This is a précis and redaction of what I wrote to my chief correspondent after he commented on a recent blog. His thoughts not only help me stay honest but also provide inspiration.
Thank you for reading my blog (“You Can’t be a Commander in Chief without a War”) and for posting a comment. I would add to what you said that terrorist attacks are, in fact, war. Part of the problem we face is that people have so many definitions of terrorism and so many people don’t equate terrorist acts to war. “War” is a big concept, perhaps more frightening than “terrorism.” While we still commemorate the attacks of September 11, 2001 I fear both that they have been blown out of proportion and that they have been softened by the passage of time.
Here’s how I define terrorism: “An act by either a nation-state or a non-nation-state (Note 1) employing what was long thought to be unconventional warfare (Note 2) that is designed to create a disproportionate response (Note 3).
(1) That definition deliberately includes everyone.
(2) Unconventional warfare once included car bombs, suicide bombers, solo shooters at nightclubs, driving trucks through crowds of people… you’ve seen all this in the news. Problem: they are no longer “unconventional.” It’s time for us to wake up to the “new normal” that all these things are part of modern warfare.
(3) This is a little more tricky to describe/define. In my opinion the “Patriot Act” was a disproportionate response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The continued expansion of that act, the capture of cell phone calls and email messages from domestic sources by the NSA, the pat-downs of children by TSA agents at airport checkpoints, and hundreds of other abuses are a disproportionate response. Every time a citizen is discommoded by such acts, terrorists score a victory.
Where might this lead? Turkey is perhaps an extreme case, in which thousands have been arrested with little evidence, but only accusations that they might be Kurdish nationals or might be sympathetic to the Kurdish cause. Russia is another extreme, in which enemies or critics of Putin have almost certainly been murdered. My fear (one of my several fears, actually) is that this country might follow either or both of these models.
During the Farm Crisis and Great Depression of the early 20th century, conditions in the United States, Germany, and Italy were similar. Germany and Italy turned to Fascism. The United States maintained its democracy (actually, “republic”). What was the difference between these three countries? I cannot answer that question except to suggest that, of the three charismatic leaders that emerged (Hitler, Mussolini, and Roosevelt), it was Roosevelt who led this country. (Yes, he tried to stack the Supreme Court, but our tripartite government was able to stop that power-grab. I wonder if Trump, with a slavishly devoted Congress and the ability to appoint perhaps four Supreme Court justices, will take us in the direction of a Fascist dictatorship.)
I still carry vivid memories of scenes from the attacks of September 11, 2001. I’m afraid, however, that for most people, they’ve been overcome by more important events… the latest celebrity marriage or divorce, for example. Such is the fickleness of the American mind.
Blown out of proportion? Not a pun. But let us not overlook that while 2,996 people died in the September 11, 2001 attacks, we kill more than 8,000 people each year in this country in gun violence; over 1.3 million people—many of whom were civilians—have died in our so-called war on terror; between 10,000 and 15,000 people die in drug violence each year in Mexico, alone, to feed the 55 million users of illegal drugs in the United States; and over 35,000 people in this country die each year in traffic accidents. Does anyone except me see the irony? When do we read out those names? When do we hold a moment of silence for them?
Mixing metaphors? No. They are all dead. They were all mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles. What matters how they died? Seriously, does it matter that they were murdered by a bunch of (probably) Saudis, an armed drone, or a drunk driver?
Is Islam a religion of peace? No more than is Judaism or Christianity. The Jewish scriptures (Tanakh, mostly) are full of commands to go to war and devastate enemies of the early Judeans. And while Jesus said, “love thy neighbor,” he also said, “if you do not have a sword, sell your garment and buy one.” I’m still working my way through a translation of the Quran, but so far much of what I’ve read appears to be a call to arms against those who would question Islam. No, there is no religion of peace in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
When I think about a war on terror, the first thing I ask is, “What are the targets in this war?”
If I remember my Air War College course correctly, World War II (and perhaps Korea) were the last wars in which we had easily defined targets. Certainly, in Vietnam, we were bombing indiscriminately, mostly blowing up trees. A few bridges, perhaps, but nothing like the railroad marshaling yards and industrial plants of WW II. What are our targets in the war on terror? Houses that may be occupied by nebulous leaders of even more nebulous terrorist factions? Indeed, what are our targets in the war on drugs? The war on poverty? At one time, my Air Force Specialty Code was 1825: Target Intelligence Officer. I’d really hate to have to perform that duty, today. Who and what is a target?
Have we created “war” as the new normal by overusing the word to the point that it is meaningless?
Australia is being pressured to accept refugees from both war and from climate change but at the same time is trying to protect its own people from violence perpetrated by refugees and radicalism promoted by some of these refugees. Hmmm. Not unlike the US. As is often the case, we cannot find a middle ground (and I don’t mean “compromise”). Obama wants to accept tens of thousands of refugees; Trump says he wants to deny refugee status to anyone who is Muslim or from a terroristic country. (Yes, he occasionally softens his statements, but I wonder what is true—his original statements or his attempts to normalize his relationship with the press.)
We in this country have had a declared War on Poverty and a declared War on Drugs for years, decades. We’ve not won either. In fact, by any standards, we’ve lost both and continue to lose. How can one legitimately declare war on a concept, especially one as nebulous as poverty, drugs, or terrorism, and expect to win?
One cannot, but the declared wars give reasons to demand tax money for the military-industrial complex, to create make-work jobs in congressional districts, and to create publicity that suggests, “Yes, your leaders, your congress, are doing something (so vote to keep us in office).”
I think it’s a given that those in power need an enemy, real or fictitious, to keep themselves in power.
Please remember, especially when you read my diatribes, the words of Peter Abelard:
“Doubt; question everything. Doubt leads to questioning; questioning leads to truth. Distinguish rational proof from propaganda or persuasion. Be precise with words and demand precision of others. Be wary of error, even in the most sacred texts.”
While I do not count my blog posts as “sacred texts,” they are certainly subject to questioning.
Numbers of people in Mexico who die from drug violence and the number of users of illegal drugs in the US come from a TED Talk by Rodrigo Canales. Google that to see the 20-minute or so video.
Numbers of people killed in other ways were extracted from various government web sites including the CDC. Again, Google the terms to find information.
Registered Curmudgeon, scientist, skeptic, humanist, and writer.