Ask the people in Nickel Mines

One day last week, a suicidal gunman attacked a school where classes were in session. He shot a number of female students, five of whom died, before killing himself. Stories like this have become a regular feature on the news lately. A day doesn’t go by but that we hear of some new terrorist atrocity committed against civilians in Iraq where the victims, increasingly, are women and children. In July the civilian death toll there was 3,590. In August it was 3,009.

But the specific crime I am referring to didn’t take place in Iraq. It occurred in an Amish schoolhouse in a Pennsylvania town called Nickel Mines. The killer was named Charles Carl Roberts IV. He was 32 years old and worked as a truck driver. In a statement, his widow Marie called him “an exceptional father” and said that she and her children “grieve for the innocent lives that were lost today.”

Roberts was not Amish. Nor, as far as anyone could tell, did he bear a grudge against Amish people. When asked why he chose to wreak havoc on the children at the Amish school in Nickel Mines, a person being interviewed at the scene could only speculate that it was because the school was “an easy target.”

In its vulnerability, the Amish school in Pennsylvania was not unlike a mosque in Baghdad, where, last April, three suicide bombers dressed as Shia women blew themselves up amidst a crowd of worshippers. Looked at in this way, it even bore a family resemblance to a pair of high-rise office towers in Manhattan on what started out as a beautiful September morning in 2001.

The scale of the carnage in these various cases is different. The plight of the victims — and those they left behind — is the same.

Charles Carl Roberts IV did not, as far as we know, believe that by murdering schoolchildren he would be transported straight to some version of heaven. Unlike the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, he didn’t entertain fantasies of overthrowing the United States government. No, he was wracked with guilt about having molested children in the past and wanting to do it again. But like terrorists everywhere, his way of dealing with this was to carry his private hell into a place full of strangers and make it public. The result is that an entire community has been affected in ways it may never recover from.

What Roberts did was an act of terrorism. In the wake of such a crime there is grief, anger and an overwhelming desire to keep such things from ever happening again. We experienced these feelings on a national level after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Then, almost 3,000 people were killed and not only were the twin towers of the World Trade Center destroyed, the hub of our country’s military-industrial complex, the Pentagon, was assaulted. Sen. John McCain summed up the feelings of many that day when he exclaimed that what happened amounted to “an act of war.” President Bush took this cue and declared a War on Terror.

At the time, a few people suggested that these terrorist attacks, while horrendous, might be more effectively dealt with not as acts of war, but as crimes. Al Qaeda, they said, was neither a nation-state, nor representative of Islam, but more like a criminal gang and should be dealt with accordingly. This was not a plea for kid glove treatment; in fact, it recognized that harsh measures were justified and necessary — and available under the terms of existing laws, treaties and alliances.

But the president played to the country’s anger and publicly scorned those who advocated treating terrorism as a crime, claiming instead that doing battle with evil was now the defining mission of his generation. Since 2001, the administration has spent $430 billion on “the global war on terrorism” with nearly 90 cents of every dollar going to the Defense Department. Tens of thousands of American soldiers have been maimed fighting an elusive enemy in Afghanistan and Iraq; almost as many have now been killed in those places as died on Sept. 11. Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden, the man behind that crime, is still at large.

Although it is our government’s policy not to negotiate with terrorists, since terrorists are criminals representing nobody but themselves, President Bush refuses to think of terrorism as a criminal activity. Oddly, the one clear result of this approach has been an unprecedented consolidation of power in the executive branch of our government. The recent bill on detainee treatment, for example, authorizes the president to seize anybody who he believes has “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.” Such people can be held indefinitely in a military prison and subjected to what is defined as “serious” physical pain.

A liberty-wrecking law like this one won’t prevent a group of suicidal losers from scheming to blow up a bus any more than it might have stopped Charles Carl Roberts from killing those school children. That’s because terrorism is more about madness than method. We can try to contain it and prevent it when we are able. We can make fear the compass of our everyday lives. But can we ever win a war on terror?

Go ask the people in Nickel Mines.