I always begin my courses on terrorism by defining terms. What exactly is terrorism? It is a great seminar question, because it gets the class thinking about a concept they may think they already understand, but often do not. Usually in the course of the discussion someone brings up the old saw, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” They give examples of actions taken by our government or those the United States have supported in the past that resulted in the deaths of civilians. Hiroshima and the King David Hotel bombing are the most popular examples. Sometimes Yasser Arafat is compared to George Washington, both being fathers of their countries. But I have yet to see any order from Washington calling for slaughtering civilian men, women, and children, justifying it as a necessary wartime expedient; such statements were routine from Arafat, and still are, at least in the Palestinian press.
History sometimes juxtaposes events in such a way that makes for clear contrasts. Take for example the revelations of the excesses committed by U.S. military guards at the Abu Ghraib prison versus the beheading of 26-year-old American Nicholas Berg by al Qaeda terrorists. It is useful to explore the differences between the events, particularly for those who have a hard time understanding that the two sides in the war on terrorism are not morally equal.
The images that have come out of Abu Ghraib are disorienting, frightening, and bizarre. Evidently, there are worse yet to come. The striking nature of the photos overwhelmed the facts of the story, which are now catching up to the coverage. We now know that these humiliating acts were the misdeeds of only a few people, who while acting in their official capacity went well beyond regulations, and common sense. Their inhumane behavior was criminal, and is being treated as such. When their abuses became known within the system, an investigation began, which will soon result in courts martial of those involved. No one has sought to justify these actions, not even those who committed them.
The terrorists sought their own brand of justice for Abu Ghraib by killing Berg, whose closest connection to an Iraqi prison was that he was temporarily detained in one by the Iraqi police. Berg’s beheading was captured on video and posted on the pro-terrorist Al-Ansar website. The tape is entitled, “Shaykh Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi Slaughters an American Infidel With his Own Hands and Threatens Bush With More.” Of course we can’t know for certain it was Zarqawi because the terrorists are all wearing masks, which tends to mitigate their claim that our soldiers are cowards. (This gets back to the definition of terrorism–it is a weapon of the weak, in this case those deficient in courage.) The message the terrorists read before they murdered Berg, who was symbolically clothed in an orange prison-style jumpsuit, explicitly linked their actions to the events at the prison. “The shameful photos are evil humiliation for Muslim men and women in the Abu Ghraib,” they stated. They claimed to have made an offer to exchange Berg for some of the prisoners in the photographs but were turned down. Thus they were forced to slay him, because “the dignity of the Muslims at the Abu Ghraib prison is worth the sacrifice of blood and souls.”
Berg’s murder plainly illustrates the most salient distinction between the Coalition and the terrorists. The outrages at Abu Ghraib were not sanctioned by higher authorities, and were halted when they were discovered. An investigation followed, and those who committed the acts may be facing jail time–a court will determine that. The terrorists on the other hand killed Nicholas Berg while executing their official policy. They justified the ritualistic slaughter of an innocent man as an act of revenge. We consider the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib shocking; the terrorists consider sawing off the head of a helpless, innocent man an act that bestows glory unto their god and their people.
Al Qaeda claimed that they were seeking to restore Muslim dignity. It will be interesting to see how many outlets in the Middle East think they did the Muslim world a useful service. The terrorists could claim victory in seizing control of the news cycle, but they have again proven that they are tone deaf when it comes to media strategies. They have knocked the prison story out of the lead slot, and given the public a good point of comparison. Perhaps this will dilute some of the more hyperbolic commentary–hearing Abu Ghraib compared to My Lai you just have to shake your head at the inanity of those who keep pitching the Vietnam analogy. And for more context on the inner workings of Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi blogger named Ali has posted the views of a friend of his, a physician who spent a month at the prison treating the inmates. This should be required reading. Ali concludes that the lesson of Abu Ghraib is a positive demonstration of how justice functions in a democracy. Of course to him, the choice of living under a terror regime or in a liberal democracy is not a seminar question. For Ali the answer has tangible consequences. It does for us too.