History holds that during World War II the Army executed only one American soldier, Private Eddie Slovik. There was another, a footnote to history.
In 1944, B-24 Liberators taking off from a base in Italy began exploding when they "rotated," after the pilot pulled back on the yoke bringing up the nose of the aircraft. Planes fully loaded with fuel and bombs blew apart. Debris littering the runway stopped operations, meaning that the day's planned bombing mission either went on with aircraft already airborne or was completely cancelled. Additionally, each incident destroyed a B-24 bomber and cost the lives of 10 crewmen.
Army investigators soon discovered the cause: When the plane's nose came up, the spring in the front landing gear extended to detonate an explosive charge. It was a case of sabotage, probably carried out by an American soldier.
Further investigations focused on an enlisted man working in maintenance who was sending home large sums of cash. When questioned, he stated that the windfall resulted from luck at poker. When his poker partners told how much they had lost, the sum paled in comparison to the amounts going into the suspect's bank account back home. After further interrogation, he admitted German agents paid him to sabotage the planes. The wing commander convened a court-martial that convicted him of treason, sabotage, and murder. The death sentence was carried out immediately. It was wartime. We knew the enemy and what to do.
The "alleged human-made disasterist," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attack on Christmas Day, succeeded. Why? And what are the lessons?
First, know your enemy. Abdulmutallab is a terrorist and not a "human-made disasterist." Second, his acts were not "alleged," as President Obama stated on Dec. 28. He detonated a bomb on an airliner. Fortunately, it failed to explode. Had it done so, everyone on board would have been killed along with innocent people below celebrating Christmas with their families in their homes.
Third, it was clearly a case of Islamic terrorism for which al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility.
The definition of modern terrorism is, "an act of violence perpetrated against innocents to achieve a political purpose." This act fits the definition. The airliner was loaded with innocents: civilians, men, women, and children, people of many religious convictions, Americans and non-Americans. Additionally, since the timing coincided with an established religious holiday--Christmas--it should be classified a "hate crime," thus intensifying the penalties. Expect those charges just after it snows in Gitmo.
Although no one was killed, the Christmas attack succeeded in at least three ways:
First, hundreds of people endured hours of inconvenient post-event interrogation. Many missed connecting flights. Friends and relatives spent Christmas Day anxiously awaiting news from loved ones on the flight. This was its lowest order of success.
Second, terrorists often carry out attacks to prompt an over-reaction. Certainly the U.S. national security apparatus must react, but the reaction should be well thought out and effective.
After a sickeningly hesitant start, the reaction more resembles a mother goose flapping her wings. So far the response involves expanding existing figurative boxes that must be checked: more frisking, going through luggage, hassling everyone so as to not seem insensitive towards anyone, making travel even more uncomfortable than it already is by keeping passengers in their seats an hour before landing. The next step may be to insist passengers shut the blinds on the window so they can't tell when the plane is landing. The sound of flaps coming down and landing gear locking into place, however, cannot be muffled. A determined human-made disasterist will still know when to punch the "gateway to paradise" button.
Third, the attack will render a long-term economic effect. Today's traveling public looks forward to air travel like they do visits to the dentist. Terrorists persist because terrorism works and it is cheap. The total cost to al Qaeda for 9/11 was less $500,000; half the cost of a single cruise missile. They killed almost 3,000 people and destroyed $80 billion in property.
Wars cannot be won unless the nation under attack understands it is in a war, the nature of the aggressor and the enemy's goals. The Obama administration refuses to acknowledge that the United States is at war. Worse, it continues to blame the Bush administration rather than al Qaeda for the current "overseas contingency operations." The administration also refuses to acknowledge the nature of the enemy. Dubbing them purveyors of "human-made disasters" rather than "terrorists" has all the strategic acumen of sticking one's head in the sand to avoid recognizing a threat.
There have been two terrorist attacks in the United States since last November, with Maj. Nidal Hassan's at Fort Hood, Texas being the first. Terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq are up. The scent of blood carries far, and our enemies sense our weakness. If the United States is en route to a human-made disaster, it is one of our own making.
-- Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.
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