War Will Not End Terrorism

After 9/11, Tamin Ansary, the son of a former Afghan politician, sent an email to 20 friends about the futility of bombing Afghanistan. Ansary's eloquent letter, "The Taliban: An Afghan-American Speaks," was forwarded on and reached millions of peope around the world. It was published last year in AlterNet's book, After 9/11: Solutions for a Saner World.

Whenever I read about destroying the infrastructure of terrorism, I am troubled by the hard fact that terrorism doesn't need any infrastructure to succeed. Indeed, its lack of infrastructure is its main advantage. Historically, terrorist tactics have been exploited by groups without state power, without the capacity to field armies, and without permission to operate in the open.

The same thing is true of criminals at every level, a parallel that ought to give us pause. Our military might, money and technology toppled the Soviet Empire, but it couldn't keep one evil man from climbing through a bedroom window in Petaluma, kidnapping 12-year-old Polly Klaas, and killing her in a deserted field shortly after he had been stopped by law enforcement officers with the girl still alive in the trunk of his car.

It couldn't stop one guy, or maybe two, from making a bomb out of fertilizer that destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma and killed several hundred people.

It seems impotent to stop some man in Maryland from shooting random strangers with a high-powered rifle even as I write this.

It couldn't prevent two high school students from slaughtering their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado. The Columbine shooters then killed themselves, so we couldn't even bring them to justice.

None of these criminals needed their own infrastructure. They used the infrastructure of the society they were attacking.

The same is true of the men who destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They didn't have their own flight schools; they used ours. They didn't have their own airplanes; they used ours. They didn't even make those box-cutters; they bought the ones we made. And they killed themselves in the process of committing their atrocities, so we can't even bring them to justice. To me, they bear frightening similarities to the maniacs who slaughtered their schoolmates at Columbine.

Why is it then that in our national conversation about terrorism, we use the language of war and not that of crime-busting? I think the war metaphor is based on wishful thinking. Crime is a subtle problem and hard to get a handle on. War, on the other hand, is something we can just declare and wage and win -- and we can do it virtually without casualty to our own forces, as we proved in the Persian Gulf, again in the Balkans, and most recently in Afghanistan.

Therefore, wishfully, hopefully, we talk about terrorism as if it were just another nation-state, a monolithic entity. We call it by a single name -- al-Qaeda -- thereby reducing terrorism to an organization that can be eliminated if only its headquarters and officers can be found. In the first few months after Sept. 11, we even spoke of a single Napoleonic mastermind, Osama bin Laden (although it's true we haven't heard nearly as much about him lately.)

But what if we're operating with the wrong model? What if terrorism is more like crime? The model we're using shapes our assumptions, and our specific responses follow as the night follows day.

Take the "War on Drugs," for example. Merely calling it "a war" suggests the sorts of apparatus needed to solve the problem: infrared night goggles, heat seeking missiles, camouflage outfits, jungle air drops and the like. Has the military approach to the drug problem worked? I'd say the jury is still out.

Repeating the same error with terrorism could be more costly. Again: Calling it a war locks us into assumptions about what steps to take. Real war consists of one state going head-to-head with another. Each government tries to destroy the capacity of the other to keep functioning. Whoever loses this capacity first is forced to say, "I give up."

Our proposals for stamping out terrorism come to us without scrutiny from this familiar model. That's why the buzz phrases are "defeating terrorist states" and "destroying the infrastructure of terrorism." In practice, these phrases turn out to simply mean "defeating states" and "destroying infrastructure." The word "terrorism" is just slapped on them to disguise the fact that these are the same old responses to a brand new problem.

After all, suppose we do conquer Iraq and then Iran and then North Korea, and then Sudan and Libya and Syria, and whatever other countries are designated as "terrorist states." Will terrorism end? That's the question.

The answer is surely no. Terrorism is born of grudge and grievance. Some say the grudges are invalid and the grievances imagined. Those people should get over it, they say. They might be right. And if wishes were horses, such opinions would be relevant. But in the real world, we have to deal with the fact that terrorism does have sources. And we have to confront the fact that terrorism is nourished by dislocation, chaos, impotence and secrecy.

Reducing functioning societies to anarchy by destroying their infrastructure and killing great numbers of their citizens is likely to increase whatever legacy of grudge and grievance is already in place. It is also likely to increase the number of dislocated individuals living in furious impotence and stewing in secrecy. This may be a price worth paying if the original threat is a foreign government that is out to conquer our country. Go to war with Iraq? Certainly, if the Iraqi government and its ruler Saddam Hussein think they have a shot at conquering the United States and intend to try.

But if terrorism is the problem to be solved, it's a whole different matter. In that case, making war on Iraq and other nation-states may well be the worst possible policy, because it is only likely to make the problem worse.

San Francisco writer Tamin Ansary is the author of "West of Kabul, East of New York" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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