One particularly important point of Richardson's is that few terrorist groups have ever succeeded in achieving their stated primary aim, whether to foment a revolution or to "liberate" a territory. In fact, most of them do not really expect to do so, and are extremely vague about what they would do if they actually succeeded. Osama bin Laden has said next to nothing about what sort of society he would actually like to create, just as Marx never described in any detail what his communist utopia would look like. This may explain why the terrorist groups that have taken power have sometimes produced such incompetent rule —as was the case with Yasser Arafat.
Because terrorists tend to be aspirational rather than practical, their practices typically amount to what Ms. Richardson calls a search for the three R's of terrorism: revenge, renown, and reaction. As she puts it, "the point of terrorism is not to defeat the enemy but to send a message." This simple insight is important, because it suggests ways of dealing with terrorism: you must blunt the impulse for revenge, try to limit the terrorists' renown, and refrain from reacting in ways that either broaden the terrorists' appeal or encourage further terrorism by showing how effective their tactics are.
Richardson's three R's go a long way toward explaining why American policy has become so disastrously askew. As she notes, an act such as September 11 itself achieves the first of her three R's, revenge. So spectacularly destructive an attack also gains much of the second objective, renown. But the Bush administration's massive and misdirected overreaction has handed al-Qaeda a far greater reward than it ever dreamed of winning.
"The declaration of a global war on terrorism," says Richardson bluntly, "has been a terrible mistake and is doomed to failure." In declaring such a war, she says, the Bush administration chose to mirror its adversary:
Americans opted to accept al-Qaeda's language of cosmic warfare at face value and respond accordingly, rather than respond to al-Qaeda based on an objective assessment of its resources and capabilities.
In essence, America's actions radically upgraded Osama bin Laden's organization from a ragtag network of plotters to a great enemy worthy of a superpower's undivided attention. Even as it successfully shattered the group's core through the invasion of Afghanistan, America empowered al-Qaeda politically by its loud triumphalism, whose very excess encouraged others to try the same terror tactics.