrible weapon.

The striking thing was that our assailants acted so successfully and with brilliant coordination, but also with remarkable luck. Virtually every aspect of an enormously complex operation worked. Other terrorists will almost certainly not be so lucky -- especially in the face of what will surely be a better and more alert early warning system on the part of military and civilian authorities. Our adversaries are also unlikely to be able to find so many accomplices who are both technologically competent and willing to commit suicide on demand.

Precisely because these actions are so much larger in scale than anything we've ever conceived of makes me think they are unlikely to occur on the same scale again. This may be the start of a new day in terrorism. But at the same time, in all sorts of ways, it is a new day in counter terrorism.

What can we do to reduce the risk? What should our leaders avoid?

The question of what we should not do is easier than the question of what we should do.

There is nothing that a terrorist organization would rather have than a spasm response on the part of the U.S. that went after the wrong targets. We were dreadfully off base -- in the most literal meaning of the term -- in the response that we mounted to the embassy bombings in East Africa. Were it not that loss of life occurred, it would have been a comic response. We cannot afford to retaliate or strike out unless we have far more convincing evidence than we had in the case of those two amateurish responses. [The U.S. struck a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and a training camp once used by Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.]

Now there are those who would say that we also have to mend our ways internationally -- a term like "mend our ways" connotes that our ways need mending. But there will always be terrorists closely aligned with political movements like Hamas or Islamic Holy War who would love to cause great suffering in the United States. To argue that the only way we are going to escape terrorism is to espouse the claims of, say, the Palestinians against the Israelis is something that we are not capable of doing and would be the height of cynicism. We have tried to play a relatively neutral, honest-broker role. To change our posture to one much more sympathetic to the Palestinians would not bring peace any nearer.

What kind of short-term responses would be effective?

I think, alas, they mostly have to do with transportation security, mainly measures to tighten airport security. There will probably be stricter rules about access to the aircraft cockpit. Parenthetically, I wish that someone would explain how a suitcase checked at curbside is any less subject to scrutiny than one checked at the ticket counter.

The diplomatic initiatives that would help have much more to do with our friends than with our adversaries. We need to be sure that our allies, both in NATO and in the Arab world, are with us in any significant retaliation that we initiate. But, that said, I think the U.S. can be excused a single-minded concentration on discovering the identities of our attackers and then bringing them to punishment, if not to justice. It is something our allies will understand.

In the long-term, in the rethinking that will have to take place about the worst dangers facing this country, so-called solutions like missile defense will have to get a much harder look from the Congress than would have been the case just a week ago. We now know that a 767 packed with both fuel and passengers can wreak catastrophic damage.

What kind of military action would be justifiable in your view?

If we can find the people who really are responsible, and not simply the apparatchiks who don't have real authority, if we can identify the right people, we should go after them in a devastating way. Ideally they should be seized and brought to the U.S. for trial as we have done in other instances, but if not, we should have no reservations about killing them after what they have done. I do think that the certainty that the U.S. will track down and execute the leaders of terrorist movements must have a significant deterring effect.

Now, what I wonder is whether in the past we have gotten the right people. I do not know whether the people we have tried for previous attacks are the real ringleaders. I suspect they are not. They are relatively high up in the organization, but not at the very top.

What other changes do you see for America and its relationship to the world?

I think the feeling of vulnerability will be very much at the forefront of people's consciousness.

We will have the actual ruins and perhaps the symbolic ruins in the form of a memorial for eternity to remind us of the perils of modern life. This could not have happened in the era before large jetliners and highly combustible fuel. It is part of the price we pay for modernity. The technologies of terror and violence which are now available and which have to be guarded against are part of the price we pay for all of the beneficial products of the technological revolution.

We will have failed if we conclude that we can buy physical protection only with circumscribing the liberties that we have always enjoyed. But we must also conclude that, in all sorts of ways, individuals who want to disrupt society, for whatever motives, can bring to bear much greater leverage than at any time in the past, which makes the law enforcement job of defending our citizens and our liberty much more difficult.