Terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., have focused the attention of many on the dangers of militant Islam. But as usual, our vacuous talking heads and elites are overlooking the two most important aspects of the attack: the revival of the centuries-old violent conflict between Islam and Christianity, and the growing capacity and sophistication of non-state organizations to challenge the nation-state.

Historian John Keegan tells us that “Islam has bloody borders.” We must look with a jaundiced eye on those who claim these terrorist acts represent only a tiny splinter group of crazed fanatics—the implication being that all other Muslims are peaceful liberal democrats just like us. Granted, these acts of violence are being conducted by a fanatical minority, but the TV scenes of mobs cheering in places like Islamabad and Gaza demonstrate that there is growing support for jihad upon the Christian West, particularly the United States. Our retaliatory acts will only foster more support for terrorists in Islamic countries.

Future historians may well view September 11, 2001, as the opening blow of the latest round in the clash between Islam and Christendom. Israeli historian Martin van Creveld reminds us: “If the growing militancy of one religion continues, it almost will compel others to follow suit. People will be driven to defend their ideals and way of life . . . Thus Muhammad’s recent revival may yet bring on that of the Christian Lord, and He will not be the Lord of love but of battles.”

The terrorist attacks also demonstrated the growing ability and sophistication of private, non-governmental organizations to challenge the monopoly on violence that the nation-state claims for itself. Our surveillance satellites, unclear weapons, carrier battle groups, stealth bombers, and other push-button war gadgetry failed to deter the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. Those acts demonstrated a coordinated, well-planned effort normally associated with the military operations of advanced nation-states. Our terrorist foes are fighting by their own rules, not those of the Pentagon—and our rules of war may be outdated.

Our response to this threat will not be limited to bombing a few of Osama bin Laden’s caves into dust or accelerating Afghanistan’s drive to return to the Stone Age. The military response, the politicians’ much-touted “war on terrorism,” will resemble a counter-guerrilla war, and our Armed Forces and citizens are ill equipped to conduct such a campaign. To win the war on terrorism, our troops must become as ruthless as their will-o’-the-wisp enemy. Our foes lack any scruples in conducting their jihad, but our troops have ethics, and in the age of CNN warfare, we will fare badly. Such an endeavor will take a long time, and it will not be bloodless. Will the American public endure such a lengthy effort? Given the Vietnam experience, I would be tempted to say no, but since the carnage occurred within the United States, that attitude may change.

While the politicians beat the war drums, they seem to be acting like criminologists, claiming they will “hunt down and bring to justice ” those responsible. Hauling bin Laden before some court will not deter future acts of terrorism. What should we do with terrorists? My remarks to students at Washington & Lee University in 1997 are just as applicable today: “Hunt ’em down and kill ’em like rabid dogs.” We had better be prepared to do this, rather than treat terrorists as criminals—because that will not halt terrorism.

Failure to counter terrorism successfully will have dire consequences for the American nation-state, because it will have failed to fulfill one of its most elemental functions: protection of its citizens. When a state fails to protect its citizens, it forfeits their loyalty, and this loyalty will be transferred to whatever group or organization can protect them. The attacks in New York City and on the Pentagon are symptomatic of the nation-state’s faltering ability to retain its monopoly on violence—or, in plain words, to protect its citizens’ lives and property. Nobody knows what the ultimate significance of this failure would be, but it is likely to be eventful—and very bloody.