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The Gathering Storm: A Call to Reason, A Call to Action
October 24, 2002

To defeat an enemy militarily, it is said, one must first define that enemy’s political goals. Our current ‘war’ is with terrorism – no small irony, in that terrorism is not, in and of itself, a political goal, or even an ideology. It is instead, a technique. Thus, we are not at war with a clearly defined ideology, bent upon imposing its political goals through the use of force, but instead we wage war on a technique.

Techniques cannot be defeated, except through the use of reason and suasion, wherein all parties with the means to employ a certain technique – be it biological warfare, nuclear power, or yes, even terrorism – agree to restrict themselves from the use of such a method because of a shared interest in ‘civilized warfare’. Such agreements are part of history – The Geneva Convention being the most widely subscribed to and most widely adhered to of such agreements.

Terrorism is nothing new. It has been employed, in various guises, since recorded history – even God, in seeking to bend the Pharaoh to His will, employed a variety of terrorism – the killing of all first born sons of Egypt as punishment. Thus, through the slaughter of innocents, did God compel Pharaoh to release the Jews and so achieved His political goal. We, as a nation and a people, have the right to defend ourselves against acts of aggression and to seek physical security whether at home or abroad. Such a right is fundamental (or ought to be) to all citizens of the planet. It is for this reason that the war on terror is accepted and to a large extent justified, even to the use of force when a coherent enemy target can be identified.

What is not so clear is that simple military might is the key to success in this latest campaign. Since we have not yet identified a coherent foe – and Al Qaeda, for all its evil intent, is a fairly loose knit organization – whose political goals are clear, we have been unable to formulate a countering national strategy for combating an enemy whose chosen technique is terror. Worse, although we, as a nation, may (rightfully) vilify the actions of agents of the Al Qaeda network, even should we soundly defeat this particular organization, we will have accomplished little, since terror as a technique is not limited to this one organization.

We have instead chosen limitless and endless low-grade warfare against an amorphous coalition of threats, who may or may not be aligned with each other, in the name of combating ‘terrorism’.

Since the proponents of terrorism have specific reasons for so choosing such tactics (among them an appreciation of their asymmetric capabilities as combatants), and an unlimited supply of means at their disposal, it should quickly become clear that military action against a dispersed foe who chooses the killing of innocents to make some political point is doomed to failure.

What is instead needed is a thoughtful examination of the enemy’s political goals – once we know why persons and organizations choose to engage in terroristic acts, once, in other words, we discern the political motivation behind the acts, then – and only then – may we, as a nation, formulate a coherent response based upon the twin pillars of diplomacy and military might. Cowboy posturing, however effective its soundbites, accomplishes little in this regard.

Regrettably, a complex approach to a complex problem appears to be beyond this administration’s grasp. The answer offered is simple: kill all proponents of terror, the principles, the supporters, the camp followers, the suppliers, and the trainers. In short, apply a military solution to a political problem.

The problem with this approach, however, is that while it is ideologically pure, it is practically impossible. We can no more successfully attack all those who employ some form of terrorism as a means for achieving political goals than we can successfully identify them. They are too many, and they too often, disturbingly, resemble our allies.

Anyone with an axe to grind and access to even such limited means as black powder and a bag of nails can become a terrorist. And, when they band together, develop organization, they then become a political entity, with some defined political goal – however amorphous and inscrutable that goal may appear to be to us. They become a political problem, and political problems require political solutions, of which force is only one solution, and an often-ineffective one, at that.

Further, one man’s terrorist is often another man’s partisan – the distinction lying in the choice of targets. Civilian targets are terrorism at its worst – the deliberate killing of innocents has no place in the military pursuit of political ends. Attacks on military targets are another matter – while we might decry sneak attacks, we can no more call a bomb directed at a military target a terrorist attack than we are willing to call our own attacks against other’s military targets terrorism. To do so is to suggest that all use of military force employing surprise is terroristic in nature.

Some might argue that it requires an open declaration of war or a response to an attack for the use of military force to be legitimate. If that is the case, we best watch our words, since we have not openly declared war in this country since World War II, and we are even now contemplating, indeed, have re-formulated national policy to accommodate, the pre-emptive use of force against potential adversaries.

The question of why organizations such as Al Qaeda choose terror as a weapon is easy to answer – they have not the means to raise effective military resistance of a more conventional nature. They represent the classic asymmetric threat.

What is more difficult to answer, but which is the more proper question, is why do these organizations seek at all to do violence to members of other, non-aligned political entities? Why does Al Qaeda want to kill Americans in the first place, regardless of the means employed?

It is this second, fundamental question that begs answering. For until we truly know why this organization, or any of the many like it, seeks to do us harm, we are fighting blindly against an implacable foe that cares little for his own survival, and, seemingly, wishes only to inflict as much harm as possible upon its chosen nation-target.

It has been suggested that terrorists hate us because of our freedoms. That seems an unlikely reason, since these selfsame terrorists spring from the very bosoms of countries we count as allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, India (ironically, not a single one of the accused 9/11 terrorists was Iraqi, or Syrian, or North Korean).

If, indeed, it is hatred of our freedoms, then whence came the ideological divide between the sons and the parent nation? And if it is indeed hatred of freedoms, then why do such entities not attack, with equal vigor, all nations who hold freedom for individuals as a central tenet of their governing principles? Why have Japan, Canada, Mexico, all of South America, Russia, New Zealand, Austria, Switzerland – the list goes on – why have these countries and their citizens not been targeted as America and her direct allies have been targeted? They provide similar, in some cases greater, freedom to their citizens.

Clearly, an unmitigated hatred for personal freedom is an unlikely motivator.

Against this backdrop of unsullied ambiguity lie our nation’s economic, and to a lesser extent, philosophical woes.

Perhaps the two are intertwined. Perhaps the source of external (and perhaps even internal) terrorist’s hatred is in some way related to the effect the current wave of economic terrorism, perpetrated by our own citizens against our own citizens, has had upon the economic and philosophical well-being of our nation.

And yes, I very deliberately mean economic terrorism – when corporations, through deliberate malice and greed, with knowledge aforethought, conspire, either individually or severally, to rob individuals of their money so that the few may be enriched, it is economic terrorism. The lives of those individuals who have lost money and time and youth and means are as nearly destroyed as if they had been outright killed. Often, almost always, they are as innocent as are the victims of the more insidious, violent forms of terrorism

We offer the promise of unlimited freedom to a privileged few, and pay for that freedom with the sweat and toil of countless others who are not only not true beneficiaries of their efforts, but are often robbed outright of what fruits of their labor they do earn. If we, as a nation, can tolerate this behavior on the part of some of our citizens against other of our citizens, then what might we be willing to countenance against, and how might it be viewed by, other citizens of other nations?

If our nation, through its business and political practices abroad – if we rape countries of resources, promising but not delivering benefits for all; if we provide dictators with weapons of mass destruction, then look away when they are employed; if we extol the virtues of freedom, but offer them unequally, to the favored few in any country; if we damage their crops and their livestock and their lives in the process of destroying the drugs we provide the market for – if our nation denies freedoms and causes harm, economic, physical, or otherwise, to some subset of a country’s population, than can we even wonder that some amongst that unprivileged subset will take issue with our presence and our policies and take up arms against us?

Hence, our current strategy against the current crop of terrorists is at once ineffective, and perhaps, morally bankrupt.

I do not for a moment suggest that the actions of Al Qaeda, or any organization remotely like it, domestic or otherwise, are in any way supportable. They are not. I do not suggest that we are wrong to seek and attack those who would do us harm. We are not.

We will surely prevail, militarily, against any foe we choose to engage. But, as surely as we won the battle and lost the war in Vietnam, we will lose the fight against the never-ending threat of terrorism unless and until we come to grips with its origins, and with our collective role in its origins.

The wellspring of terror has nothing to do with our freedoms. Post-WWII, even our former enemies, Japan and Germany, whom we occupied after conquering them, did not engage in the sort of terrorism we find so ubiquitous today. Rather, I believe the wellspring of today’s terrorism is a response to the economic terrorism we inflict on others, and a moral outrage at our hypocrisy.

I believe it is driven by desperation and frustration engendered by American economic, political, and military policy that destroys either the lives, or the livelihoods, of some portion of the countries it touches. It is driven by feelings of helplessness and a desire to strike back, however ineffectually, at a country that possesses so much, and offers so little.

This situation is not likely to improve given the current administration, and the ideology it embraces. It is too much a part of the problem to be a part of the solution. In this regard, the Republican Party, with its wholehearted embrace of big business, deregulation, and the unprovoked use of military force, is complicit. It is no secret that today’s Republican Party is the familiar of corporate interests, or that a majority of its members, and members of the administration, are wealthy, and untouched by personal involvement in the sorts of armed conflict they are so willing to send others to.

This is no chastisement of the good people in the Republican Party – and there are many. It is no disavowal of the Party itself – it is, after all, the party of Lincoln, the party with the moral courage to end slavery. Rather, it is a chastisement of the hijacking of the Republican Party’s ideology by those who mouth the words of freedom and tolerance and compassion and practice exactly opposite that which they preach.

Both parties have, at times, fallen short of the moral mark. Currently, it is the Republican Party which holds the moral low ground, and woe to the Union should this party, this fall, gain the full measure of power available to a party that holds all three branches of the government. For then these same practices will continue unabated and, rather than diminishing acts of terror around the world (and economic terror domestically), they will, I fear, multiply in direct response to the heavy-handed hypocrisy of a party bent on self-promotion and self-enrichment.

Needed are three things: First, the Democratic Party must hold at least one House of Congress this fall. This is necessary to provide the checks and balances needed to ensure that a Republican juggernaut does not wipe away years of progressive effort within the country, and decades of fast-dwindling goodwill abroad within the next two years.

Second, the Democratic Party must regain its ideology – it must redefine its core principles, and not shy from the inevitable storm of criticism that will flow from the Right. However much people might smolder against certain particulars of that policy, it is nonetheless preferable to embrace a clear, strong voice than one that mumbles and dissembles. The people of this country deserve a clear, consistent, and opposing voice behind which to rally – it is the mark of any healthy democracy.

Finally, the Democratic Party needs a strong leader at the national level, a Democratic Newt Gingrich who, however much one might disagree with him, was an effective leader. The Democratic Party must identify, recruit, and rally behind a leader who can impose some level of discipline on its members, who can inspire and challenge and unite, or it will cease to function as a meaningful political entity in this country.

We must have a leader, and a party, that not only embrace and welcome the disenfranchised members of this country, but also embrace and welcome the disenfranchised of the world. A leader and a party who remember that the other edge of the sword is diplomacy, and will seek the means to disarm our opponents, through reason and grace, if possible, and through arms only if necessary, and never with an eye for enrichment of the few.

Already, the Democratic Party is under attack by the Right, and to a lesser extent by the Green Party, which, like a predator intent on prey, and never realizing the danger to itself, is bent on hastening the Democratic Party’s slide into obscurity – culling the weak from the flock.

There is a storm gathering on the horizon – a storm of domestic economic woes, lost freedoms, and of lost political capital abroad. A storm wrought by two ineffectual parties, influence splintered and divided, railing against a party that successfully divided and conquered, and so sets the agenda, much to the chagrin and frustration of those who had at their disposal the means to prevent such.

Go. Vote. Vote Democratic, and, if you are so inclined, pray.

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