a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Define terrorist; show your work

Posted by Thomas Nephew on June 28th, 2005

In a couple of recent posts, Stygius proposed a kind of mental doctrine he says should inform all progressive/liberal national security thinking:

  1. There are a group of fanatic killers who want to kill as many Americans as they can; and,
  2. Dead terrorists can’t kill Americans.

In the second post, which should be taken as the more definitive statement, Stygius elaborates on what he does and doesn’t mean with what might be called the “Stygius doctrine”:

Hopefully, readers see that I’m talking about sentiments about right actions; about practical values. Thus, this is not a “Kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out!” sentiment. I fully acknowledge and embrace the notion that there can be conditions where killing terrorists can be impractical, or imprudent. That is why I’m talking about “appropriateness” and a broad, multi-faceted calculus of values. Rather, I’m asking skeptical progressives to accept the idea that there can be and are conditions where terrorists can be legitimately fought and killed.

I certainly accept that being prepared to fight to kill is a necessary part of dealing with any mortal foe. I think most people, even “skeptical progressives,” do. You enumerate the possibilities, and prepare yourself for them — as Hamlet concludes, “the readiness is all.”

My critique of Stygius’ doctrine isn’t so much to quarrel with it as to say the house is only half built. One problem is in the vague concept of ‘terrorist’; I’m not trying to be sarcastic when I say that they don’t come clearly labeled.

Unlike in a classic war, we can not be sure we know who the practitioners of terrorism are, much (much, much) less who are potential terrorists, and less yet what to do about these not-yet-terrorists. We have further problems with the term itself. Not long after 9/11, I tried my hand at defining “terrorism”. I decided that it was the self-appointed, unaccountable nature of terrorism that was its crucially dangerous and reprehensible feature. If so, it would seem obvious how not to fight against it.

I’ve grown a little wary of my own early certainties about the “war on terror,” yet I also know I still feel the incandescent anger I felt after 9/11. Then, “war” seemed right and just. Now, maybe it is still the best word, but the question is whether incandescent anger, shrewd moderation, or some judicious mixture thereof best serves us in protecting ourselves and our society against our foes.

I recall celebrating a Predator strike in 2002 on some terrorists — I was led to believe, and have little reason to doubt — in Yemen. Yet in the years since 9/11, I’ve grown so disillusioned with the directions American fighting and policy have taken, and the half-truths, quarter-truths, and one sixty-fourth truths offered in explanation, that I can wonder: was this strike, too, a publicity stunt or a necessary act? How sure are we — whether “we” who had our finger on the button launching the missile, or we the people — that those killed were part of al Qaeda, that they were involved in the USS Cole attack, and so forth? Will anyone with a critical mind ever get a chance to find out? I may have little reason to doubt the right thing was done, but in truth I have little reason to credit it either.

Whether such doubts are evidence of my liberalish lack of firm resolve, or of my government leading me down a primrose path one too many times is probably a matter of little importance to anyone but me. But if I’m not the only one with doubts, I think they illustrate one small price we, the people of the United States, pay for the unaccountable methods — foreign and domestic, political and military — that we’ve allowed in our name.

In his book “The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror,” (Princeton University Press, 2004) Michael Ignatieff examines the issues of proper and effective self-defense by liberal democracies against terror attacks. In it, Ignatieff proposes that all responses to the challenge of terror attack campaigns be subject to four tests: the dignity test (does the response respect human dignity?), the conservative test (if the response calls for changes to our own system, are those changes really necessary?), the effectiveness test (will the response work?), and open adversarial review (is the response subject to institutional and/or public review and approval?) It seems to me that we are failing, or close to failing, on all four counts. Ignatieff asks,

If force must be the ultimate response to violence against a constitutional state, what is to keep state violence from becoming as unconstrained as the enemy it is seeking to destroy? The only answer is democracy and the obligation of justification that it imposes on those who use force in its name. […]

The evil [of terrorism] does not consist in the resort to violence itself, since violence can be justified, as a last resort, in the face of oppression, occupation, or injustice. The evil consists in resorting to violence as a first resort, in order to make peaceful politics impossible.

We should not flirt with emulating that evil; we should make our war (when that is necessary) with terrorists the antithesis of theirs: transparent, subject to debate, principled. Fighting terrorists to the death — even apocalyptic, undeterrable ones like those on 9/11 — is a lesser evil only when their methods and outlook are clearly not adopted.

Stygius is a principled person, and I know he* does not support the excesses and ‘look the other ways’ of the Bush administration policies (plausibly deniable as such or not) at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere; his statements on his own blog and his frequent and welcome comments here underline that.

But I suspect many Bush administration people did not wake up on 9/12 knowing that’s the direction they were headed. (I also suspect some did; but that many did not.) Regardless; our country’s single-minded emphasis on a narrowly conceived national security and on death to our foes — while ignoring every other principle — has got us where we are now: in the mud, with far too much innocent blood on our hands, and far too much human indignity and injustice on our consciences. I dare not deny it: on my hands and on my conscience, too. Regarding his tests, Ignatieff writes:

If all this adds up to a series of constraints that tie the hands of our governments, so be it. It is the very nature of a democracy that it not only does, but should, fight with one hand tied behnid its back. It is also in the nature of democracy that it prevails against its enemies precisely because it does.

To be clear: there is a variety of terrorist that needs killing. To be equally clear: that’s not all there is to it. Not if we want to keep our principles and country intact.

* Or she, as the case may be.

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