Wednesday, January 11, 2006

On wars and terror

Okay, so in the comments to a previous post, Steve asked a very good question: Do I believe that there is a war on terror? My answer, put simply, is somewhere between "yes" and "no."

Yes, I believe there's a war on terror. I also believe that there's been a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on AIDS, and a (losing) war on obesity. I don't believe that there have been wars on Christmas or stay-at-home-motherhood. But these are all wars on abstract nouns. They aren't wars against countries and armies, and they can't be fought like traditional wars. You can't shoot "terrorism" or drop a bomb on "drugs."

A war on an abstraction has to be fought along abstract lines. Terrorism isn't going to be bombed into oblivion any more than AIDS is, because terrorism is spread the same way AIDS is spread: through ignorance, fear, and unsafe contact. You could drop a daisy cutter on Baghdad right now and take out every single terrorist there, but that's not going to kill terrorism, because there are now a thousand young men around the edges who are now pissed off enough to take one for Allah and a thousand terror cells around the world willing to teach them how to do it.

Am I saying that America is at fault for terrorism? Don't be an ass. Terrorists aren't born; they grow in an environment filled with hatred, fear, aimlessness, ignorance, and too much free time. That's not America's fault, but the good news is that America can do something about it. Terrorists happen when people are scared and angry and have no guidance or hope that the world will ever be better, and then an organization arises that offers that guidance and that hope.

What America can do to fight terror is to provide guidance and hope and security in a positive way. The buildup of police forces and other security forces in Iraq is a good start, but the rise of an increasingly theocratic government and the continued bombing of Iraqi police make it a real challenge. The government can only be changed through diplomatic influence, and the truth is that if the Iraqis want to democratically elect a theocratic government, there's not a lot we can do about it. All we can do is try to make them safe and empower them to make positive decisions about their government. Just like drug use, just like obesity, just like AIDS, the way to defeat terrorism is to create an environment where it simply can't thrive.

That having been said, no, I don't believe there's a war on Terror. Not the way the current administration is talking about it, anyway. This isn't World War II, where our troops charge in and face off against a thousand uniformed Terror troops, and Americans at home ride bicycles to save the gas and women draw seams down the backs of their legs so that their stockings can be used for the war effort. There won't be a VT day, where Terror surrenders and crackling newsreels show the newly-liberated people cheering and waving handkerchiefs.

We're fighting terrorism like it's a bunch of enemy soldiers, and once they're all lying down or waving a white flag, our job will be done. The fact is, every terrorist we kill has three more pop up behind him because we haven't created an environment where terrorism can't grow. When we charged into Iraq, we deposed a truly evil dictator, but we also left an entire country without anyone in charge. Now we're dealing with those consequences with military efforts, but it's not a traditional war, and just military efforts won't fix things. Winning the peace calls for diplomacy as much as security.

The war on terror, or whatever you want to call it, is going to be long-term. Looooong-term. It may never end. That's because it's an effort that has to extend to the entire world and that has to involve every country in the entire world. It doesn't mean having troops deployed for the next hundred years, because troops stop terrorists, not terrorism. And it doesn't mean giving up your rights and living in fear, because that might stop some terrorists, but it won't stop terrorism. Fighting Terror won't accomplish anything until we start also fighting terrorism, and giving away our own rights and freedoms won't accomplish that.

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