Sunday, December 04, 2005

War on Terminology

Brian Leiter's guest-bloggers, with a concurrence by Carey Cuprisin, argue that the concept of a "war on terror" is absurd and should be abandoned. I'm confused. They make the following two warrants:
One really can't repeat this often enough: there is no "war on terror," not only because you can't wage war on a technique, but because there is no single agent of terrorism motivated by a unitary set of concerns.

Neither of these objections seems particularly convincing to me. I say that disclaiming the separable issue of whether or not the current administration has effectively or honestly fought such a war (it has done neither). I'm only concerned with whether such a war is conceivably possible.

To the first, I think that one could declare war on a technique, at least within the common usage of the word "war." If Major League Baseball declared a "war on cheating," I think most of us would be untroubled by the terminology itself (potentially by the hyperbole, I'll grant). To declare a war on a process is to declare that process absolutely forbidden, beyond the pale of permissible conduct. They'd be attempting to purge the tactic of "cheating" from existence, just as we might wish to purge the tactic of "terror[ism]" from the world. If one defines "terror[ism]" as the targeted killing of innocent civilians to advance a political agenda, then I think opposing it is a noble goal indeed--and one well worth fighting for. Obviously it represents a major shift in objectives from a "normal" war against Germany (a nation) or Poverty (a state of being). But I don't think our language is insufficiently flexible to adapt to it.

The latter objection is similarly too narrow. First of all, if we are declaring on a deontological level that "terror" (as defined above) is never a justified tactic, then we could fight a war against it regardless of whether the utilizers share motivations or ideologies. Again, to analogize toward cheating--regardless of whether the particular cheater is acting to win a game, or a bet, or just to prove "he can," if we're battling cheating as such then the distinctions are immaterial. Similarly, if Palestinians are terrorizing to throw the Jews out of the Holy Land, while Iraqis are terrorizing to end the occupation and the IRA is terrorizing to gain a Catholic-ruled Northern Ireland, we could still oppose the tactic as such without regard to the differing motivations. Again, this isn't to say that we are doing this (or even necessarily that we should--though I do think that), only that the term itself isn't objectionable.

In fact, I'd actually prefer that we phrase more military actions as battles against concepts rather than peoples. If we were to intervene in Darfur, I'd like it to be a "war against genocide," not a war against Sudan. The reason why is simple--the goal of such an intervention shouldn't be to exact retribution against the Sudanese people. Rather, it should be to send a message to the world that genocide--anywhere, anytime--is intolerable and will be met with the full force of the international community. Likewise, the war on terror should not be fought against the terrorists themselves or their sympathizers specifically, but rather as a broader struggle against military tactics that specifically target civilians for death and destruction. A conceptually-justified war is more likely to have the long term deterrence impacts that are missing in the status quo--Sudan would have been far less likely to engage in the slaughter in Darfur had our Kosovo intervention been framed as the response genocideers receive, as opposed to "just another" war that happened to be against Serbia.

I should also note that I think Leiter's guestbloggers (both surnamed "Stanley", so I'm going to refer to them as "the Stanley brothers") are too glib in their dismissal of the terror threat. Admittedly, bin Laden and his cohorts do not possess armies capable of massive world domination. But that isn't where the threat comes from. It may be trite, but the face of the world is changing. The "insight" of terrorism is that one can cause significant impacts in global affairs without the major expenditure of resources that conventional warfare requires. Hell, you don't even need a state. And the way that the world is evolving makes us more vulnerable to such an attack, not less. Consider the argument by leftist scholars Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (as summarized and applied by Legal Fiction):
First, they whine about the collapse of non-capitalist alternatives and the rise of globalization. But second, and here's the key, they argue that the trends of globalization are making it easier to strike down the global capitalist economy dragon. And to make their point, they rely on the concepts of networks and interconnectedness (or for you Clinton fans out there, interdependence). The idea is that the global economy is becoming one big, connected entity. In this sense, they seem to be agreeing with Thomas Friedman that the world is flattening.

But here's the catch. Because everything is so interconnected, the entire network itself is more susceptible to attack because destroying one important node can - Abramoff-style - bring the whole thing crashing down. It's sort of like creating a black hole that would suck down everything around it, which is pretty much what Abramoff is at the present.

Most disgustingly, though most presciently perhaps, the authors heap a lot of praise on radical Islam, largely because they view it as most clearly rejecting modernity and as the most willing to act against it. They wrote all this before 9/11, but you can see where I'm going with this. And when you do, you should hopefully develop a greater sense of urgency about the magnitude of the threat posed by nuclear terror. Under this view, 9/11 was not merely an attack on the country or the West, but an attack upon an important node of the global economy. Thus, what's most frightening about terrorism in the age of globalization is its ability to potentially bring the whole damn thing crashing down. And a well-placed nuclear bomb could do just that.

It's amazing in retrospect that destroying the center of the financial universe did not trigger a more destructive chain reaction across the markets. Maybe that's because we're not as connected as we think we are - yet. But we're getting there.

When you think of the world economy as a network, it's easy to see how a terrorist attack - or the collapse of stability in the oil-rich Middle East - could really suck our entire world economy into chaos. A nuclear strike on New York, or a collapse of Saudi Arabia, or any number of scenarios could trigger a financial panic spreading at the speed of broadband. And as the world's financial centers grow more connected, and capital grows more fluid, there's a greater chance that the world could experience on a much larger scale what Argentina recently experienced.

This is what makes terror such a threat--it's the ultimate geo-political jujitsu. Nearly any aggrieved party can access the tools necessary to cause massive international chaos. Such a threat should not and cannot be easily dismissed. I agree that a long-term strategy to address this requires that the US move away from it's aggravating realpolitik and start practicing what it preaches in foreign affairs. As long as the US supports dictatorships, we'll be prone to attack. But eliminating our direct support is only half the battle. In any world that has massive amounts of political injustice and an American hegemony, terror will still be a risk. As such, ultimate solvency can only come when all the aggravating factors--imperialism, racism, totalitarianism, autocracy, ethic strife, etc., are, if not eliminated, then at least subject to severe and immediate international sanction.

In the end then, I do not find that the use of the term war on terror should, as the Stanley brothers so diplomatically put it, cause the speaker to "be laughed out of serious society." And I am shocked to hear them say that this rhetoric is as "appallingly and transparently ridiculous as...old films of Stalinist or Nazi propaganda." I'd say that this would be the example of rhetoric that should get someone "laughed out of serious society," except that a serious society would remember just how serious the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were and wouldn't degrade them in the endless quest for political points.

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