Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Terrorism as a Disqualifier

After the destructive acts of September 11th, 2001, the United States responded with a "War on Terror."  Critics of all political stripes have suggested that the name doesn't fit.  Even President Bush, who coined the name in June of 2002, was not keen on the name in 2004 when he stated,
"We actually misnamed the war on terror. It ought to be: 'the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world.'"
Some take issue with the designation of "war".  I think this was the rationale behind President Obama dropping the name.  He has opted for a bureaucratic and innocuous sounding name, "Overseas Contingency Operation." With large numbers of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan where bullets and bombs continue to kill, it seems a bit disingenuous to call those conflicts anything other than wars. 

Others take issue with the term "terror."  Pastor Rick Warren actually made this point in a recent "tweet".
Terrorism is a TACTIC. You dont fight a war against a method (like blitzkrieg) It's a battle of ideas, a war of worldviews
I actually tend to agree with this argument. The battle is with a particular terrorist entity and perhaps the failed nation-states who harbor them.  I found Peter Breinart helpful as he describes the conflict with Al Qaeda as a long-term ideological struggle.  Just like the "Cold War", this struggle will be fought with military and law enforcement, but also with education, diplomacy, and economic aid.

That being said, I do find something useful in the designation, "War on Terror."  In its imperfect and clunky way, the title suggests that terrorism is out-of-bounds.  If we are entering a period of history marked by the clash of civilizations and ideologies, then we should establish some ground rules.  However legitimate our concerns, we cannot further our political ends by terrorism.  The person or group who commits terrorist acts has given up the right to be heard. 

For example, the abolitionist cause in the United States before the Civil War was just.  However, John Brown's armed insurrection disqualified him personally from taking part in the debate.  Likewise, I found Chris Kennedy's position on refusing William Ayers emeritis status at the University of Illinois at Chicago correct:
“There is nothing more antithetical to the hopes for a university that is lively and yet civil, or to the hopes of our founding fathers for their great experiment of a self-governing people, than to permanently seal off debate with one’s opponents by killing them.”
My only regret is that William Ayers was given a teaching position in the first place.  Can someone renounce violence and return to the debate?  Yes, I certainly would welcome that possibility.  Nonetheless, our methods are as important as our ends.  Frankly, I may be naive, but I have confidence that truth will ultimately succeed if civility rules the debate.