I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The "terrorist" trick

The most used and exploited word in our political dialogue, both domestic and foreign, is also the least clearly defined -- "terrorist." In the hands of the Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters, it basically means "anyone who dislikes us or whom we want to kill."

Here is David Brooks in his New York Times column this morning discussing the Israel-Lebanon war:

There are victory markers strewn across southern Lebanon commemorating the last time Israel withdrew from that land. While reporting a piece for The New Yorker a few years ago, Jeffrey Goldberg would come upon them by the roads. It was like seeing the battle markers at Gettysburg or Antietam, he wrote.

One brightly colored sign, written in both Arabic and (rough) English, marked the spot where “On Oct. 19, 1988 at 1:25 p.m. a martyr car that was body trapped with 500 kilograms of highly exploding materials transformed two Israeli troops into masses of fire and limbs.”

Busloads of tourists would take victory tours and stop at the prominent sights. Before the current war, there were gift shops and, in at least one place, a poster showing a Hezbollah fighter lifting a severed Israeli head. It all testified to the magnetism of a successful idea: that Muslim greatness can be restored through terrorism.

If one country (Israel) invades and then occupies another (Lebanon), and people in the invaded country resist the invasion by killing some of the invading/occupying soldiers, is that really "terrorism"? Which countries would just allow other countries to invade and occupy with no resistance? Clearly, Hezbollah engages in acts of terrorism, whatever definition one wants to use for that term. But the killing of soldiers from an invading country cannot possibly constitute "terrorism" if that word is to have any value beyond its use as a political tool.

Throughout the 2004 presidential election, the Bush campaign endlessly wielded this rhetorical tactic, casting the war in Iraq as a war against "the terrorists" by defining the Iraqi insurgents not as Iraqis resisting invasion but as "terrorists." With that premise in place, those who favored the war in Iraq by definition favored fighting the "terrorists", while those who opposed the war by definition wanted to stop fighting the "terrorists" -- and as a result, real debate over the war, as intended, became impossible. After all, "terrorists" are the people who flew those planes into our buildings. Who could oppose waging war on them -- the "terrorists"?

But once safely re-elected, the President in 2005 gave one of his speeches designed to pass along to Americans one of the tutorials he received about what was going on in Iraq, and in doing so, he admitted that the vast, vast majority of people whom we are fighting in Iraq are not "terrorists" at all, but merely Sunni "rejectionists" who favor a system of government which preserves long-standing Sunni privileges in Iraq:

A clear strategy begins with a clear understanding of the enemy we face. The enemy in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists, Saddamists and terrorists. The rejectionists are by far the largest group. These are ordinary Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, who miss the privileged status they had under the regime of Saddam Hussein -- and they reject an Iraq in which they are no longer the dominant group.

This semantic deceit lays at the heart of virtually every Bush administration abuse and every warmongers' crazed dreams. Torture against allegedly suspected "terrorists" is fine because "terrorists don't deserve rights." Warrantless eavesdropping on Americans is fine because who doesn't want our government to listen in on the "conversations of the terrorists"? The bombing of all of Lebanon is justified because we have to kill "the terrorists." We can even openly entertain mass, indiscriminate bombings of civilians throughout the Middle East because we need to be brutal and merciless against the "terrorists". This tactic is, unsurprisingly, vividly illustrated by a John Hinderaker Powerline post from yesterday:

Anti-terror policy no doubt involves complexities at various points, but the fundamental principle, I think, is quite simple. There are two kinds of terrorists: live terrorists and dead ones. The basic object of anti-terror policy should be to turn the former into the latter. As long as that process is proceeding satisfactorily, it should continue. The time for a cease-fire, it seems to me, is when Hezbollah has more or less run out of live terrorists. I don't think that moment has yet arrived.

So that's our "simple" and "fundamental principle." The only thing we really need to know is that we need to kill as many "terrorists" as possible. In the abstract, most people won't consider that all that controversial; after all, who opposes the killing of the terrorists who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks or other similar acts of slaughter of civilians? Somehow, though, this "kill-the-terrorists" mandate is endlessly expanded and then used to justify the Israeli bombing of all of Lebanon, presumably because all of the people who are dying there are "terrorists," even the Lebanese civilians.

Digby recently illustrated the dangers of using "terrorism" as the centerpiece of American policies all while keeping it as an elastic and infinitely expansive term, free of any real definitional limits:

I suspect one reason Newt Gingrich and his fellow nutballs are working overtime to get this WWIII business playing in people's heads is because to Americans the GWOT remains vague and ill-defined. They have yet to sign on to this existential struggle against well --- everybody, or at least a bunch of people they don't even know, forever. Are the French terrorists? They must be because we are supposed to hate them. How about the Mexicans who are invading our borders? Newt keeps bringing up Venezuela as part of our epic struggle against terrorism. And North Korea is a charter member of the Axis 'o Evil, so we know they are terrorists. Who are we fighting again?

If we are going accept fundamental changes to how our system of government operates in order to catch the "terrorists," and if we are going to wage one war after the next in order to kill all the "terrorists," shouldn't we at least know what that means? David Brooks clearly has no idea what it means, or at least recognizes that it is a term that is now impoverished of all meaning and exists only as a manipulative tool. Alan Dershowitz wants to disqualify human beings as counting as "civilians" if they are even near the "terrorists." Shouldn't those who want to use "terrorism" to justify all sorts of slaughter and war and abolition of basic constitutional protections at least say what they mean by that term?

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