Monday, July 25, 2005

On Terrorism

Via The Poorman, I stumbled onto this insightful post from Jim Henley at (or is the blog called, Unqualified Offerings, I'm not sure). It was in response to an egregious column by the egregious columnist, John Derbyshire from the National Review. The column was titled "The Calculus of Appeasement," and can be summed-up by saying that the British will want to appease the terrorists, just as they did with the IRA terrorists. But because of the potential for WMD's, appeasement of the terrorists is, in John's mind, unthinkable. But the only solution, outside of appeasement, is "To lay waste great territories and their peoples, innocent and guilty alike, to level cities, to burn forests and divert rivers, to smite our enemies hip and thigh, to carry out summary execution of captured leaders." So says Derbyshire the Hun.

And not only does he afflict us with piss-poor logic, tunnel-vision history, and a complete lack of sympathy and understanding to the British people, regarding the old and new terror attacks; but the column is also fairly boring and unnecessarily long-winded. Mind you, it's not even that long. But it really could be boiled down to the three sentence summary I gave it. I suspect the poor guy had a deadline to meet, and this is the best he could do to fill up space; which is a long tradition for the National Review, as anyone reading its founder's column could attest to. William F. Buckley is one of the very few conservative minds I admire, but god damn if that man can't waste a lot of space saying almost nothing.

And one of the biggest problems with Derbyshire's garbage is that he seems to be using a bizarro definition for the word "appeasement". Specifically, if we "appease" the terrorists, as Derbyshire suggests that Britain and most of the world wants to do, that would mean that we gave in to their demands. That would mean that they would "win". Now, if we give in to their demands...why would we need to worry about WMD's? Why would WMD's even be an issue? Is he really worried that we'd give in to their demands, and they'd still go ahead and use any WMD's they might have?

I suspect what it really is, is that he's against appeasement, but he's too dumb to understand why. So he briefly tosses out scary ole Weapons of Mass Destruction as a magical incantation, before moving on to the meat of his column; which both he and I will save for the end. But first, let us discuss terrorism.

Lessons Learned

One of the weird stances against terrorism is that you just have to be against it, and can never give in to their demands. Neo-cons expect all other countries to bow down to our superior might, and do our bidding; but somehow terrorism is less legitimate than a nuclear arsenal, stealth bombers, and napalm, and can never be allowed to win. Because the argument against terrorism is never about not giving them what they want because we don't want to give it to them. It's always against terrorism on principle. The theory being that if you give in this time, you'll have to face it again and again. But that's utter bullshit. I suppose it is true that if we give in to terrorists, it will show other disgruntled populations that terrorism works. But I just don't see how that's a lesson that they don't already know. (I should add that this does not apply to specific terror tactics, such as hijacking airplanes and taking hostages; which can be fought against and must be discouraged).

The problem with terrorism is that it does work, and it obviously works. Nobody needs to demonstrate it. It's an obvious solution to any weak organization that wants to fight against a stronger opponent, but can't realistically do so. Imagine a small airline starting up and not taking advantage of their low overhead to price-cut the big airlines. And it doesn't matter if ninety-nine out of one-hundred airlines go bankrupt, even with their low fares; the next company that starts up will do the same damn thing. Because they know that if they don't offer the low fares, they'll go out of business that much sooner.

And it's the same thing with people who choose terrorism. They believe that if they didn't choose terrorism, they'd be significantly weaker in the future. And that's so obvious that it doesn't need a successful demonstration. They believe they have no other choice.

And if nobody had ever used terrorism before today, it would be invented the next moment that any group needed it. It was largely impossible before our modern age of homemade bombs, blackmarket plastic explosives, and expected normalcy; but these days, it's the obvious choice. And even if we stopped the IRA, and the Chechnyans, and the Palestinians, and the Iraqi insurgents, and Osama, and every other terrorist currently living; and got them all to publicly apologize from their jail cells before we castrated them with their own mother's teeth, somebody else would still resort to terrorism. It is inevitable and almost unstoppable; and no amount of "lessons learned" will dissuade people from using this obvious method of last resort. If they had better means of winning, they'd use them. But they don't, so terrorism is their answer.

I suppose most wingnuts are of the opinion that terrorists are just too cowardly to develop their own million-man army, and the requisite trillion dollar military-defense complex required to support it with state-of-the-art weaponry. But I suspect that this probably isn't the easiest thing to do, no matter how brave one is. And if it could be very easy to create such a military, everyone would have one, and ours would be fairly worthless. We'd then have to turn to Cold War methods of determining winners, like the space race and the Olympics. And to be honest, I really wouldn't mind that in the least.

It's The Way They Say It

But beyond that, even if we could teach people that terrorism doesn't work, that's not the reason we don't give in to the terrorist's demands. That's the reason they give, but the real reason governments don't give in to terrorists is because they don't want to give them what they want. The British didn't want to give up control of Ireland. And the Israelis don't want to give up land that they believe their god promised them. And the French wanted a colony in Algeria. And the Russians want control of Chechnya. But if you put it that way, it sounds petty. If you make it sound like it's about a strong country wanting to dominate a weak country or people, and take their land; it sounds wrong to oppose the terrorist's demands. Or at the least, it takes away the stark black/white picture and introduces lots of grays.

And that's why they want to make the issue about the terrorist's methods, rather than the terrorist's demands. As if the strong government would gladly give the terrorists what they want, if only they weren't terrorists. As if the terrorists chose terrorism as a first resort, rather than a last one. As if it wasn't what the terrorists were saying, but the way they were saying it that was so offensive to these governments.

And they will always denounce you if you dare suggest that it is these petty materialistic reasons for opposing the terrorists demands, rather than the principal of terrorism itself. And to be cliche, they doth protest too much, because they know that you're absolutely correct. And as evidence, I guarantee you that each and every one of these governments will support terrorists, if those terrorists are fighting against that government's enemies. And I assert that most all of these countries have done so; as I'm sure you already know.

And is terrorism a legitimate political method in which to achieve policy goals? I would say not. But I would also say that using tanks and machine guns and well-organized armies against civilian populations would also not be a legitimate method for achieving policy goals. I would say that both are illegitimate, and would have a hard time deciding which is worse.

And in all the cases I've given above, that's what we're talking about. A strong government using or threatening to use conventional methods against civilian populations, and a weaker organization using or threatening to use unconventional methods against civilian populations. And I'm not sure that even my great biobrain can give you the clear moral picture as to which is proper and which is not; as far as the methods go. But as far as the policy goes, I might be able to make a moral determination as to which side should win; but it wouldn't be based upon the methods they used. It would be based upon standard definitions of morality and decency; something Derbyshire is completely lacking with his "grim ferocity and cold unconcern for legalistic niceties."

Global War on Terror

And that brings us to our current War on Terrorism. What is it that our terrorists want? Folks like Bush and Derbyshire will tell you that they hate our freedom, and want nothing less than our extermination. I honestly can't tell you if they really mean that, but I hope not. I really hope that Bush knows that that's a pile of shit explanation, which he prefers for its simplicity and because it doesn't take fancy words to repeat. Especially because that would mean that the bubble that they keep him in is quite a bit thicker than we believe. I suspect that even he's not that stupid.

But what is this about? A clue might be the fact that many terrorist targets aren't so freedom loving. Like the recent attack in Egypt. We know the Bushies pimped the "Freedom on the March" story a while back for Egypt, but that seemed much more out of desperation than triumph. Especially as it always looked like cheap political maneuvering for their elected dictator, than any real move towards democracy. And Saudi Arabia is clearly on the Al Queda target list, and I believe they have a monarchy. I understand that the monarchy in Jordan was on Zarqawi's shitlist before he became the Bogeyman of Iraq. And overall, I don't see democracy or free-society as being the prerequisite for being attacked.

I suppose if we confronted them with this, thugs like Derbyshire would suggest that these oppressive countries are being punished for cooperating with the US, and that they were targeting these countries so as to eventually isolate us from the rest of the world. That seems to be his line of reasoning for the whole British appeasement thing. As if the British will appease by dissassociating with us, and therefore be left alone. But the UK does have a democracy, is considered to be "freedom-loving", and is responsible for a lot of the Western culture that the Muslim extremists are supposedly attacking; so it doesn't really make a lot of sense that they'd be excluded. If anything, it would appear as if "appeasement" wouldn't mean separating the UK from the US, but rather separating the UK from the Muslim world. As in, getting them to leave Iraq and whatnot.

And that's where we start to see that the flipside of all this is more accurate. It's not that these terrorists are attacking Egypt and Saudi Arabia because of their association with us, but quite the opposite. They're attacking the UK and the US because of their association with and support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and all the other oppressive regimes over there. And I'm sure they'd include Israel in that, too. And so, rather than attacking "freedom-lovers", they're attacking Muslim-oppressors. They're attacking corrupt regimes in the middle-east which were established by Westerners, to help oppress Muslims. And in this case, "oppress" would apply more to not allowing them to have their Iranian-style Islamic government, rather than about true oppression. Because Iran is a fairly oppressive regime, but is clearly not the target of these people. Juan Cole had a good post about this recently.

And if this is true, it tells a great deal more about how to deal with these terrorists, than Bush's idea of "anti-freedom" terrorists. Because appeasement would no longer be about allowing them to destroy us, or whatever Derby's freaky-ass idea of appeasement was. It's about us dissassociating from the corrupt, anti-freedom regimes in the middle-east. And so rather than the terrorists opposing freedom, they are fully in support of freedom; freedom for them to have the government that they want.

Just like the Irish, Algerian, Chechnyan, and Palestinian terrorists want the freedom to have control of their own land and government. That's what this is all about. Those governments may claim this is an existential fight by people trying to wipe-out the government's citizens; but that makes no sense. Terrorism is a lot of things, but it is not a method that can destroy a nation. It's a method that specifically targets civilian populations so that those populations pressure their government into giving in to the terrorist's demands. That's what it's about. Nobody could destroy the US with terrorist tactics. That's just not something that can be achieved with terrorism. And if they did drop enough nukes on America to wipe us out, they would no longer be terrorists. They would be conquerors, just as if Russia dropped that many bombs on us. The intent of terrorists is to terrorize. So that a small, weak organization can scare a large, strong organization into negotiating or capitulating. But nobody capitulates their entire nation.

Neo-Con Scare-Mongering

And this makes all the difference in the world. If someone's suffering from radiation poisoning, and you think they're suffering from cancer and start giving them chemo-therapy; you'll probably be doing more harm than good. At best, you won't heal him; and at worst, you'll kill him. And that's exactly what these neo-cons are doing. They've misdiagnosed the problem as being about terrorists wanting to kill us all and take over the world; and if that's true, there is no appeasement outside of us all killing ourselves. And there is no other recourse, but for us to attack the shit out of them. But if their problem is with us interfering in the Muslim world, and supporting corrupt regimes; than there can be appeasement, and our attacks would only make things worse. And it certainly appears that that's the case.

And I should add that these are the same neo-cons who believed that the Soviets were intent on taking over the world; seeing communist plots everywhere. And this lead us into stupid and costly policies, often supporting evil dictators to thwart the supposed commie menace. And revealed history has now shown that many of these "commie plots" were nothing of the kind, and that we were just psyching ourselves out. Just tough-talking chicken littles scaring everyone, and wreaking havoc with our country's foreign policy. Some things never change.

And one last thing about all this. Do you really believe that Joe Sixpack in Mississippi would support the Global War on Terror if he saw this as a proxy fight over the middle-east? Specifically, if he came to understand the reasons I just gave; to realize that we're fighting Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's terrorists for them? And that this wasn't a fight to protect American democracy, but rather a fight to preserve dictatorships, monarchies, and corrupt democracies? I'm not sure if this is a message that they'd be willing to accept, but I am sure that if they did accepted it, they would not support these efforts. These people are isolationists who have been misled and betrayed by the neo-cons; and the sooner they realize that, the better. I'm not arguing in support of isolationism, per se. I just think that we shouldn't adopt knee-jerk reactions to preserving offensive regimes.

Saddam Derbyshire

And this all brings us back to Jim Henley's original post, which was all I was intending to write about, until I got started with that terrorism business. Henley quoted the meat of Derbyshire's horrid column, and what I suspect was the only point that Derby was trying to make. That paragraph was so disgraceful, that I will quote the whole thing, though I've already made use of some of it:
Here, though, you come to another equation in the calculus of appeasement. Is the United States willing to fight this war the way it needs fighting, with grim ferocity and cold unconcern for legalistic niceties? To lay waste great territories and their peoples, innocent and guilty alike, to level cities, to burn forests and divert rivers, to smite our enemies hip and thigh, to carry out summary execution of captured leaders? Of course not -- how barbaric! And yet (whispers the ancestral, tribal voice in our heads, and in British heads too) if not, then what's the point? War is a tribal affair, one tribe exterminating another, or reducing it to utter impotence and ignominious surrender. That's what war is, and it isn't anything else. We know this in our bones, from a million years of tribal living and fighting. If we are not willing to fight a war like that -- which apparently we are not, being much too civilized -- then we should not be too surprised if our allies turn and cut deals with our enemies. At least they'll have a quiet life, for a while.

And this is simply atrocious. Had this come from some crazed hermit, holed-up in a secluded Montana cabin, I would have dismissed it with a rueful shake of the head. It would sadden me that such a brutal, thoughtless, uncaring person could live in this day and age. But to come from a regular columnist in the top conservative magazine in the country? This is insanity.

And Henley gets it right. He quotes from a recent article from the Washington Post about one of Saddam's abominable episodes, and correctly equates Saddam's brutal workings with Derbyshire's "lay waste great territories and their peoples, innocent and guilty alike" approach to dealing with our enemies. It is this attitude that we condemn Saddam for, and why he is now standing trial. Because this is not acceptable behavior in our modern world. And while conservatives often like to portray Saddam as a madman who tortured for fun; the reality is that he did these things for his own preservation. He clearly understood Derbyshire's ideas on warfare, and fully agreed.

Because the natural outcome of Derbyshire's barbaric ideas is that there is no longer right or wrong. And that ends justify all means. And that we oppose terrorism, not because it is terrorism; but because it is used against us. And this is obvious because Derbyshire demands that we adopt the same attitude that he denounces Saddam for. And advocates violence against civilians, just as he denounces the terrorists for. And so there can be no other conclusion to this, than to realize that Derbyshire is no longer arguing for justice or civility. He is arguing for his "tribe". These things are right and just because we do them for ourselves; and it is only wrong for our opponents because they are not us. That is the source of Derbyshire's barbarism. He is not a hypocrite. He's just small minded.

In Defense of John

But after saying all that, let me make a slight defense of Derbyshire. I honestly don't believe that he meant much of what he said. In fact, I see this more as an intellectual exercise, taking the conservative stance on the War on Terror to its natural conclusion.

Because he's right. To execute this war the way that they want it, they'd need to take the excesses that Derbyshire demands, and Saddam used. Maybe not diverting rivers and whatnot (though I believe Saddam did drain the Iraq marshlands to punish the people living there); but most everything else. And he's also right in saying that the American people aren't up to this challenge, and that they're not willing to stomach these methods for success. And finally, he's right in saying that, if we are not willing to use these methods and take the warfare to its natural conclusion, that we might as well not try and should go for some kind of appeasement. He's right about all those things, and as a rhetorical exercise, his column is a almost perfect.

But then he runs into a problem: He's a conservative. And as I've written numerous times before, conservatives are answer-oriented; developing the answers first, and finding the arguments to match those answers later. But Derby took a different path to develop this argument, allowing his intellect to run free; rather than keeping it to the strict path of conservatism. Because he got to the end of the path, but it wasn't one that made any sense to him. In fact, he came to the liberal answer; that fighting terrorism is futile, in the long run. But unable to deal with that, he failed to complete his exercise, and came out with the wrong answer; as conservatives must always do, because if they had the right answers, they'd be liberals.

Because he's right. The anti-terror campaign of the conservatives requires the disgusting excesses that Derby suggests. And Americans are just not able to do that. So the answer is obvious: We can't wage the anti-terror campaign of the conservatives. That's so obvious. That's the natural conclusion of Derby's column. He uses it as a way of proving that the British should appease the terrorists. But why stop there? If we're not willing to fight the war "right", we shouldn't fight it at all. He says so himself.

Of course, I wouldn't use the word "appease". I think "containment" is the right approach, which described our policy against the Soviets; and was one that the neo-cons were very much against during the Cold War. And beyond a short-term containment policy, we need to embark on a long term solution to fix the root of the problem; rather than dealing with the symptoms, long after it's too late.

And I should add that another of Derbyshire's problems is that he's misdiagnosed the terrorist's demands, as I've stated above; and wrongly believes that they want to exterminate us. Because if they want to exterminate us, we cannot appease them. But if they want the political freedom in their country to install an Islamic government (and thus deny their citizens political freedom); that might be something we can help them with. Or at the least, that we might not want to be involved with. That sounds weird; but lets face it, they don't have political freedom already. Which is largely the source of our problem.

And besides, there is a good argument to suggest that a better way to deal with our enemies is to befriend them, slowly allowing them to incorporate our culture and become co-dependent with them. Iran had its revolutionaries, but more recently, they were clearly willing to do business with Dick Cheney's Halliburton. And most of us might have qualms dealing with that guy. And I believe that a similar effort in Cuba would have destroyed communism there decades ago, had we not thrust Castro into the arms of the Soviets. And while Cuba still imprisons its dissidents, how many dissidents would they have if we weren't so avidly anti-Castro? Sometimes, the actions you take to fix something are the very ones which make it worse.

Exterminating Tribes

One last point I'd like to bring up against Derbyshire is his utterly insane idea of warfare. I'm talking about this nonsense: "War is a tribal affair, one tribe exterminating another, or reducing it to impotence and ignominious surrender." Where in god's name did he get that idea from. When was the last time a war ended in the extermination of another country? I mean, really. Probably not since the days of African colonization. While both Iraq wars ended with Iraq left fairly impotent, they were effectively impotent at the beginning of the war, compared with their opponents. And Vietnam and Korea left neither side impotent. We fought until victory seemed too costly, and then we settled for peace.

And what of WWII, the most brutal of all wars thus far? Japan surrendered because of the might of the atomic bomb, but most experts suggest they could have continued fighting for years. And Germany surrendered because we conquered their land. But were they entirely impotent? Of course not. They could have continued an insurgency, much like the one in Iraq; but far more deadly. In both cases, they ceased fighting when victory seemed too costly. They chose not to fight.

And then what happened? Did we smite our enemies? Did we exterminate the offending tribe? Did we gloat at their ignominious surrender? No, we helped build Germany and Japan into two of the strongest countries in the world; in many ways stronger than our own. We gave them aid and assistance, so that they would quickly rejoin the world and prosper. Sure, we imprisoned and executed many of their leaders. But the "tribe" remained.

And why did we do this? And why did the Germans and Japanese choose to surrender? And why did we settle for peace with Korea and Vietnam? Because we are a modern civilization, and this is the way of the modern world. This is how modern men act. This is not tribal warfare. This is not a fight for survival. This is scheming men taking calculated risks. Choosing to wage war. And choosing to end it, when the calculations tell them to. They continue to fight, until they can negotiate the best surrender they believe their position affords them; winner and loser alike.

And when the war is over, treating the other side like modern men. That is why the Germans and Japanese surrendered, because they believed they'd be treated like humans. And if you believe that your opponent is going to exterminate you, you will not surrender.

Hearing Voices

Finally, Derbyshire talks of whispers from "the ancestral, tribal voice in our heads," telling us that we need to win at all costs. But what else do the voices in poor John's head whisper to him? Is he inclined to club women over the head, dragging them off to his secret liar; to rape and impregnate them at his will? Does he believe that it's ok to forage on private property, or publicly slaughter animals with his bare hands? Does he think that we should eat the heart of our slain enemies, so as to gain their courage? Is he saying that these other ancestral activities are acceptable? And since when did conservatives start using primal urges as excuses for barbaric behavior? Is this a standard we can use in everything, or is it yet another rule which only applies in the one circumstance Derby needs it to?

But alas, John Derbyshire doesn't mean any of this. As I said above, his column was really just an exercise in rhetorical argument. An argument which he was too stupid or blind to properly finish (or perhaps the voices were drowning out his ability to think). Because the proper finish is to denounce all of these practices which he supposedly supports. The answer is to not listen to the tribal voices in our heads demanding revenge and tribal warfare. But rather to remind ourselves of that which separates civilized man from his barbaric past; and to find solutions, rather than submit to the screams of vengeance and extermination.

Those are the answers that Derbyshire should have came to, had he the intellectual rigor to follow his argument to its conclusion. But he didn't. He took the argument as far as he could, but as a good conservative, walks away from the brink of truth and declares a false victory for his own side. Thus, our conservatives.

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