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Friday, January 28, 2005

New Year's Resolution ~ Cut down on 'terror'

The first things to hit one when journeying abroad is how shrunken one's vocabulary has become and how imprecise one's thinking. Just back from the lands of Homer and Medici, I shocked everyone with my loose references to 'terrorists'.

If I bring any message back, it's that our leaders can do our security a favour just by economising on the use of the word in their rhetoric. Sure, the danger is real enough, but the definition encourages lazy thinking.

'Terrorist' is a woefully inadequate identification. Like 'infantryman' or 'cavalryman', it merely describes a method of engaging in combat. It's also a seductively pejorative label, but an unhelpful term in encouraging reasoned responses to today's various practitioners of violence.

Conventional armed forces kill far more 'innocent civilians' while pursuing their purposes than any terrorist group has contrived, as many Iraqis, Afghans and Palestinians would testify after experience at the hands of the US and Israeli armies and air forces. Yet most people feel less abhorrence towards the old way of war because it operates within frameworks of ritual and order with which we are familiar.

We take for granted a right to go about our daily lives in peace. We resent a phenomenon which strikes without warning, impelled by groups which lack the legitimacy of nation-states, which do not oblige us with formal declarations of war, or clothe themselves in distinguishable uniforms.

We dislike terrorism partly because we reject our antagonists' perception that we are engaged in conflict with them, and partly also because such a form of attack does not suit nation-states' traditional means of defence.

Terrorism is simply one means of applying force in pursuit of political ends. It is traditionally adopted by the weak, who cannot hope to prevail in a conventional contest. Because the military power of the United States and its allies is today overwhelming, we must assume that terrorism - asymmetric warfare - will be the dominant tactic adopted by our enemies in the future, whatever regional conflicts persist between more evenly matched opponents.

It would be nice if one of his speechifyers could, using words of one syllable, fashion a pragmatic case for Bush to show even vague awareness that terrorists can also usefully be classified in political and ideological terms, rather than, crudely and misleadingly, by the mere means which they employ to fight us.

The biggest mistake made by the Bush administration since 9/11 has been to proclaim a universalist 'war on international terror', in which it has appeared happy to ally itself with President Putin of Russia in his struggle against the Chechens, with Prime Minister Sharon against the Palestinians, and indeed with almost any national regime facing attack by terrorist means. The US President thus seeks to throw the power of his country into a struggle against a methodology he recoils from, rather than undertake the harder but much more useful task of categorising terrorist causes on their merits, and carefully denominating worthy friends and foes.

The declaration of a 'war against terror' falsely implies a contest that can be waged principally through the deployment of conventional military might, which it cannot. Some terrorist movements operate beyond the pale of possible political dialogue - al-Qa'eda to name but one. Others do not. Most people who have studied the problem of Chechnya believe that it must be resolved by political means, rather than by Moscow's crude application of force. The Chechen separatists may employ repugnant methods to pursue their ends, but it seems madness to endorse implicitly or explicitly President Putin's response to them.

In the Middle East, the most plausible means of ending Palestinian violence is to give Palestinian people something to lose, not least self-respect, as an alternative to the chronic despair created by unrelenting repression. In Gaza and the West Bank today, terrorism and the manufacture of grievances are the only thriving industries. Does anyone seriously suppose that Israeli military operations can achieve conclusive success against Hamas and their brethren? Or, for that matter, that Israel might be susceptible to offering the Palestinians a reasonable settlement without the threat or reality of Palestinian violence?

Someone needs to make a case against treating all dissident forces which employ terrorist means as part of a common global manifestation of evil, which can only be addressed by military might.

The objection to casual denunciations of foes as 'terrorists' is that such language can persuade politicians, who should know better, that they can abdicate responsibility for seeking non-military means of addressing an issue. Such an approach can promote a deadly political laziness.

Some terrorist movements - Baader-Meinhof and the Italian Red Brigades spring to mind - require only a law-enforcement response, because they represent no plausible political cause and are wedded to violence for its own sake in the fashion of 19th-century anarchists. History suggests, however, that most terrorist campaigns are best addressed by a mix of political generosity towards the community from which terrorists come, and armed suppression of irreconcilable men of violence.

There should be no 'war on international terror', but rather campaigns tailored to address the nature of differing hostile groups which use terrorist means.

The 'war on terror' is a phrase cynically abused by President Bush to further his own re-election. Now that he has secured another four-year lease on the White House, it would be a boon to the world if he abandoned such unhelpful sloganising.

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