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Love Thy Terrorist?

Despite a renewed unity among Americans as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks, they are increasingly divided over which strategy to use against terrorism.

A large majority support a "war" simply aimed at bringing global terrorists to justice and eradicating their networks. The goal is to defend freedom. Victory must be total.

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A minority of Americans, however, see a need to understand the motives of terrorists - and the larger forces and conditions that lead them to kill innocent people even as they commit suicide.

They see violence and malice as a result of suffering among Muslims, and want US policy to deal with those basic causes. They want the world's only superpower to accommodate global opinion and thus avoid being so disliked. (See story, page 1.)

Both approaches - fight vs. finesse - will likely be pursued by Washington in coming months and years. The Senate, for instance, has just approved a free-trade pact with Jordan to boost that Arab nation's economy. At the same time, the US has lifted sanctions on Pakistan and successfully pushed Israel and the Palestinians to restart security cooperation.

But for now, the "war" option, or antiterrorism, has won the day. The "softer" tactic of counterterrorism will need more work to be effective.

Dangers of finessing terrorists

One danger in sympathizing with terrorists' grievances, especially their antagonism toward the US, is that such thinking could end up justifying the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, or at least lessen the condemnation of those heinous acts.

It might even lead to making concessions to terrorists' demands, or somehow morally equating US actions abroad with the killing of thousands of American civilians. Used as the sole US tactic, solving terrorists' grievances could lead to passivity toward the threat of more terrorism.

Those grievances go back centuries, and are innumerable. They range from poverty among many Arabs to a fear of secular Western dominance to US support of Israel to a US troop presence in Saudi Arabia. The West runs the risk that it could eventually handle those complaints, only to be presented with new ones.

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Dangers of 'war'

The "war" option, too, has its dangers. Trying to capture or kill radical terrorists would help recruit more Muslims to commit terrorism on US soil. It would reinforce a myth that the West is oppressing Arabs or defiling Islam.

US military action, even if well targeted, could result in innocent Muslims being killed, reducing the moral argument against terrorism and destabilizing pro-US Arab governments. Both actions would feed the terrorists' pan-Islamic cause.

US actions to further isolate nations that support terrorists will have mixed results, even as they have up to now. Still, the broader goal is to persuade ordinary, peace-loving Muslims to separate themselves from militant radicals, even if they, too, dislike the US. Reaching out to moderates in the Islamic world will take money and artful diplomacy.

Like the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who thwarted the hijackers and crashed the plane, Americans need to confront the immediate threat of terrorism. But they must also confront the moral confusion that lies behind terrorism.

Both tasks should be weighed carefully together in defending America.