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War - Huh?
March 14, 2002
By Noel O'Connor

In his speech from the South Lawn of the White House on March 11, George Bush encouraged the nations of the world to "remove the terrorist parasites" from their own lands, an invitation to extend the "war on terrorism" to any locale on the planet it is deemed necessary. If the US doesn't have it's own troops there already, any nation needing "training or resources to meet this commitment, America will help" said the leader of the free world.

This seemingly generous statement, on closer examination, only serves to illustrate even further the dangerously simplistic worldview being propagated by this administration. Terrorism is evil, and we'll destroy it. End of discussion.

Absolutely no attempt is made to inquire any deeper into a terrifyingly complex issue. As far as the Bushes, Cheneys and Rumsfelds of the world think, terrorism appeared on September 11, we know what it looks like, and we're damn well gonna kill it.

But, despite the unwillingness of the US government to face the fact, nothing about this issue is simple. A debate about terrorism raises questions that do not slide neatly into predetermined answer slots; it raises questions that have defied simple pigeon-holing since the dawn of time.

What is terrorism? Should be an easy one, hmm? But, wait a second. Is it the giving of support and supplies to those who perpetrate violent acts? Is it the use of genocide against unarmed civilians in order to force a submission from an enemy? Is it the violent attempts of a self-styled group of guerillas to overthrow a legitimate government?

Well, better round up the instigators of the Iran-Contra affair, the bombing of Hiroshima and the American Revolution, respectively. And, no, I'm not being facetious. It simply outlines the difficulty of defining what is essentially never agreed upon by any two parties.

In 1916, a small band of gunmen seized the General Post Office Building in Dublin, Ireland, and held it against a siege by the forces of the British Government that devastated the city. When the siege ended - as it was inevitably bound to do - with the recapture of the building by the British Army, the arrests were made of several men regarded by the British Authorities as the "ringleaders" of the plot. Those men were shot as terrorists by the British Government. The Irish named streets after them.

Who is a terrorist? Well, like beauty, it pretty much resides in the eye of the beholder - or at least, in the pen of the historian. Does this excuse or justify the acts of September 11? Absolutely not. Nothing justifies the killing of innocents. But that's the point. The government's position is that it CAN justify the killing of innocents - as long as it labels those killings as "collateral damage" or some other Orwellian double speak. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" goes the old maxim.

There are those who will angrily dismiss this as moral relativism. But terrorism IS relative. To Chechnya, they're freedom fighters - to Russia, terrorists. In China, the brutal suppression of religious expression is explained away as action against terrorists. It seems the only thing about terrorists we can agree on is that we all know who they are, and they're not us.

Who gets to define what terrorism is? Is it like the late Justice Stewart's famous quote on pornography, "I know it when I see it"? I can't say I have the answer, but I know that as a standard for defining a "war", it is arbitrary and useless.

So, left holding a limp, equivocal definition of the problem at hand, how about the $64,000 question: what do we do about it?

Well, let's examine the Bush doctrine of fighting a "war" against it. Firstly, we can't actually DECLARE war, as that would require definite goals to be set and achieved, targets identified, and victory (or defeat) eventually to be declared. Terrorists are not easily targetable. People can, and may be eliminated, but I would venture that terrorists are impossible to target in the manner an armed force needs to do.

Why? Because the term "terrorist" is a retroactive one. Right now, certain areas of the Middle East are teeming with young men and women who have yet to act on the seething resentment within them. When they do, and blow themselves up in an Israeli cafe, they will have become terrorists. Until then, they are simply swelling the ranks of the angry.

A soldier joins up, trains, wears a uniform and aligns himself with an armed force. Even if he never sees a battlefield, he is still a soldier - bound by the traditions, discipline and identity of his unit, division and country. Tomorrow's terrorists do not exist today, except in potential. Terrorism emerges from civilian ranks, undeclared, in secret, with no outward show of allegiance, rank or intent. How, exactly, does an army fight them?

No less unwieldly is Bush's exhortation to the other nations of the world to stamp out the terrorists in their own midst. As we have seen, such an invitation is already serving as carte blanche to those countries with a domestic axe to grind, such as Russia or China. But, even in more cooperative nations, what good will a military style crackdown achieve?

Nowhere is a precedent found for the efficiacy of suppression in dealing with terrorism. The British Empire fell despite desperate attempts to subdue currents of resistance in colonies like India and Ireland. The Roman Empire's decline in democratic ideals and rise of autocracy directly precipitated it's fall. Israel today ranks as the most tightly controlled security state in the world, and yet feels no more secure. Throughout history we have seen ruthless crackdowns met only with ever more vigorous rebellion. Civilan terrorism is met with state terrorism in an ever-decreasing spiral down to fascism.

Where can we look, then, for solutions? Perhaps to ourselves, for a start. Is it a coincidence that the centers of global strife share certain common traits? Poverty, disease and hopelessness abound - nowhere in the affluent West does war and destruction seem an attractive option, but mark on a map of the world the areas of greatest poverty and you are mapping the most war torn. Is it a coincidence that the greatest turmoil in the Middle East is found where Western oil interests have most reason to interfere?

We point the finger at fundamentalist mullahs preaching their twisted version of Islam to legions of future suicide bombers, but what alternatives has a child in a place where illiteracy runs at 70%? We condemn the lack of democratic process in these nations, and then support and perpetuate dictatorships and oligarchs in order to keep the flow of oil cheap and constant.

When domestic terrorism surfaces in the west it is dealt with by the criminal justice system, FBI and Interpol. Stable and economically secure states seem dramatically less inclined to let terrorism fester within their borders unchallenged. Would some of the extra billions in recent military appropiations be better spent helping others to reach a level of stability where they might one day have their own prosperity to protect?

None of these observations excuse acts of violence in the pursuit of a political goal. But they go a long way to explaining some of the motivations behind them, and ignoring them makes them no less relevant. At the very least they are an essential component of any debate about the causes and consequences of an international policy on terror.

That is, if any debate were taking place. Perhaps the greatest disservice is being done by Democrats themselves. As the loyal opposition it is our obligation to hold this administration's feet to the fire and make sure that it's policies and intent are discussed and challenged. By allowing the Bush administration to frame this "war" as a given - an inevitable position from which to begin - we are shirking our responsibility.

We must not be cowed by accusations of partisanship or obstructionism. The onus is on Bush and his hawkish masters to show us WHY this "war" is the path to pursue; HOW the expansion of this "war" will be beneficial; WHAT alternative or complimentary measures could or should be taken to this "war" - essentially...

...what IS it good for?


Noel O'Connor is a graphic designer in Florida and one of the millions who haven't forgotten.

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