What Your President Needs To Know
October 6, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
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
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
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
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
3. You cannot negotiate with terrorists; but you must negotiate
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
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
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
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
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