Democratic Underground

What Your President Needs To Know About Terrorism

October 6, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

According to the press releases, Bush is planning to give a major speech on the War on Terror today. Evidently the reviews of his performance in last week's debate convinced his handlers that he had better do something to counteract the impression he left in the minds of the voters, which could best be summed as, "Wait a minute... this clown is supposed to be leading us through the war on terror? AUGH!"

I unfortunately can't see into the future to know what he'll say, but if the past is a predictor, it won't be earth-shattering. A friend of mine used to work for a fashion designer and took me once to see a preview of their spring line. The designer got up at the beginning and explained about how they were totally revolutionizing everything this year and it was a radical departure from everything that had gone before. After the show I said to my friend, "That stuff about this being a radical change was all bullshit, right?" She said, "Totally. Same clothing body as last year with different fabrics."

And that's what a "major speech" from the Bush team is like: the same policies you've already seen all over the place coming at you down the runway, only now with a slightly shorter hem and some sequins. They realize they have to do something to make it look fresh, but they're afraid that if they deviate too much from their established line they'll lose their client base.

I'm sure the Bush team would like to come up with some bold new stunning revelation, but the fact is they can't. They have locked themselves into an ideological position that actually makes it impossible for them to counteract terrorism in an effective way - and since that ideological position is what's keeping their base and their donors happy, they will never revise it. They can't lay out a convincing plan for the war on terror because they must, in order to survive politically, deny and disavow a number of fundamental truths about where terrorism comes from and how you stop it.

Now I am not in the business of helping Bush out with his policy speeches. But for the sake of my American brethren and sistren who will have to try to solve this problem in spite of him, here, in my own humble opinion, are the three most important things for an American president to know about terrorism. Coincidentally, they are also the three most important things that the Bush administration will not, and cannot, ever learn.

1. Terrorists don't attack America because they hate freedom. They attack America because they hate America.

Seems simple enough. But understanding this requires us to acknowledge that America and freedom are not necessarily the same thing, which is surprisingly difficult for many Americans to do. So much effort has been expended on making the two things synonymous that it has become difficult to get anyone in this country to consider the possibility that freedom could exist independently of America, or that America could do things that would actually damage and destroy freedom. Because we are all convinced that America is freedom, we have developed this strange idea that we don't have to worry about whether what we actually do promotes freedom or not.

It was this logic that forced many of the more disastrous consequences of the Iraq war, because it prevented the genuises who planned this campaign from considering the possibility - nay, certainty - that the people we were "liberating" would judge us based on what we actually did as opposed to where we came from.

You see, for people who have not been imbibing the "America just IS freedom, essentially and unchangeably, world without end Amen" myth with their mother's milk, being shot, bombed, imprisoned, humiliated, raped, and tortured does not feel like freedom just because it's all being done to you by people wearing American flags. It feels like oppression. And people hate their oppressors. Having hated your old oppressor doesn't inoculate you against hatred for your new oppressor, and having hated Saddam Hussein with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns will not by itself prevent the average Iraqi from hating the invading army that deposed him.

The crowd in charge of this debacle didn't understand this, and so they didn't realize that if we wanted the cooperation of the Iraqi people, we would have to earn it. And by the time the looters were ransacking the museums in Baghdad, it was pretty clear that wasn't going to happen.

So if you want fewer terrorist attacks against America, it would make some sense to try to reduce the overall number of people in the world who hate America. You will never get that number down to zero; but there are ways to decrease it.

Frankly I am pessimistic about most of these methods ever being applied, since they would involve trying to restrain our lust for global domination in both the military and economic arenas. However, the least we can do is not take actions that will not result in any real benefit to us but have a 100% chance of significantly increasing the pool of people who hate America... such as invading a country that had never attacked us and then destroying thousands of lives there because the idiots who were planning the invasion were either so ideologically blinded or so criminally incompetent that they never paused to consider what would happen after the statue fell.

2. The supply of terrorists in the world is potentially infinite.

Terrorism is not an infectious disease that you can solve through quarantine, or a genetic defect that you can eliminate by exterminating all the carriers. It is a strategy, and as such it can be adopted by any group of people in response to any number of different situations. Since 9/11, media coverage of terrorism has been driving us to essentialize it - to believe that some people are just born terrorists, the way some people are born left-handed, and that if we could only find a way to identify and kill these people, we would eliminate terrorism forever.

The ethical problems with this approach are obvious. The problem from a policy standpoint is that the process of identifying and killing a single terrorist often creates an enormous number of new ones. To find out who the terrorists are, we intern vast numbers of uninvolved people who happen to belong to what we've identified as the terrorism-carrying population; while they're imprisoned, in hopes of extracting 'intelligence' about where the terrorists are, we beat, humiliate, rape, and abuse these uninvolved people, thereby engendering in them an undying hatred of America. They then go back to their families, who see what we've done to them and develop their own undying hatred of America.

If we then finally manage to get enough information to locate what we think is a terrorist "safe house" somewhere in Fallujah, and then send our bombers in to flatten the 10-block radius around this location just to be on the safe side, we have killed, let's say, half a dozen terrorists, and in the process bereaved a couple hundred people whose uninvolved loved ones were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thus, the preparation and execution of a single military action against a small group of active terrorists has just created a much larger group of potential terrorists.

Ethics, morality, compassion and decency aside, the math here simply does not work in our favor. There is no way to solve this equation so that the results equal victory. If we're going to win this war, we've got to come up with a different way of fighting it.

3. You cannot negotiate with terrorists; but you must negotiate with someone.

Terrorist organizations, by their nature, tend to be extremist and hard-line; even if it were politically palatable for our government to negotiate directly with, say, Hamas, it is unlikely that we would ever convince the leadership to accept a compromise. Their appeal to their recruits is partly based on their refusal to settle for anything less than complete victory - even if they and everyone who supports them are fully aware that such a victory is not possible.

But because it is neither right nor smart to negotiate with a bunch of extremists who are using violence to blackmail you, it does not follow that it is both right and smart to refuse to acknowledge or amend the real problems that underlie the conflict. Intransigence makes escalation your only option; and escalation does not destroy the adversary.

You cannot get rid of a terrorist organization simply by defeating it every time it attacks you. Terrorism appeals most strongly to people who already believe that they are beaten, and feel that they have nothing left to lose. Because terrorist organizations feed on the outrage and anger produced by the state's retaliation - which is inevitably more violent and wider in scope than the attack it responds to, and therefore easy to portray as unjust and unjustified - the more violence you unleash against a terrorist organization, the stronger it gets.

If you really want to defeat terrorism, what you have to do is give people something to lose. You co-opt everyone you can by giving them a stake in the legitimate government and therefore a reason not to work for its destruction. The way to neutralize a terrorist organization is to negotiate with a more moderate political organization that represents the constituency that the terrorists are supposedly defending.

If, through these negotiations, you can work out an enforceable compromise that gives most of the people involved most of what they want, that constituency's support will shift from the terrorist organization's dream of an impossible victory to the legitimate party's promise of limited but actual progress. Eventually, the terrorist organization, deprived of funding and recruits, becomes irrelevant and ineffective.

That's how it worked in Northern Ireland, anyway; and that's how it might have worked for the Israel/Palestine conflict. Al Qaeda is more complicated because the group is not representing a single constituency or tied to one particular political party. Neutralizing Al Qaeda would require a lot of work to be done in terms of finding out who really supports Al Qaeda, what their demands really are, and how we could negotiate a compromise that would siphon off most of that support without giving up anything important to us. It would not be easy. It would, in fact, be hard work. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be done.

Alas, Bush didn't do any of that work. Instead, because it would be too difficult to fight the real enemy, he started a conventional war in Iraq because he figured he could at least win that. In the process, he created not only a new front on which we had to fight the war but a brand new constituency for Al Qaeda to represent, thus rendering the eventual solution infinitely more difficult to achieve.

If we could win the war on terrorism by setting off bigger bombs and killing a greater number of people, we would already be celebrating victory. But that isn't how terrorism works; and we need a president who knows that. We need a president who understands that military power is, in the end, pretty useless if it cannot be connected to diplomacy - and we need a president who is capable of convincing the other people at the table that he is negotiating in good faith.

We have known for a long time now that George W. Bush cannot be that president. After last week, maybe, enough people America finally understand that John Kerry will.


The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found at the Adder's Lair.


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