When Our Enemies Don't Fight 'Fair,' Neither Can We

Welcome to the world of asymmetrical warfare. OK, maybe none of us want to be in this terror and mystery-filled new world, but here we are, and here we have been, since Sept. 11. There's no proof that the American Airlines crash in Queens Monday was a terrorist attack, but there's no proof that it wasn't.

This is the terrible effect of asymmetry: Something awful happens, and we are left to worry and wonder about how and why. Right now, we are losing the battle against asymmetrical forces; as Americans mourn their losses--and look with fear upon envelopes and high-rises, airplane rides and "flu-like symptoms"--terrorists are preparing future attacks, attacks that could include weapons of mass destruction.

So we can only win if we learn new ways of fighting. That is, because our asymmetrical foes are operating in secret, we must counter their threat by forcing them into the open.

Symmetrical war is what it sounds like: Two militaries going at it, matching soldier against soldier, all wearing uniforms and flying flags. Asymmetrical warfare happens when one side breaks the model and does something different--like suddenly striking at civilian targets in New York City.

The Sept. 11 attacks against the U.S. were asymmetric, because our big army offered no protection against terrorists operating in small units against the soft underbelly of civilian society.

One's first reaction to asymmetrical warfare is that it isn't "fighting fair." And maybe it isn't. But a victorious fight is better than a fair fight.

Indeed, for centuries, the West had the advantage of asymmetrical warfare in battles in the Third World. Throughout Asia and Africa, indigenous warriors stubbornly clung to their traditional modes of warfare and couldn't withstand Europeans and Americans, who used guns, then artillery, then airplanes.

No doubt the Third Worlders thought it was "unfair" for their enemies to hide behind machines. Yet after such asymmetric defeat, some in the Third World tried to fight firepower with firepower, playing catch-up in symmetrical warfare. One such was Iraq's Saddam Hussein. He set up his own Western-style military to conquer and hold Kuwait and still failed.

So while we likely will bomb the Taliban to pieces in Afghanistan, our B-52s are of no use against the invisible Al Qaeda network. Osama bin Laden's terrorists have seen the folly of a symmetrical fight against the U.S. military, so they are doing to us today what we did to their ancestors: fighting asymmetrically.

And just as Third Worlders were flummoxed when the West went asymmetrical on them centuries ago, so we are confused when Third Worlders go asymmetrical on us today.

Our reaction so far has been totally ineffective; more than two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, we have a homeland security czar who seems to see his job as spin-doctoring, leaving Congress to haggle fruitlessly over airport security legislation.

What's next? Perhaps the alphabet of terror weapons--atomic, biological and chemical. The only sure conclusion to be drawn is that the nation isn't ready for any of these assaults, if they come, when they come.

So what should we do? The answer is obvious: Match their asymmetry with our asymmetry. If terrorists can disguise themselves as ordinary civilians, then we need a new and perhaps radical plan for stripping away their disguises. That suggests, for openers, a stronger commitment to airport surveillance, starting with better X-ray machines. Because no matter what the cause of the crash of Flight 587 on Monday, air travel, especially on U.S. carriers, is not going to recover until customers are assured that authorities are trying as hard to keep them alive as the terrorists are trying to kill them. So computerized background checks, linked to a national database, verified by a fakeproof ID card, is a critical safety measure for airline passengers, crew and airport workers.

But is this un-American? No, it's asymmetrical, and it's about time we got to it. And a serious system of identity-checking would work because deception is a precondition of terror; the sooner our enemies are uncloaked, the sooner terrorism will be defeated.

Creating an asymmetrical preserve of security around air travel would be a just response to airplane terror.

Then the question for the rest of un-ID'd America would be how long it wants to remain outside that secure zone, hoping against hope that inferior defense will somehow succeed against superior offense.

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James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail: