Monday, October 30, 2006

We Are Fighting Terrorists

In your most recent post, Mr. Beerman, you defined a terrorist as “someone that engages in acts of terror,” noting, however, that “this definition is so vague that it is close to meaningless.”

I agree with you on the latter account, and would offer a second, perhaps broader definition of a terrorist: one who engages in politics outside of established, oftentimes lawful, channels. I present this definition for two reasons:

1. It removes the negative connotation associated with “acts of terror”
2. It provides space for interpretation across socio-political boundaries and ideologies

Admittedly, my definition is equally vague. It places terrorists in such a broad context so as to include just about anyone with a bone to pick. Hillary Rodham Clinton, with her references to latent racism in the GOP, is a card-carrying terrorist by my definition. And we shouldn’t exclude our current George Bush, who, as Mr. Beerman suggests, is “using tactics [in the war on terror] that should be considered criminal.”

But again, I purposefully left room for interpretation – and, hopefully, serious questioning – to challenge “normal,” American-held conceptions of terrorists. To view terrorists so narrowly is to cut ourselves at the knee. Take airport screening, for example. If we limit our security efforts to young, seemingly Arab men, we are making it that much easier for a middle-aged, white woman to carry her bag of plastic explosives on the plane. We need to accept a larger definition of terrorists if we are going to fight them effectively.

So how do we fight them, you ask? I would argue we don’t. If we assume “the global war of terror,” as Mr. Beerman writes, “should not be directionless campaigns against undefined enemies,” then we’ve already lost. We’re on a snipe hunt in Afghanistan, and Iraq, well, who knows about Iraq. Both campaigns, by Mr. Beerman’s definition of warfare – “Wars are serious business…with clearly defined enemies and goals” – are politically worthless endeavors that guarantee America’s loss.

Can we, then, unequivocally define our enemies and goals when combating noncombatants? I would argue no – its part of the brilliance of terrorism. It’s also brilliant for terrorists to perform unimaginable atrocities on a nation that is pinned as a bastion of civility and human rights. It would be stupid for Osama bin Laden to accept American notions of warfare and resign his followers to our tactics.

The war on terror is ambiguous because we are fighting a faceless enemy (that doesn’t wear uniforms) that defends an ideology (not a nation with defined borders). Consequently, traditional military tactics, and associated codes of conduct, simply won’t work against al Qaeda. To win the “war on terror” we should, first and foremost, stop packaging it as a war, which carries an inherently militaristic connotation. Instead, we should target the political motivations of terrorists because, after all, they just might have a legitimate reason for detonating a car bomb, throwing rocks at police officers, or distributing anti-government literature. America should not target terrorists – we will always, always lose in a battle of symmetric warfare – and spend more time addressing the causes of terrorism.


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