War on Poverty. War on Drugs. War on Hunger. War on Disease. War on Illiteracy. War on Prejudice. War on Violence. War on War. What in the world is the matter with a war on terror? The answer is nothing, as long as all we are doing is proclaiming our abhorrence of a particular human condition and pledging to undertake an effort to eradicate it. Politicians have been employing rhetorical devices forever and declaring war is simply another instance, if one of the more overused and pedestrian.
It is time, however, to distinguish between generic calls to action by the forces of government, and declarations of war that produce dead bodies wholesale and employ military forces in all of the most brutal ways that are now at our disposal. It is time to demand clarity from our leaders as to whether this nation is at war, where sacrifice is generally thought to be appropriate and equally distributed, or simply fired up and prepared to take steps.
Richard Clarke was the first person that I heard be dismissive about the War on Terror. I recall him saying that it is ridiculous, or a similar adjective, to declare war on a tactic. That sentiment found my inner chamber and has been torturing me there ever since. Because he was so obviously correct. Would a war on submarines make sense? Would a war on nighttime amphibious assaults summon forces somewhere, anywhere?
Terror is indeed provocative for just about everyone. It is one of the more cowardly and despicable and reprehensible uses of violence. By some definitions, innocent people are its intended victims. As our abhorrence is universal, it becomes difficult to imagine the sort of desperation which produces a terrorist; hard to understand his or her moment of renunciation. Practitioners of terror have leapt into the darkness in ways that are incomprehensible to most of us. But not all of us.
Twenty years ago, I read a book entitled Kamal, by a man whose name has left me. Its hero was a terrorist whose job was assassination. At one moment the author has a mother who lives in the West Bank express her hope that her youngest of five children will be allowed the privilege of dying for the cause of Palestinian dignity as all of her other children had. For a then young father, the scene had a profound effect on my vision of politics and history.
Is there a human being anywhere who can imagine a world that does not harbor in one of its corners the desperation that that mother in Kamal articulated. It is certainly possible to envision a magical moment in history when Palestinian men and women walk on their own soil without fear of another nation’s guns. Even though that conception involves changes of attitude on a scale that sober moments acknowledge as vast and profound, peaceful heroic leaders throughout history have done as much, if not more. We, as humans, must still hope, as lifeless at the moment though the prospect may seem.
But the abolition of terror will have to coexist with a world of religious dogma, and prejudice, and sanctimony. As every age has had them in their midst, those traits are human at their source. And even if all of the political conflicts found resolution without the bombed bus or the hijacked airliner, religious zealots, denied their perceived entitlement to their conception of proper respect, will have little choice in the violent ways their despair can find expression. Must we fight until religion is history?
The hypocrisy of today’s War on Terror deserves mention of course, declared as it was by today’s most ingenious and depraved killers. Conceiving of the attacks of 9/11, the planning and implementation of operations designed to murder a substantial number of our own citizens, was the ultimate use of terror as an instrument of control of an unprepared citizenry. One must in passing make note of the fact that the number of casualties was not nearly so many as the perpetrators were in fact capable of. Had the time been an hour or two later or the charges in the World Trade Center Towers that caused its collapse set in a less symmetric manner, the body count could have been multiples of what we were forced to endure. And the same is true of the Pentagon. Whoever, or whatever, did the damage there made certain that it was a fraction of what it might have been had the plane, for example, flown straight into the part of the building toward which it was initially headed, instead of engaging in the aerial acrobatics that it did.
Those who did their disgraceful deed on September 11th did not begin their careers as terrorists with that dark trial. The same men and women or their teachers were the enlightened architects of the terror war in Nicaragua in the 1980’s. It led me at the time to craft another speech, read only to members of my family, that expressed outrage at the kind and extent of carnage visited upon the peasant population of that country by people our very own president described as “freedom fighters.” Health clinics and farming cooperatives and the people who depended on them were the victims of the particular incident that provoked me. They were burned down, and people were killed by the Contras whose truly atrocious nature rarely found reference in the New York Times.
That was one of that decade’s dances with depravity. It was my introduction to the sad tactics our leaders occasionally feel compelled to resort to. Twenty years of reading since have demonstrated that the decades flourish with example after example of United States sponsorship of terror. Therefore, it is difficult, extremely difficult, to take at face value any declaration of war on so familiar a tactic. You just have to know that something else is going on.
The first step in the fight against whatever it is that is going on is to confront the language. Richard Clarke’s simple insight should be the end of it. Because what passes for media in this country are nothing more than house organs, Richard Clarke’s insight is far from the end of it. That does not mean that those who understand and oppose the stratagem employed by the White House should capitulate and adopt their enemy’s language.
Not four days ago, Senator Carl Levin, voicing opposition to the continued occupation of Iraq, was quoted as saying that his position need not adversely impact the “War on Terror.” The American people need to be educated, and no one is in a better position to provide the service than a senator who gets quoted in the New York Times. There is nothing the matter with challenging premises; in fact, it is essential. Let not the words, “War on Terror” fall out of anyone’s mouth, newspaperperson with pad in hand, or politician with vast and unquantifiable power, without objection, mustering whatever manner of eloquence that is within one’s reach..