Democratic Underground

Defining the Enemy
September 19, 2001
by Sam Adams

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So now we have declared war on "terrorism." There's just one problem: terrorism is not an ideology like Nazism or Zionism. It is a process, a means for the weak to fight the strong when they have no other means. It is a method. We might as well declare war on calculus.

America would not exist without terrorism. How could an army of farmers have defeated the British without terrorists like Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, and the men who threw British tea into Boston Harbor? The nineteenth century was dotted with terrorists like Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and John Brown. Brown tried to raid a Virginia arsenal to arm a slave uprising. He failed and was hanged, but he made an impression. Years later, a Confederate terrorist named William Quantrill raided Lawrence, Kansas, and killed every man and boy in the place only because Brown had been born there.

There were other terrorists at work in post-bellum America. The most famous, known in English as Crazy Horse, had an odd theory that no one, however well armed or well connected, however divinely justified, had a right to drive his people out of their homes. The Great White Father in Washington dismissed this theory as contemptuously as he dismisses the claims of the Palestinians today.

By 1914 the US had no further need of terrorists. It had an overseas empire confiscated from Spain and a brand-new canal zone acquired from Colombia (by creating the puppet-state of Panama). It even felt confident enough to send troops to chase down the Mexican terrorist Pancho Villa. All part of the good-neighbor policy. Woodrow Wilson was the first politician to recognize that great power implies engagement with the world, including its wars; but even after 1918, Americans thought they could re-organize the Old World at will and then retreat beyond their oceans. They were stunned when the Japanese Navy sailed halfway across the Pacific and sank their boats.

How do you tell a terrorist from a freedom fighter? By whether he has succeeded or not. Terrorists: Hamas, the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatists, Black September. Freedom fighters: the Stern gang, the Mau Mau, the Viet Cong, the Taliban, the Contras (remember them?). But keep watching the scoreboard. In this Orwellian world, alliances shift like sands on a stormy beach. Is Manuel Noriega a CIA asset or a drug lord who has to be kidnapped and imprisoned? Should we arm Iraq just so we can test our new weapons against the ones we sold them last year? If we present the faith-based Taliban with 47 million dollars, how are they likely to spend it?

Who cares? Osama bin Laden was born to be the star of our two-minutes' hate. He's a trust-fund terrorist, a dilettante spending his daddy's money and being photographed in his snowy costumes, impeccably groomed, a Dodi Fayed who collects guns instead of high-class tarts. As long as he's around and willing to play his part, we never need look critically at our role in the world or why so many people seem to think we're the terrorists.