On Thursday, the Taliban, declaring “victory,” freed the last of the South Korean hostages it seized in mid-July. The release came after weeks of negotiations between the group and Seoul. Qari Yousef Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, promised more kidnappings of foreigners. “We will do the same thing with the other allies in Afghanistan, because we found this way to be successful,” he explained.
The Taliban’s abductions show once again that Islamic fanatics acknowledge no boundary between civilians and military combatants. Osama bin Laden made the point after September 11 in his “letter to the American people.” His missive argues that Americans choose their government, are responsible for its policies domestic and military, and pay for them with their taxes. Thus, in Bin Laden’s view, they are legitimate military targets.
People everywhere disagree with the world’s most famous terrorist. Colin Powell eloquently expressed this view in his article in the January/February 2004 issue of Foreign Affairs:
The civilized world has spent more than a thousand years trying to limit the destructiveness of war. Drawing a distinction between civilians and combatants has been an essential part of this process. But terrorism aims to erase that distinction. We cannot allow this to happen, not because we want to “make the world safe” again for major conventional war, but because we must reassure people everywhere that the world has not just traded one kind of danger for another with the end of the Cold War.
The problem with Powell’s argument is that, despite what we may want and what we hold dear, we have in fact traded dangers. Today, we believe we are noncombatants, but in the struggle that defines our era, we indeed stand on one side. And, whether we like it or not, our adversaries have made us targets. So we may admire Powell’s fine sentiments on the distinction between civilians and soldiers, but the world, unfortunately, has changed. We are not going to prevail over our adversaries if we ignore the lesson that the Taliban gave the South Koreans—as well as the rest of us—Thursday. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, there are no more civilians.