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