WASHINGTON — How can we put the civil back into civilization? Tuesday's horrific attacks snapped us into a profoundly different and much more dangerous world. More than one of history's pages has turned. We seem to have stepped into a whole new chapter of human history, with the story going the wrong way.
The very tools that brought us forward now leave us each feeling more vulnerable. We already knew that our indispensable computers could be used against us; now we discover that our trusted passenger airplanes can be made into excellent bombs.
We travelers were confident in statistics showing that we were safer in the air than on the drive to the airport. Now we recognize that all it takes is a kamikaze pilot to convert a haven into a guided missile bigger than anything in the military's arsenal.
It is more than the recognition that our tools can be turned against us. What really marks this new chapter is the shock of discovering a willingness to kill that exceeds anything the modern military has in mind. Just when we thought we'd invented forms of war that were almost bloodless, we find among us people willing to kill at levels we thought humanly impossible. Indeed, the enemies waging this new combat seem to prefer hugely lethal tactics.
Fuel-filled airplanes are not required. In Rwanda just a few years ago, malevolent "leaders" set neighbor killing neighbor. Eight hundred thousand citizens died in a hundred days, many hacked to death by teenagers with farm-tool machetes. In this new, dangerous world, a community whipped to a frenzy by demagogues with a radio station can be as deadly as a nuclear bomb. In a fragile society, the shock waves of refugees, disease, and destruction can roll through whole countries.
We may not yet have seen the upper limits. For people willing to kill at these levels, nuclear devices and germ attacks may not be out of bounds.
How do we respond? The real story of this new chapter will be the historian's narrative of how we capped this violence, of how we restored a sense of personal security and neighborly trust to our communities.
Vengeance is not the answer, however satisfying the impulse. If we needed instruction, the pointless cycles of retaliation and revenge now fueling the violence in the Middle East remind us that the goal of our immediate response must be to punish in a way that decisively stops the escalation and deters future imitators. More security will not be enough. This is a world of wonderful mobility, whether by airplane, computer, or television. After we have tightened the procedures at the airports and posted more police, some of these killers will still be among us, managed by masters hidden almost anywhere.
A still bigger, even higher-tech military will not be enough. We already maintain the most modern and powerful military apparatus in the world. After we have attacked this set of perpetrators, even killed them if we can find them, we and our friends in other countries will still be vulnerable in this new era to other groups hiding in other places in a world vastly larger than even we can police.
Better intelligence will not do it, either. Just as different species of malaria-bearing mosquitoes respond to our newest attacks with new immunities, the many different armed groups in the world keep evolving new ways of eluding, even misleading, our search efforts.
Of course, we can and must make improvements in all those categories, but we are in a new world where just plugging holes in the ordinary machinery of protection - our military, police, and intelligence procedures - cannot provide a seamless and durable barrier.
Is there a strategy that might restore our sense of safety? We need an approach that doesn't cost us our personal liberties with the Draconian "protections" of a police state or isolate our country in a fortress. We need a strategy that does not drag us into pointless cycles of retaliation and revenge. We need to move upstream from reaction to prevention.
Where to begin? We can start by recognizing that we are not in this alone. The whole television-watching world is as shocked and threatened by these attacks as we. Already familiar with ruthless killers and car bombs, a great many people around the world will be ready to combine with us in a collective effort.
We need also to examine these "terrorists" and their willful masters more closely.
A new breed is succeeding the old-style primitives. Instead of purist fanatics pursuing a private nirvana, the new terrorist is a pawn deployed by a ruthless leader looking to harvest stature, power, and lots of money from killing and chaos.
And we need above all to trust our democracy and thereby ourselves. Our own common sense and our own human values vastly outweigh any of these assaults.
Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, is the founding chairman of The Strategy Group, a global action network of professional peacebuilders.