Not long ago, my son and I had a dinner argument over the war against radical Islamist terrorism. He’s a brilliant academic, about to enter graduate school for either math, physics, or both, but he sometimes gets trapped in his rationalism — which, to be honest, isn’t exactly the worst thing a father could wish for his son. He insisted that violence only made the problem worse, and that we had to find a negotiated settlement with Islamist terrorists.

Alan Dershowitz had an answer for that in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. In an essay entitled “Worshippers of Death,” Dershowitz argued that the West has to understand that terrorists use our rationalism as perhaps their greatest weapon against us:

Now there is a new image of mothers urging their children to die, and then celebrating the martyrdom of their suicidal sons and daughters by distributing sweets and singing wedding songs. More and more young women — some married with infant children — are strapping bombs to their (sometimes pregnant) bellies, because they have been taught to love death rather than life. Look at what is being preached by some influential Islamic leaders:

“We are going to win, because they love life and we love death,” said Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. He has also said: “[E]ach of us lives his days and nights hoping more than anything to be killed for the sake of Allah.” Shortly after 9/11, Osama bin Laden told a reporter: “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.”

“The Americans love Pepsi-Cola, we love death,” explained Afghani al Qaeda operative Maulana Inyadullah. Sheik Feiz Mohammed, leader of the Global Islamic Youth Center in Sydney, Australia, preached: “We want to have children and offer them as soldiers defending Islam. Teach them this: There is nothing more beloved to me than wanting to die as a mujahid.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech: “It is the zenith of honor for a man, a young person, boy or girl, to be prepared to sacrifice his life in order to serve the interests of his nation and his religion.”…

As more women and children are recruited by their mothers and their religious leaders to become suicide bombers, more women and children will be shot at — some mistakenly. That too is part of the grand plan of our enemies. They want us to kill their civilians, who they also consider martyrs, because when we accidentally kill a civilian, they win in the court of public opinion. One Western diplomat called this the “harsh arithmetic of pain,” whereby civilian casualties on both sides “play in their favor.” Democracies lose, both politically and emotionally, when they kill civilians, even inadvertently.

Dershowitz challenges Western preconceptions about the definition of combatants in an age of symmetrical warfare. Instead of generals fighting the last war, the entire civilization has reacted to the asymmetrical terrorist conflict with the wrong notion of which side has the short end of the asymmetric stick. It’s not just the suicide bomber who qualifies as an “illegal combatant”, but also the civilian who allows the construction of the bomb in his home, the civilian who sends money to support terrorist activities, and the mosque where such activities get planned.

That’s a far cry from the Western notion of war, and its scope reveals that the West may find itself outnumbered, if not outgunned, in this war. If we want to dismantle the networks that support and create terrorism, then we have to adjust our definitions of civilian and combatant accordingly. That change has been forced on us by the terrorists, which is one of the reasons we cannot abide their presence: they want real non-combatants to die in droves in order to undermine our morale, precisely because we want to remain in a World War II mentality.

Does that mean we should reject rationalism and our humanity and kill everything in sight? Of course not. I don’t want my son to think that we have to wipe out all Muslims any more than I want Muslims to think that they have to wipe out all Christians and Jews. We do have to understand, however, that strikes on terrorists who bury themselves among civilians will create the collateral damage terrorists fully intend as a demoralizing influence on our will to resist them.

In short, we need to understand this war as something other than Hitler rolling into Poland or Japan bombing a naval base in Pearl Harbor. We face a network of radical theological nihilists who want to destroy civilization by using our civilized impulses against us. We have to maintain those impulses but not shy away from doing the necessary work of ridding the globe of this new and dangerous cancer, militarily, politically, and financially. That will require the West to understand that the collateral deaths are the fault of the terrorists, whether that is in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, or anywhere else where terrorists launch attacks in the midst of civilians.

In short, it requires the West to dump the fantasy of the old set-piece paradigms and get serious about saving millions and perhaps billions of lives in the long run by doing what needs to be done now. The irrational do not seek a negotiated solution, and rationality cannot be rescued by surrendering to the irrational.