Thursday, March 10, 2011

Upgrading criminal terrorists to warriors

One of the odd arguments in modern American politics has been over the phrase "war on terror".

George W Bush launched the war on terror back in 2001, announcing in a speech days after the 9/11 attacks that:

Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.

There were criticisms of the phrase, not least because terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology. But US Presidents had declared wars on strange things before, Lyndon Johnson declaring a war on poverty in 1964, Nixon a war on drugs in 1971. This was just another war that could not end with the surrender of a named enemy.

A major point of contention was the military nature of this WoT rhetoric. Advocates argued that the 9/11 attack was an act of war and that this military-sounding language was appropriate. Right-wing American broadcaster Bill O'Reilly put it like this:

I believe that you have to go to a war mode in the sense that you have to tell these people, look, you've attacked us. It's not a crime. It's an attack. It's war.

O'Reilly is bothered by the decision by the Obama administration to abandon the phrase "war on terror" in favour of a vaguer "Overseas Contingency Operation". Sarah Palin is similarly annoyed:

We are at war with radical Islamic extremists and treating this threat as a law enforcement issue is dangerous for our nation’s security. That’s what happened in the 1990s and we saw the result on September 11, 2001. This is a war on terror not an “overseas contingency operation.”

In some cases this discussion featured right-wingers embracing the military rhetoric of the WoT and insisting that the left are, naively and typically, trying to turn terrorism into a criminal issue. Obama's refusal to use the phrase is attacked as political correctness:

The new hygienic, sterilized language and "politically correct" term being introduced by the Obama administration for the 'war on terror" is now "Overseas Contingency Operations". In place of "terrorist attacks" the politically correct term is "Man Caused Disasters." Let's not offend murderers, al-Qaeda and the Muslim terrorists that attacked us! This will make us safer, no doubt.

Obama and Napolitano are quite obviously out of their minds. If these mental cases were in power during WW II they would not call Hitler's "Third Reich" Nazism they would refer to Nazism as "Asserting German Pride."

Yet earlier rightists did not subscribe to this noisy militant language at all. Back a few decades arch-rightest Maggie Thatcher was refusing Provisional IRA terrorists in prison the political status they demanded:

Once again we have a hunger strike at the Maze Prison in the quest for what they call political status. There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing and criminal violence. We will not compromise on this. There will be no political status.

Thatcher's approach was radically different from that of the modern American right-wingers who still talk in military terms about terrorism and war. Thatcher saw IRA killers as criminals. She was certainly unconcerned with not offending IRA members, in fact this refusal to accept the political nature of their crimes caused IRA prisoners to protest, some dying on hunger strike. To them, being considered criminal was a disaster worth dying to prevent.

For the IRA struggled to depict themselves as soldiers, warriors. IRA itself means Irish Republican Army, while they surrounded themselves with military symbolism. The decision-making body was called the Army Council, funerals of IRA members often featured military-style volleys of gunshot with masked gunmen making military salutes. The IRA needed to be considered soldiers fighting a legitimate war: perhaps Thatcher knew that demoting them to the role of criminals, alongside the child-rapists and drug-dealers, was a massive blow to their prestige and legitimacy.

Like the IRA, modern Islamist terrorist groups have similarly used grand, military-sounding language to bolster their narrative of a global jihad. Bin Laden himself puts it:

May Allah keep me close to knights, humans in peace, demons in war. Lions in Jungle but their teeth are spears and Indian swords. The horses witness that I push them hard forwarded in the fire of battle. The dust of the battle bears witnesses for me, so also the fighting itself, the pens and the books!

All this pompous warlike rhetoric seeks to establish Al Qaeda as an army of good men fighting a glorious war against the wicked. Bin Laden often referenced historical conflicts like the invasion of the Crusaders; Bush fumbled this badly by using the modern English translation of "crusade" (any noble venture) to describe the WoT - "This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while" - playing into the hands of Islamist propagandists.

So WoT rhetoric tends to strengthen the militant Islamist narrative, by acknowledging Al Qaeda not as a criminal gang, but as a band of (terrorist) warriors. Comparisons with Nazi Germany also inflate the perceived power of this decentralised cluster of killers, presenting it instead as a monolithic military power.

Sarah Palin and the others reward Al Qaeda when they upgrade them from the role Thatcher saw for terrorists - filthy criminal murderers - to the role they actually seek: warriorhood. On this one, the Obama administration is right. Exciting warlike rhetoric strengthens terrorist organisations trying to depict their struggle as war. Dismissing it as criminality is a far greater insult.

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