The Ultimate Terrorists


Weapons proliferation used to be welcome in official circles. The U.S. clung to its nuclear power, stockpiling it faster than anyone else. But with American weapons superiority now unquestioned, policy makers have a new worry: nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, some of whom even run governments. The Ultimate Terrorists is both a review of the problem of terrorism and a series of prescriptions that reads almost like a plank from the upcoming presidential election.

Jessica Stern, a former National Security Council staffer, defines terrorism as “violence against noncombatants” but distinguishes between “bad terrorism” and “good terrorism.” Examples of good terrorism are the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden, acts undeniably aimed at civilians but done with good intentions. Her focus is on bad terrorism, perpetrated by lunatic individuals and “third-rate armies” seeking to “wield disproportionate power” in the words of Defense Secretary William Cohen. Unfortunately, Stern never seems to question whether the power that Cohen wields is appropriate.

Not your traditional hawk, Stern reminds us that building five fewer Stealth bombers would free $10 billion for things like better public safety training in handling chemical and biological warfare agents. On the other hand, she doesn’t believe the U.S. should rule out nuclear weapons as a response to Iraq’s chemical-weapons attacks against its Kurdish population, thinking it best “to threaten massive retaliation without providing details about the weapons likely to be employed.”

Stern clearly believes that bad terrorism is the kind perpetrated by our enemies. When the enemy is Iraq, the U.S confronts it, but ignores the actions being taken against the Kurds in Turkey—a NATO ally. In the end, Stern implies that the U.S. government is justified in any “anti-terrorist” actions simply because, in its post–Cold War superiority, it can get away with them.