Politics & Policy

Enough Already!

Time to stop the war on terrorism.

I’m really beginning to believe we should stop the war on terrorism. Not because I’m against the fighting. And not because I don’t think there are individuals, groups, and states deserving of a firsthand tutorial on the efficacy of the arsenal of democracy.

No, I simply think the war on terrorism may be the wrong war. Terrorism isn’t an “ism” like Communism, fascism, socialism, capitalism, etc. To the extent the suffix “ism” suggests a body of thought or system of belief, “terrorism” is a misnomer.

Terrorism is a means — the intentional use of violence against civilian populations in order to achieve political ends. We’re at war with the people seeking those ends.


“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This phrase has been invoked by Reuters, the BBC, and a host of commentators across the ideological spectrum — including, alas, Bob Novak — who are unable or unwilling to apply the word “terrorist” to Yasser Arafat or Hamas. It is another example of how the greatest lies are told with half-truths.

Sure, it’s true, but it’s not always true. A thief can be a hero if he’s stealing for the right reason, but a thief can also be, well, a thief. In fact, most thieves are thieves, not heroes. Similarly, sometimes a terrorist is just a terrorist.

The best illustration of this on the international stage actually isn’t in the Middle East, but in Africa. During the Cold War, various tribes and gangs of murderers wrapped themselves in one political cause or another. The People’s Liberation Front of this, the Marxist Rebels of that. Today, there’s little to be gained from such ideological kabuki, so these groups — in Sierra Leone, for example — are simply murderers, thugs, and, yes, terrorists. They chop off the arms of children not in order to usher in some utopian age of socialism, pan-Africanism, or transgender liberty. No, they do it because they believe inflicting such terror will make it easier to sell diamonds, or drugs, or whatever.

So yeah, if the movie Red Dawn had actually happened, and the United States had been overrun by the godless armies of the Soviet Union, I could see American freedom fighters rightly doing things the Reds would consider “terrorist.” I would like to think we wouldn’t aim to tear apart women and children, but war is war and who knows what we’d do.

However — and this is a big however — if the Crips or the Bloods or even a radical faction of Up With People decided to start blowing up kids in pizza parlors, or hijacking planes and smashing them into our tallest buildings, I would not call them “freedom fighters.” I’d call them terrorists. Just because you can call some terrorists freedom fighters, does not mean that all terrorists are freedom fighters.

Moreover, even if someone is a freedom fighter, so what? If you’re a “freedom fighter” you can also be a terrorist and wrong too, can’t you? Or does calling yourself a freedom fighter automatically absolve you from the laws of man and God?

In other words, not all freedoms — real or perceived — are worth murdering innocent people for. Imagine if a black separatist or neo-Nazi group wanted to establish its own little Freedonia somewhere in Michigan or Idaho. If they started hacking up kids or blowing up coffee shops to get their way, they could claim to be freedom fighters. But they’d also be terrorists and they’d deserve to be put down by any means necessary. Otherwise taking up arms — or suicide bombs — in the name of freedom would be always and everywhere right.

Ultimately, saying “One man’s terrorist…” is at best either a debater’s trick or else the kind of cliché that passes for wisdom in a lazy mind and is used to substitute for an actual argument — like saying “Violence never solved anything” (tell that to the people liberated from concentration camps or slavery). At worst, it’s a way to side with the terrorists without having to admit it.


Still, the problem remains. Terrorism is a tactic, a means to an end. Declaring war on terrorism is like declaring war on murder, but not on killing. Since murder is largely defined not by the act of taking a life but by the intent of the killer, it can be very difficult to decide who is a murderer and who has killed for just cause. After all, we may have killed more innocent people in Afghanistan than al-Quaeda did in the United States as part of our war on terrorism, but that doesn’t mean we’re morally indistinguishable from the people who hijacked those planes on September 11.

Put it this way: If Syria formally declared war on the United States and (somehow) attacked us with missiles and artillery, would we declare a “new war on ballistic armaments”? Or would we just declare war on Syria and be done with the semantics? If al Qaeda raised an army against us and fought with conventional weapons, would we refrain from firing back — since we are at war with “terrorism” and not with conventional armies?

I understand that we declared a war on terrorism rather than on Islam, Afghanistan, or the “Arab world” for a reason. It made sense at the time and obviously makes sense even now, when looked at from a certain geopolitical vantage point.

But is it true? If the IRA started getting restless and blew up some more British pubs, would we send troops to Ireland? Would we stomp on “charities” here in the United States which provided aid and comfort to Irish radicals? I don’t know, maybe we would, but you can see how murky things might get. Here’s a better one: What if legitimately democratic revolutionaries started blowing up stuff in China? Would we call them freedom fighters or terrorists? Hey, what if Kurds in Iraq took the fight to downtown Baghdad? Do we then train the Iraqi Republican Guard to crush terrorist cells the way we’re training troops in Yemen and Armenia? Of course not.

The simple fact is that we are not at war with terrorism, we are at war with a brand of Islam. You can deny that, if such clarity makes you uncomfortable. But you cannot deny that a brand of Islam is most certainly at war with us. You can call this brand Islamofascism, radical Islam, Wahhabism, whatever you want — just so long as you remember that they are not Islamofascists because they are terrorists, they are terrorists because they are Islamofascists. This ideology is not purely religious, it’s tied up with various flavors of tribalism, pan-Arabism, and nationalism (hence all the talk about Crusaders, imperialism, etc.). Why this ideology justifies terrorism is actually a fascinating question with complex historical, religious, and military aspects. Hit-and-run raids are a staple of Arab warfare going back to Bedouin days. Islam allows for the total destruction of your enemies (it also requires mercy but, sadly, the folks we’re talking about skip those passages).

And, most obvious, neither these specific groups nor the Arab world in general can hold a candle to the West militarily. They use terrorist techniques because they cannot hurt us using conventional ones. As the Palestinians are so fond of pointing out, they “have to” use suicide bombers against Israel because they don’t have the planes and tanks the Israelis have. In other words, if they had planes and tanks they would use them, because they are at war with Israel. And there’s a lesson here for us too. Rich Lowry made a persuasive argument yesterday comparing the war in Israel to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Regardless of whether you think we are at war with Islamofascism or with “terrorism,” either way Israel is on the front line of that war. If you think Osama bin Laden (assuming he’s alive) will stop what he’s doing if Israel disappears tomorrow, you’re ignoring the fact that Osama bin Laden never cared about Israel until after September 11.

Now, if you think America shouldn’t care about or help Israel because — as a matter of cold, hard, geopolitical calculation — it’s not in our interests, I can actually respect that. I disagree with it profoundly. But I can understand the argument.

What I cannot respect or understand are the absurd gymnastics used to say that Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein, or the Assad regime in Syria are not terrorists the way the “Bush doctrine” defines terrorists. It is an insult to our collective intelligence to hear our elected leader explain that the people who foot the bills for suicide bombers aren’t terrorists because there’s a “peace process” in place. If we are at war with cross-border terrorists and the states that support them, we should and must be at war with Yasser Arafat, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and to a certain extent Saudi Arabia.

Listening to President Bush chew on his tongue trying to explain why Arafat isn’t a terrorist is simply embarrassing. Watching the United States hold a fire sale on its moral authority in order to win the applause of the Saudis and the E.U. is depressing.

I don’t want a war with the Islamic world. I don’t want a war with the Arab world. But I do want a war with anybody who would wage one against us. During the Cold War, we figured out a way to talk about Communists without demonizing or rounding up everybody who believed the workers should control the means of production. Hell, we gave Communists of one flavor or another tenured positions in many of our top universities. Communists ran for public office across Europe and formed parties throughout the West (though, admittedly, they often took orders from the Kremlin).

We ought to be able to declare that we are at war with a kind of Islam without saying we are at war with all of Islam. I don’t know what it should be called, but I do know that “terrorism” doesn’t do the trick. Providing such clarity would help Americans understand what this war is and isn’t about. Such clarity would show that we take our enemies seriously. Such clarity would allow the world to choose sides. And such clarity would also make it more difficult for people to use fatuous phrases like “One man’s terrorist…”


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