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Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2001 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Steven Lubet

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Our 'different kind of war' isn't completely unprecedented -- NOW that ground troops have seen their first action in Afghanistan, and as anthrax-laced envelopes continue to arrive at government and media offices, there can be no doubt that our nation has entered a protracted war against an elusive enemy.

In nearly every public pronouncement, the Bush administration has emphasized that this will be a "different kind of war" to be fought with unconventional means. In the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: "There is not going to be a D-Day, as such, and I'm sure there will not be a [surrender] ceremony on the Missouri."

The greatest difference, of course, is that we are not fighting against a nation, or even a group of nations. Instead, our enemy is an international terrorist network, evidently headquartered in Afghanistan, but with clandestine cells spread across the globe. No single attack can defeat such a decentralized, loosely organized enemy.

There is no template or model for fighting this war, but it turns out that it is not completely unprecedented. History has seen at least one other protracted military campaign against a murderous international network that victimized innocent civilians. And while the comparison is not precise, there are still lessons that may be drawn.

Beginning in 1807, Great Britain embarked upon a "war" against the trans-Atlantic slave trade that lasted for well over 50 years. We can call it a war because the British used the Royal Navy, and occasionally land forces, to pursue, capture and sometimes destroy the slavers and their resources. We can also draw an analogy between 19th-century slave traders and 21st-century terrorists, and not only because both targeted innocent populations. To defenseless men and women in chains, what was slavery if not a form of terror?

Even more relevant is that the slavers acted privately, in the sense that they were not employed or directed by any nation. Each slave ship can be thought of as a separate cell, indeed a floating cell, only loosely tied to a central authority. The slave trade was, in fact, a vast, international, criminal network supported and encouraged by many states but acting independently of any government.

At first, the British limited their efforts to the interception of individual slave ships, attempting to capture them at sea. The slave captains were charged with piracy and brought to trial in ports such as Havana and Sierra Leone. This early endeavor at international justice had relatively little impact on the slave trade, since the Atlantic coastlines of Africa and the Americas proved virtually impossible to patrol. The great majority of slave ships managed to evade capture or to frustrate successful prosecution.

Thwarted in their efforts at interdiction, the British employed a more direct approach. They began to bombard the baracoons, or slave forts, on the West African coast. By going to the very source of the evil, the Royal Navy solved the problems that had rendered arrest and prosecution so ineffective. The destruction of the baracoons damaged the slave trade more thoroughly than any conceivable number of naval patrols.

Unfortunately, diplomatic pressure forced the British to call off their military raids. Too many interests - both European and African - had a financial stake in the slave trade. As one sorrowful measure of retreat, the number of slaves transported to Cuba more than doubled in a single year.

Diplomacy was always important to the British as essential to their geopolitical strategy. It was also argued that the slave trade could not be suppressed without the cooperation of nations such as the United States, France, Spain and Portugal. The paradox, of course, was that several of these countries, most notably Spain and Portugal, depended on the slave trade for revenue and colonial labor. Thus, the British spent decades attempting to bring the "sponsors of slavery" into a grand anti-slaving coalition.

The successes of this policy were often paper-thin, resulting in a number of unenforceable treaties and declarations. The failures of the policy suffered the Middle Passage. As many as 2 million slaves arrived in Cuba and Brazil between 1807 and 1860. No one knows how many died on the journey.

To their enormous moral credit, the British persevered. The Atlantic slave trade more or less ended by the time of the American Civil War, more than 50 years after the first attempts to stop it. Tragically, the enslavement of Africans continued. It continues even today.

And the lessons from the first international war against terror? There are two. First, diplomacy, coalition building and law enforcement all have their uses. Second, extraordinary evil must be combated with extraordinary measures.

JWR contributor Steven Lubet is Professor of Law at Northwestern University and the author, most recently, of Nothing But the Truth: Why Trial Lawyers Don't, Can't, and Shouldn't Have to Tell the Whole Truth . Comment by clicking here.


09/25/01: Dangerous idealism: Crisis must be approached through rules of engagement, not rules of procedure
08/16/01: Who died and made the federal judges gods?

© 2001, Steven Lubet