The “War” on Terrorism

The war in Iraq has elicited all kinds of nonsense from people on both sides of the issue and, almost every day, I find myself exasperated by someone missing the point. Often missing the point requires a pointed effort of will — as with people who insist the entire war effort was about oil: if all we wanted was Iraqi oil, by far our best policy, by any measure, would have been to lift sanctions and buy it — but sometimes underlying patterns are obscured by superficial features and are reasonably missed.

On June 12th 2004 the Boston Globe ran a letter from C.A. Stokes in which he responded to assertions by the Secretary of Defense that the United States was “losing the broader struggle against Islamic extremism that is terrorism’s source.”  According to Mr. Stokes’ analysis — and citing terrorist groups from the IRA to Baader-Meinhof as evidence — terrorism is not a movement but a technique used by a variety of movements; it is therefore wrong to “equate Islamic extremism with terrorism,” and to declare war on terrorism is a “rhetorical device that cannot have much meaning”. Setting aside Mr. Stokes unfair shift of language — Rumsfeld’s assertion was that Islamic extremism is the source of terrorism, not a synonym  for it — his point is valid on the surface but misses a critical philosophical foundation that connects all the disparate terror groups despite their divergent goals — and that makes a “war on terrorism” both meaningful and worthwhile.

The following was submitted to the Globe on June 14th to elucidate that philosophical foundation. It was not published.

14 June 2004

Letter writer C.A. Stokes (12 Jun) took exception to Donald Rumsfeld’s identification of Islamic extremism as the source of terrorism, and cited examples both historical and recent to support his thesis that terrorism, as merely a “technique” employed by disparate movements rather than a discrete entity with its own internal structure and logic, cannot be “equated” with Islamic extremism, or with other religious fundamentalism, and cannot be the legitimate or meaningful subject of a “war”. But as disparate as the superficial goals of terrorists have been through the years, they have all shared a fundamental moral philosophy: that the proper role of the individual is as the servant of the greater society — and that, therefore, the sacrifice of the uninvolved and the innocent to “the cause” of some greater social vision is not only justified but glorious.

It is true that nationalist movements like the IRA and the ETA and Hamas share this moral outlook with the likes of Baader-Meinhof and Al Quaeda. But their goals — and their targets — are localized, aimed tightly at those they perceive as their oppressors. Groups like Al Quaeda have broader goals, and of current necessity Donald Rumsfeld’s conception of terrorism identifies it not just by technique but by scope — terror not for liberation but for conquest; terror aimed not merely at your oppressors but at all who dispute your social vision. With the collapse of worldwide Marxism as the leading socialist moral model, the primary — though not singular — source of that moral philosophy and of that brand of terrorism is now precisely where Mr. Rumsfeld said it was: in Islamic extremism.

Mr. Stokes is correct that we cannot meaningfully wage war on a technique — but we can wage physical war on those who would employ that technique and, more importantly, we can wage intellectual war on the moral philosophy that rationalizes its use.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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