Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold

R. James Woolsey, an attorney in Washington, was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995. Mansoor Ijaz, an American Muslim of Pakistani origin, negotiated Sudan's counterterrorism offer to the United States in 1997

Tuesday, war was declared on the United States. The madmen who commandeered four civilian jetliners as their weapons of war do not characterize any part of humanity, and those who programmed them surely will be brought to justice. But at a moment when Americans are justifiably outraged that such acts of inhumanity could take place in our midst, we must hold on to important principles that have bound us together through national tragedies in our history.

We should avoid haste in our desire for justice. Our military power may be overwhelming, but we should be absolutely certain that when we retaliate, we are doing so against the entire group that organized these acts, not sacrificial lambs acting on the fringes.

We must zealously maintain our racial and religious tolerance, avoiding blame of Islam or its followers living in the United States as the guilty parties. And we should realize that to preserve our own freedom, we must act responsibly abroad in helping others to win theirs.

When the American people and the government they elect are called on to react to such heinous crimes, it is useful to recall our past mistakes in order not to repeat them. In 1942, for example, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Earl Warren, then-attorney general of California, were central figures in ordering the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Their action was upheld in a decision written by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. That error in judgment, made by three of 20th century America’s most prominent guardians of human rights, still haunts us today.

Other more recent reactions also hold important lessons for the Bush administration as it reviews its policy options. Analytical assessments of investigative reports from the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, for example, failed to identify or adhere to investigator warnings of potential foreign state sponsorship in the planning and coordination of the attack. At the time, the FBI’s lead investigator, James Fox, was deeply concerned about the involvement of Iraq’s intelligence apparatus. His warnings were not heeded by policymakers in Washington as they pursued only the individuals responsible for carrying out the attack.


The urge to strike back, as the Clinton administration did after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, will be strong. It must be resisted until we can make a careful and considered judgment about the scope and depth of the organizing force behind these and perhaps other attacks on U.S. soil. The U.S. missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan in August 1998 are not models to follow: Some missed their targets while others were simply ill-considered and may have in fact inflamed anti-American sentiments.

Determining where the nerve center of Tuesday’s coordinated act of terrorism lies will be the most important element of our efforts to bring justice to the victims. The almost inevitable early conclusion will be to solely blame Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden. This would be unwise.

While there can be no question that Bin Laden has been deeply involved in violent terrorist acts against U.S. interests, his role in Tuesday’s events, even if important, may well not have been exclusive. A significant probability exists that Bin Laden’s organization is a subcontractor and not the mastermind in, among others, Saddam Hussein’s anti-American chess game.

The planning, coordination and access to information required to carry out the virtually simultaneous attacks in New York and Washington point significantly to the involvement of state sponsorship. The diplomatic cover, intelligence data and financial resources needed to conduct this war against the United States can only be offered by a regime whose track record against U.S. interests is proven, and Iraq comes immediately to mind. Iran’s anti-American and anti-Israeli policies, although less likely, could also be responsible.

State-sponsored terrorists have no code. It is for this reason that the American people need to understand that it is more important for our response to be accurate than quick. An old proverb says that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Revenge is not the United States’ objective; justice is. But warm or cold, we must be as sure as possible that we get the right people. If we do not, we can rest assured that the terror will not stop.