Saturday, March 13, 2004
If you read this post, the terrorists will have won
.jasonblog. argues, and I tend to agree, that the war metaphor doesn't map very well onto the struggle against terrorism. The enemies aren't well enough defined, it isn't clear what could count as victory, and, worst of all, the invocation of the language of war is used to legitimize calls for national unity behind policies that, otherwise, would be seen as divisive and unwise.
But if not war, what?
.jasonblog. has this to say:
We may be able to (and we should!) thwart specific terrorist groups, but they will always exist in some form or another. Terrorism is not a nation which can ultimately surrender in the face of our incredible military might. Terrorism is a crime in which small groups of individuals can engage. [.jasonblog.]
One of the ideas here is that fighting terrorism is better understood as police work than as a military action. But there is a second idea, the idea that terrorism is somehow inevitable. You might say that the terrorists, like the poor, will always be with us.
Why should this be so? Consider this passage from a right-leaning blog:
Bombings, assassinations, terrorist acts - the only folks who use them are those who realize that their desires cannot be achieved by any rational political process. And they don't seem to realize that their their actions shove people even further away from the acceptance of their stance - if it doesn't piss them off enough to go on the offensive and end the threat in a permanent fashion in the first place. [milblog]
I think milblog is half-right. The motivation to engage in terrorism is tied to a belief that one's political ends can't be achieved through normal channels. But I think that milblog is also claiming that the reason that those political ends can't be achieved through 'any rational political process' is because the ends themselves aren't choiceworthy.
This is sometimes true. The Unabomber's radical ludditism wasn't going to be chosen, and in that light his project of destroying the world's technological infrastructure makes a certain screwy kind of sense. The same goes for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. There are more than a few terrorists like them, terrorists who are best understood as nutball political reformers. As .jasonblog. suggests, those folks will always be with us.
But I don't think that this analysis generalizes to explain all or even most terrorism. Whether the bombers themselves are nutball political reformers, the environments which tend to produce terrorists are those in which large populations are denied a voice in the political process. Understood in this way, terrorism is, as much as anything, a plea for recognition.
George Bush is fond of saying that the terrorists hate us because we are a democracy, because we are committed to value pluralism. Even leaving aside the obvious hypocrisy, this isn't a credible explanation. It assigns to terrorists an irrational hatred that renders them inhuman, silencing any discussion of their real grievances -- or, which is more important, of the real grievances of the populations from which the terrorists emerged.
The fact is that the United States wields tremendous power in the world. Decisions made by elites in the United States affect the lives of people everywhere. As helpless as American voters feel in the face of our political system, at least we know that our government is responsive to popular pressure from us.
American politicians talk a good game about democracy, but American foreign policy consistently pursues the goal of increasing the United States' ability to behave autonomously. If we really believed in democracy, we'd try to strengthen international organizations even if it meant sacrificing some part of our sovereignty. Instead, we constantly undercut those kinds of institutions.
I thought this was the lesson of 9-11. I thought the American people would see that they couldn't afford to ignore the effects of American power. Guess I was wrong.