Wednesday, January 02, 2008

When a War Isn't a War

There is no more War on Terror. At least not in the language of the British government, where they’ve chosen to stop using the phrase. The U.S. government attempted much the same linguistic maneuver over two years ago. Except, in America, it was just a new name (the catchy “global struggle against the enemies of freedom”) and not really a new outlook. In Britain, the views seem to be changing with the words.

The Brits said terrorist fanatics are not soldiers fighting a war but simply members of an aimless death cult. The official added:

The people who were murdered on July 7 were not the victims of war. The men who killed them were not soldiers. They were fantasists, narcissists, murderers and criminals and need to be responded to in that way.

Well, it’s never been a “war” in the traditional sense. But neither have the events of the last decade been some crime wave carried out by an “aimless death cult.” Their aim is pretty clear: to decrease Western and Western-allied power and make room for the ascendancy of their corrupted, radical brand of Islam. The most applicable word for these terrorists is “guerilla.” Like typical guerillas, they are part of a loosely (sometimes extremely loosely) affiliated network of rebels who share a common ideology and compatible goals.

I guess “the struggle against loosely affiliated, radical Islamic guerilla terrorists” is not exactly a workable name. But it’s better than no name at all. If we do not categorize events such as 9/11, London, Madrid and others as part of an ongoing pattern, we are denying that there is a bigger picture that requires bigger strategies. Additionally, labeling the perpetrators as “fantasists, narcissists, murderers and criminals” is overly dismissive of these terrorists who very much consider themselves soldiers in a global conflict.

Language matters. Labels help guide thought. I agree that the term “war” is far too limiting and has contributed to the kind of narrow thinking that took us into Iraq. But neither is it helpful to approach these terrorists as if they are half-insane death cult members or members of some crime syndicate. The truth is more complex.

I’m sure that the British government is still taking the global threat of radical Islamic terrorism seriously. But I’m concerned by their use of language. We must find words that walk the right line between overstating and dismissing the struggle at hand.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that they consider themselves to be soldiers in a global conflict because our government has treated them as such. Start treating them like the death-cult murders that they are and prosecute them criminally.

And you can't call the invasion of Iraq part of the "war on terror" or the "struggle against loosely affiliated, radical Islamic guerilla terrorists". Either description cannot plausibly explain the destruction of a country with a secular government that had not supported terrorism against the US.

Unless the "terrorist" applies to anybody who happens to be muslim while engaging in political violence against anybody (not just us).

Ugh. Our government has used 911 as an excuse to wage an unrelated war in Iraq. They told you that what happened on 911 was part of a larger pattern, then included whoever they wanted (Saddam) into that pattern. I know some words that "walk the right line": "war" and "criminal".

But that's just not polite, is it? We wouldn't want to give ma the vapors.

4:21 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

I agree that the Iraq was unrelated to the War on Terror and that it was sold under false pretenses. In fact, I blame the Iraq war for causing many Americans and many around the world to see the whole Islamic terrorist struggle as some sort of Bush-manufactured propaganda device. It's not, but I understand why people are unwilling to trust Bush on the issue.

But I gotta seriously disagree with you on the whole death cult vs. soldier thing. The terrorists -- most of them -- call themselves soldiers, and that has much more to do with the way they see themselves than the way we treat them. Do not make the mistake of thinking U.S. actions define all other actions. Regardless of what we do, these guys think they are soldiers.

Nevertheless, criminal prosecution is probably appropriate for all but the most extreme cases.

5:58 PM  

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