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SIPA Forum Discusses Origins of Terrorist Attacks and Analyzes U.S. Response

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As Americans continued efforts to recover from the Sept. 11 attacks New York City and Washington, D.C., Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), said the airplane crashes into the World Trade Center represented "a global conflict in a changing world."

"The World Trade Center is in some ways an American symbol and in some ways a symbol of globalization," said Anderson. "There is an acute sentiment in the Middle East that links American hegemony and globalization. I don't think terrorists choose their symbols thoughtlessly. The attack on the World Trade Center was an attack on America, but it was also an attack on an international system."

Anderson's comments were made during a SIPA-sponsored forum, "After the Attack," which also included Gary Sick, acting director of the Middle East Institute, and Richard Bulliet, a history professor who is also part of the SIPA faculty.

The Bush Administration has focused on Saudi Arabian native Osama bin Laden, whose network may reach as many as 40 countries, as the prime suspect behind the attacks. But Sick and Bulliet cautioned against making hasty judgments about the source of the Sept. 11 tragedies.

"It is unlikely Osama bin Laden could have financed this from family money," said Bulliet, referring to bin Laden's inherited fortune. "This was a personnel and capital operation more than a materials operation. Unless he bought Microsoft stock at just the right time, he's not just relying on what he inherited."

"Normally, investigations into terrorist activity turn up some real surprises," said Sick, noting that the U.S. originally misidentified the culprits behind the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. "There's a lot to be said for keeping an open mind. If we universally as a nation made up our mind that it was Osama bin Laden, we'd be closing our minds to a lot of other possibilities."

Sick also said the U.S. government must think rationally in responding to the attacks.

"We must not, in effect, do what the terrorists do and kill thousands of innocent civilians," said Sick, who served in the Carter administration during the Iran hostage crisis. "We need to define our targets carefully and not make things worse.

"It's important for people to press government to make sensible decisions," he added. "Having a clear sense of where we want to come out in this is important. And right now I don't think we have a sense of our long-term objectives."

Sick specifically spoke against using assassinations to achieve U.S. aims.

"Assassinations don't change the circumstances, there is no due process, you often get the wrong people and it often sparks new cycles of violence," he said. Bulliet offered different approaches the United States and other nations could take in tracking down those behind the attacks.

"We have to keep in mind war doesn't necessarily mean combat," he said. "In this instance, the interdiction of finances is as important as any military action. We also need to look at the institutional structure of the hijackers. Where did they go to school? We need to find the institutions that advocate this."

But Bulliet added that tracing the source of the Sept. 11 attacks will be an uphill battle.

"In terrorism, usually the aims are pretty clear and they are usually low cost in monetary terms," he said. "This is something quite different. Unless we get more intelligence, we're going to have a hard time trying to understand this."

Published: Sep 19, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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