Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rethinking "Terrorism"

A friend's philosophy course assignment prompts me to reconsider the term "terrorism," particularly in light of its recurrent invocation abuse by the Bush Administration. Who is a terrorist and what is terrorism?

The specter of "terrorism" was applied with such a broad brush by the Argentine military in the dictatorship of 1976-83, at the cost of the lives of people I knew, among them a close friend, that it has long lost any meaning to me.

Terror? Maybe the White House aides whom I saw scrambling out like rats on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, were frightened by the 18 fanatically misguided Muslims who in suicide attacks flew planes straight into several buildings.

Although I was well within the White House security perimeter, I only stopped working because the FBI kicked me out of my office -- allegedly to protect the president, who was hiding his own very brave hide in Nebraska at the time, as I recall.

People aren't terrorists just because we don't like 'em and would like to lock 'em up. They have to wilfully inspire terror.

Yet that is not, insofar as I can tell, the aim of Al Qaeda. Osama and his buddies want to destroy the United States, scared or not. "Death to America" is not the same as "Terror to America."

Terror means intense fear throughout a large population. Neither the original Spanish guerrillas who fought Napoleonic troops in the early 19th century nor the admittedly effective French Maquis of World War II nor, arguably, even the Viet Cong managed to hold whole populations in the thrall of fear.

Indeed, the repeated failure of Ernesto Che Guevara is a testament to the inadequacy of insurgency as an instrument of terror. Even in suicide-bomber-rife Israel, the likelihood that alleged terrorists will get you is a crap shoot; you're just as likely to get hit by a crazy Israeli driver.

Historically, political terror has been the weapon of rulers intent on scaring large numbers of subjects into submission. Public drawing, quartering and hangings of Jesuits in England or the recurrent whacking of guillotine blades on the French nobility were both instances of terror. Most people feared being thought Catholic in Elizabethan England or a blue-blood in Revolutionary France.

Under Joseph Stalin terror was evident in speech applause sessions that lasted sometimes as long as an hour, because no one wanted NKVD agents to see them stop applauding first. McCarthy-era blacklisting was a form of economic terror: if some people thought you were a Communist, they felt entitled to deprive you of your livelihood without trial -- even though it was never illegal to be a Communist.

Who wields terror today? Think about it.

Al Qaeda doesn't care what Americans feel. These fanatically theocratic Muslims believe in wiping out Western liberal (and illiberal) democracy, along with Western humanistic mores that go back to the Renaissance, off the face of the Earth.

The only people who stand to gain from terror, politically and economically, are George W. Bush, Richard Cheney and their associates. Oh, yes, and the cops everywhere who act like they're rushing to smoldering Downtown Manhattan seven years ago every time someone doesn't halt quite long enough at a stop sign.

Those folks really scare me. Bush and Cheney have already launched two wars. The cops -- and every thick-necked wannabe vigilante -- are notorious bullies. That's terror.
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