Thursday, July 07, 2005

Don't Get Mad, Get Even

There is nothing to be surprised about by the London attacks. It is not at all incomprehensible that terrorists would kill and injure civilians in this way—we have seen it again and again. Whatever one may think about our strategy or tactics in what is called the war on terror, there is no doubt that we have enemies and they have struck again.

The attacks in London have generated shock and outrage that the larger attack in Madrid did not and that the regular, albeit smaller, attacks in Tel Aviv did not. There seems to be a general sense of shock and outrage and agreement from across the political spectrum that the attackers are evil or inhuman or cowardly. While this is useful political rhetoric, and it does not bother me when politicians use it to mobilize people, I do not think it is particularly accurate, and can be a distraction.

Terror is a way of fighting that is available to people who have no other way of fighting. And it is particularly helpful when you have no base or homeland against which the victim of the terror can retaliate. I think Bill Maher lost his TV show because he had ceased being particularly funny, not because of this comment, but he was right to comment that it is incongruous to say that someone who drops bombs from 20,000 feet is braver than someone who has the balls to fly a plane into a building. The terrorists are fighting a war using the only tools they have available to them.

It really is not surprising that they have adopted the tactics they have—from their point of view, they have no realistic alternative. It is terror or no fight at all, for them. If you thought that your survival and the survival of your way of live—a way of life mandated by Allah—were threatened and that your only choices were terror or defeat, what would you choose? Thus, they are not crazy, most are not cowards and I do not have an opinion regarding whether most are evil.

Now, does that mean that it is OK to attack civilians in the way that the terrorists did today? I think that, in a way, the question is beside the point. I don’t particularly care if it is “OK” to do what they did; the people responsible for the attacks in London (and Madrid and Bali and in New York on 9/11/01 etc.) are attacking us and we must defeat them. We must defeat them not because they are evil or cowardly or crazy, but because they are our enemies. It is not necessary for me to hate them or think they are bad to kill them. I do not know or care whether they are evil or cowards or anything else. What I know is that they are attacking us and that our options (in at least one sense) are simple: they can stop, they can surrender and be imprisoned until we have reason to think that it is safe to release them, or we can kill them.

This, of course, does not answer important questions of the means we use to counter terror, complex questions about which people of good will disagree. But that is another issue. It is, however, an issue that can best be dealt with by being realistic about who our enemies are, what they are doing and why, and not by developing a mythology regarding the state of their souls.