WASHINGTON - In terms of shock, anger and outrage, there are obvious similarities between the Sept. 11 suicide air assaults on New York and Washington and the bombing of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor 60 years earlier.
But the chasm of differences between these two devastating attacks must be examined and understood as we stand at the brink of what our leaders bluntly tell us will be a protracted and perilous struggle.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war in the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack, Japan and Germany were identifiable enemies.
But when President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism following the World Trade Center and Pentagon atrocities, it opened a chapter in our military history that could turn conventional warfare upside down and inside out.
Terrorism is an elusive, perpetually moving force lurking in the shadows and possessing the capability of striking almost anywhere and at almost anytime. The whole point of terrorism is to foment confusion, fear, frustration, helplessness and hopelessness; it is a strategy designed to subdue by the tactic of demoralization.
It is perpetrated by organizations that compensate for their lack of mighty armies and awesome high-tech weapons with zealotry, guile and cunning and, above all, the element of surprise.
To even begin to wage a war against terrorism, it is essential for the United States and its allies to learn what we are up against.
A start would be to study a document that has been collecting dust for more than 15 years, one prepared by 14 senior government officials headed by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, father of the current president.
The public report of the Vice President's Task Force on Combatting Terrorism was issued in February 1986, following the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the cruise ship Achille Lauro as well as the violent attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports in which 18 people were killed and another 114 wounded.
An excerpt from that report reads:
"The motivations of those who engage in terrorism are many and varied, with activities spanning industrial societies to underdeveloped regions.
"Fully 60 percent of the Third World population is under 20 years of age, half are 15 years or less. These population pressures create a volatile mixture of youthful aspirations that when coupled with economic and political frustrations help form a large pool of potential terrorists."
In its understandable anxiety to exterminate terrorism at all costs, the United States must avoid the grave mistake of doing so at the expense of humanitarian programs. With 3 billion people existing on the equivalent of $2 or less a day, we must exert this same fervor for redoubling our determination to eradicate the grinding poverty that spawns the alienation and disaffection that provide ready, willing and able candidates to uproot a world that failed them.
Western civilization, the target of radical religious fundamentalists who train and arm terrorists, has the capacity to at least alleviate the conditions that lead youths in poor countries to turn to hate and violence. Architects of terrorism ultimately fail if they cannot show gains for their efforts. In the present instance, unable to improve the lives of their minions, they hold out the promise of heavenly rewards for vanquishing Western culture. A powerful message indeed, but one with a questionable shelf life.
The focus of this new war is to deal with religious fanatics who believe that dying for their cause is a short cut to paradise. But, while we write blank checks to bolster our security, intelligence and military power, we must give at least as much attention to ensuring that the terrorists who fall are not replaced by perhaps even more zealous successors. This is more likely to be accomplished by forging a path away from deprivation than by firing bullets and dropping bombs.
Should any doubts remain with respect to the chilling accuracy of the 1986 report, consider its warning about the susceptibility to terrorism of the 60 percent of developing world population under 20 years old. Then consider that at the time that was written, virtually every one of the men who hijacked the four American jetliners on Sept. 11 was in that very age category.
Werner Fornos is the president of the Population Institute.