Magazine article USA TODAY

Terrorism's Violence Warp: "The Bush Administration, from the Very Beginning, Has Failed to Define Accurately the Conflict with Islamic Terrorists."

Magazine article USA TODAY

Terrorism's Violence Warp: "The Bush Administration, from the Very Beginning, Has Failed to Define Accurately the Conflict with Islamic Terrorists."

Article excerpt

CONFUSION reigns in the "war on terrorism." Around the globe, leaders of every sort express their indignation at the lack of understanding of what really is at issue in societal, police, and military efforts against those who have been called terrorists and the acts that have been labeled terrorism.

Ethnic rebels in China now are terrorists. Chechen separatists are terrorists. Americans protesting the war on terrorism are themselves designated as terrorists. Any act of violence against a standing government is seen as terrorist while the government seeks to link itself with the global war on terrorism to prevent its overthrow and quash dissent. Nationstates are said to be terrorist if they react violently, or even challenge, the international social order in any unconventional manner.

Much of this confusion in the use of the terms merely is political obfuscation. Some of it simply is having been caught up in the temper of the times. As for the public, much of the variation in its use of terms is intellectual laziness. Most have not bothered to figure out what terrorism means and who is a terrorist and who is not. We should get this straight. Political policy would be clearer and decisional direction calculated more easily if we had some idea of how to structure our visions of the reality around us.

In the 1940s and 1950s, terrorism was associated with anarchists, most of whom were far away, in space and history. There were Russian anarchists--or some were Europeans. Mongolian leader Genghis Khan used terror to sweep away societies that impeded his advance across Asia late in the 12th century. We read in history classes about the Reign of Terror in France in 1795. Even here, the English word "terrorism" was an amalgam of meanings that represented many forms of human violence perpetrated on other humans. There is a lot of that. It is not all terrorism.

At its base, terror is just fear. Maybe extreme fear. The human body girds itself against danger when fear is induced. Adrenaline flows; eyes dilate; the testicles retract for better running. Other forces, though, are incapacitating. Confusion fills our heads. Some people are frozen in place. We cry out when silence would be our best defense. An act of terrorism is intended to stimulate these latter reactions.

Fear "always is a side effect of violence and war (a human condition). History is what is written about events in times of war and it is posted by the winners. Violence across the spectrum, from murder and assassination to worldwide wars and the use of nuclear weapons, laces human history and distinguishes us from the other mammals. We kill to eat, true, but, more often, we kill to dominate. Fear destroys will; the loss of will undermines determination and interest in progress; that, in turn, suppresses opposition.

When men fight each other one-on-one, we call it boxing. When men group together under political auspices, we call the violence war. What we characterize as "civilization" is the application of rules to any form of violence along this continuum. More civilization, more rules. Rules applied to violence are the veneer of sophistication that we use to describe ourselves in our recording of history.

Terrorism is a backward step on that scale--away from law, down from complexity. It is less civilized, more barbarian, an appeal to the primeval--the use of fear to achieve ends. The act of terror in the attacks of 9/11 were not in the 3,000 people killed or the destruction of the World Trade Center, but, rather, in the fear induced in the U.S. population and in the disruption of politics and the economy. The fear resulted in hundreds of billions of dollars in costs (so far) to combat the object of our tears in Afghanistan and elsewhere, repair the physical damage, compensate victims and families of victims for medical costs and lost wages, build homeland security, and wage war in Iraq (whether or not it was connected to the 9/11 attacks). …

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