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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Defining terms

Time at last to write again. And more time coming, if my plans for semi-retirement, so promising at the moment, materialize next June.


There have been so many thoughts that crossed my mind over the years, declaimed themselves amidst the daily trivia as I drove on the freeway, or took a lunch break, and then retreated in the face of the common sense imperatives of the next class to plan or the next appointment or the next chore.


Now I am faced with a whole day of leisure and all the functioning technology one could wish for, (eat your heart out Dickens). Yet my mind retreats timidly. Nary a thought to find. What were they?


There is one that does come to me consistently, with every newscast in these years since 9-1-1.There is a muddle-headedness to term of “terrorist”, a lack of clarity to the concept that has had extraordinary consequences. That word has taken on such power in our current chapter of history. When the word is used - a hundred times a day it seems - it conjures rat-like humans who conspire in cramped apartments and plant bombs as some kind of past time, or twisted religious act. But truly, how can one wage a war against “terrorists” or “terrorism’? Is there any war that does not bring horrific levels of terror and pain to its participants and corollary victims?


Terrorism is defined as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.” I guess it is the “political purposes” that connects it so strongly in people’s minds as an act of war. And, given enough scale, it surely is – as in the Algerian uprising in the 50’s, or the Shiite militias in Iraq with their methodical mass tortures.


Yet it is one thing to say one’s enemies are “terrorists,” as we do with fundamentalist Muslims who bomb our soldiers and nearby civilians, and quite another to define “terrorists” are one’s enemies. This makes no sense because terrorism is a military or personal tactic of war, a way to fight or force one’s point of view when other ways are not easily available. It is an especially cruel and ugly way, given its terrible toll of civilians and children, yet it remains a military tactic, not a movement in and of itself, and not an inherent quality of any group.


Would we not have thought it strange if our leaders in WWII had declared war not on Germans but on heavy bombists? What about tankists? Whole cities were incinerated by their (and our) bombers. Villages were leveled as tank columns rolled through supported by infantry. Enough terror for a thousand 9-11’s. Yet it would never occur to give the specialist soldiers who perpetrated such acts their own unique titles as enemies. The enemies were the nations at war.


Turn the idea around. Would we cease calling Al Queda “enemy” if they started fighting with heavy bombers and tanks and infantry? Of course not. We would find relief only in having the acts of war out in the open. The enemy would remain the same.


There is also an astonishing level of myopia and denial about the tactics used by ourselves and our friends in relation to this term “terrorism”. Imagine for a moment the impact on American citizens if any nation, for ANY motive, sent a drone over our cities loaded with bombs, under the command of a foreign youth of 20, with little or no knowledge of our culture or motives, instructed to pull the trigger whenever he saw something he interpreted as suspicious. Imagine that several public gatherings – weddings, parades, festivals, beach fires for large families – became scenes of carnage with the bloody burnt bodies of adults and children cast about like a scene from hell and dozens more sent in agony to hospitals. To be followed a few days later by a tepid apology: “We regret the recent bombing. We received erroneous information that a terrorist leader might have been in the group.”


Imagine the nightly dreams of those under such a flight path.


Imagine a part of California or Texas walled off, as Palestinians in Gaza are walled off, allowed inadequate food and water and medical supplies, humiliated when they tried to come out for work. Imagine a group of men in the affected area deciding to take action by sending rockets over the barriers, harming some tens of people on the other side. Then imagine the other side bombing the enclosed area for days using jets and tanks and bombers, targeting hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, destroying the whole functioning infrastructure of an economy already struggling to survive, inflicting casualties on the civilian population at ratio of 100 to 1 to the casualties they themselves suffered. How can politicians and pundits keep repeating their mantra of “this is the only way to defeat terrorists” in the face of such on the ground contradictions? What clarity can such words possibly bring in such a situation? And if they do actually mean something, why is it so forbidden to apply them according to their meaning, without partisanship? How can it not be obvious that both sides are trying to terrorize the other into submitting to their own interests?


But then what happens when the enemy is a small group bent on revenge or moved toward mayhem by some other motive that has come to seem more important to them than their own lives? Was the group that attached the Trade Center buildings really the opening front of a “war” in any sense that was not rhetorical? Perhaps many Taliban members of wahabi sects in Pakistan and Afghansitan and Saudi Arabia rejoiced to see Americans damaged. Does that mean they were suddenly soldiers in a united army against us? They were not members of Al Queda. They fought back in an organized way only when we invaded their countries with large armies.


The people who attacked the trade center were criminals, worthy of receiving whatever punishment for such a horrific terrorist act the law provides for. However, by instead defining our reaction as a “war on terror”, our government began an endless war against a nearly undefinable enemy. And it is a war that creates its own endless causes and can end only when we are too exhausted to fight further. This way of thinking – or not thinking – on the part of the Bush administratrion, this lack of clarity in defining its own vocabulary, started a cascade of misery and endless retributions that will affect the whole world for generations.

1 comment:

  1. Of course you know I agree with you! More soon.

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