Civis Americana Sum:
A Solution to Terrorism
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, 09/06/96
(C) 1996, William A. Levinson
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2000 years ago, robbers ambushed a traveler. He took out a Roman passport (or whatever they used in those days) and said, "Civis Romana sum!" "I am a Roman citizen!" The attackers let him go immediately.
Today, some Americans carry fake foreign passports when traveling overseas. Terrorists who hijack ships or airplanes often demand the travelers' passports, and select the Americans for kidnapping or execution.
Why is modern America more vulnerable to terrorism than ancient Rome? We have weapons that can level cities, spy satellites that can read license plates, computers with fingerprint files, and forensic DNA analysis. The Romans had swords, spears, and eyewitness evidence. The Romans, however, had the right mindset. Their policy toward bandits, robbers, and the like was, "Oderint, dum metuant." "Let them hate, as long as they fear."
Non-Romans who murdered Romans were subject to crucifixion. There is a story that Julius Caesar opposed this torture, and ordered his soldiers to kill the malefactors humanely. He nonetheless hung the bodies on crosses, with placards describing their offenses, for all to see. Had the French language existed, Caesar might have said, "Pour encourager les autres," or, "To encourage (as an example for) the others." Would-be killers who saw the bodies quickly understood that it was unhealthy to murder Roman citizens.
Now consider the Achille Lauro hijacking. Several terrorists took over a cruise ship, killed a wheelchair-bound American citizen, Leon Klinghoffer, and threw his body overboard. The United States captured the terrorists by forcing their plane to land in Italy. An Italian court tried them, and gave them fifteen or twenty years.
A hundred years ago, any nation's warship could capture and prosecute pirates. There were no long civilian trials, appeals, or lenient prison terms with chances for parole or escape. There was a court martial, and, if the verdict was guilty, a prompt hanging.
We knew how to handle terrorism a long time ago, and we didn't have much trouble with it. The Barbary Pirates demanded tribute from the United States, and we sent Stephen Decateur after them. In 1904, a Moroccan radical named Raisuli kidnapped Pedicaris, an American citizen. Theodore Roosevelt demanded, "Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead!" and got Pedicaris alive.
The United States can afford millions, or even billions, of dollars to pay informers. Terrorists cannot have a training camp if an informer might betray it to our missiles and bombers. A satellite can verify the target, in case the informer is a double agent who wants us to destroy an innocent village.
A terrorist leader cannot be effective if his closest associates can enrich themselves by killing him or, in a nation that has an extradition treaty with the United States, by betraying him to the police. Thomas More's Utopia recommended this tactic: since no one in the enemy organization can trust anyone else, the organization disintegrates.
The United Nations, and even some Americans, criticize Israel for invading Lebanon to attack terrorists. In 1916, Pancho Villa and his bandits raided American cities in Texas. Woodrow Wilson, a liberal Democrat by contemporary standards, ordered General Pershing to pursue Villa into Mexico. Today, we'd probably ask the UN for a General Assembly resolution, a peacekeeping force, and "safe areas" for Texans. And we wonder why they hijack or blow up our airplanes, and set off bombs in our cities.
Let's talk about bombs in cities. We need to remind terrorist governments that we can detonate bombs in their countries, wherever and whenever we want. I do not support retaliation against innocent civilians, but putting a cruise missile or smart bomb through the dictator's bedroom window is another matter. We should send Khadafy, Assad, and the Iranians videotapes of the smart bomb going down the ventilation shaft ("Use the Force, Luke!") during Desert Storm. Saddam, no doubt, remembers it.
Congress and the President are grandstanding as usual, and calling for antiterrorist legislation. We don't need new laws, we need to enforce the old ones. We don't need laws to make it illegal for American citizens to give money to terrorist organizations. Congress simply needs to treat the terrorists as foreign paramilitary organizations, and declare war on them. It is illegal for Americans to assist enemies of the United States.
Some terrorists claim to be soldiers whom we should treat as prisoners of war. Let's do exactly that. International law requires combatants to wear uniforms. Terrorists disguise themselves as civilians, which is a capital military crime. If they attack the United States while wearing uniforms, I agree that we should treat any survivors as POW's.
The United States should always seek respect, and not hate or fear. If, however, terrorists take this for weakness and irresolution, they must learn the full meaning of oderint, dum metuant. The next time they ask for passports, Americans must not be afraid to declare, "Civis Americana sum!"