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Foreign Affairs; Terrorism Game Theory, by Thomas L Friedman

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): September 25, 2001, Tuesday    
Foreign Affairs; Terrorism Game Theory     By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN    .

September 25, 2001, Tuesday

Foreign Affairs; Terrorism Game Theory


When I lived in Beirut in the early 1980's -- the era when suicide bombing was born -- I had a Lebanese friend, Diala, who used to quip that whenever she traveled on an airplane she carried a bomb in her luggage, because the odds against two people carrying a bomb on the same plane were so much higher.

Diala's was one of a million mind games Lebanese played in order to survive in a city where suicide bombings and exploding cars became part of the background noise of daily life. My favorite quote from those days was from the Beirut hostess who turned to us at a dinner party one evening and asked casually: ''Would you like to eat now, or wait for the cease-fire?''

I never expected that I or my neighbors would ever have to play such mind games in America. I certainly understand why Americans are scared. I understand why at a parent-teacher meeting at my daughter's junior high school last week, there was unanimous support for postponing the eighth-grade class's trip to New York, scheduled in two weeks. I understand that this particular act of terrorism we just experienced is something so much more frightening than what Beirutis had to deal with.

How so? It is hard to trust anything after such an attack, because trust is based on a certain presumptive morality, a sense that certain actions are simply outside the bounds of human behavior or imagination. That 19 people would take over four civilian airliners and then steer three of them into buildings loaded with thousands of innocent people was, I confess, outside the boundary of my imagination. The World Trade Center is not the place where our intelligence agencies failed. It is the place where our imaginations failed.

What we know of these terrorists is that they were evil, educated and suicidal. That is a combination I have never seen before in a large group of people. People who are evil and educated don't tend to be suicidal (they get other people to kill themselves). People who are evil and suicidal don't tend to be educated.

Naturally, when our imaginations fail us in such a shocking way, there is a tendency to push out the boundaries so far that we see threats everywhere and become paralyzed. We must not. I took my family to the Baltimore Orioles baseball game last Friday night, and as we drove into the parking lot we were handed a slip of paper with ''security precautions'' -- new restrictions about things you could not take into the ballpark anymore. When I get on a plane at the airport, frankly, you can X-ray me until I glow in the dark, but I hope we are not headed for a day where we permanently do the same at ballgames and concerts.

Believe me, I'm not naĀve about these threats. But I'm still hoping that what we're dealing with here is a relatively small number of terrorists, and possibly a crazy state or two -- which, over time, can be combated and contained without totally shackling ourselves.

Beirutis had it right: There is no such thing as perfect security in today's world. All rational precautions need to be taken. But once you take them, then you basically have to decide: Am I going to sit home and hide in the basement forever, or am I, like my friend Diala, going to play whatever mind game it takes, or none at all, and just go on with my life?

My mentor in such things is my late departed friend George Beaver, a crazy Englishman who played golf -- as a man in his 80's -- almost every day of the Lebanese civil war at the Beirut Golf and Country Club. (I confess that I joined him on some days.) When I would say to him, ''You know, George, it's crazy to play golf under such conditions,'' he always had the best answer: ''I know I am crazy to do it, but I would be even crazier if I didn't.''

Unable to actually imprison us, these terrorists want us to imprison ourselves. Sorry, but no way. It breaks my heart to think about the people who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, but I will not let it break my spirit.

I went to the ballgame Friday night, took in Dvorak's ''New World'' Symphony at the Kennedy Center Saturday, took my girls out to breakfast in Washington Sunday morning, and then flew to the University of Michigan. Heck, I even went out yesterday and bought some stock. What a great country.

I wonder what Osama bin Laden did in his cave in Afghanistan yesterday?

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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