Mercury Rising 鳯女

Politics, life, and other things that matter

Tapdancing Around Terrorism

Posted by Phoenix Woman on April 5, 2010

About the only worthwhile thing to come of this NYT thumbsucker on terrorism by Scott Shane (and no, I don’t consider the attempt to create yet another false equivalency between lefties and righties worthwhile) is this passage:

“The use of the term terrorism delegitimizes the opponent,” said Martha Crenshaw, a scholar at Stanford who wrote her first essay wrestling with the definition of terrorism in 1972. “It’s not just the tactics that are discredited, it’s the cause as well.”

Discrediting the motivations in this way allows one to avoid looking at root causes, or even admitting that the people behind the motivations might be human beings instead of targets to waste in wars.

This, of course, was one of the points of the Firedoglake piece by David “DDay” Dayen that Shane cited selectively but to which he wouldn’t link. Because that might have allowed people to investigate Dayen’s post, instead of blowing it off as “he said she said” as Shane does with his false-equivalency nonsense — which, as has been shown repeatedly, is just another way of allowing conservatives and Republicans to get away with whatever they want, up to and including murder.

UPDATE: Speaking of Dayen, he made this excellent catch in his news roundup last night:

Joe Lieberman had a fine set of Sunday show appearances. He intoned in his role as President that Iran had one last chance to resolve the nuclear situation peacefully, so I guess he’ll be on the phone with NORAD in a few months if it doesn’t work. Then, he decided that domestic terror threats are not as serious as “Islamic terrorism.” Ah, the truth comes out. See, because the family of the guy who Joseph Stack killed when he flew into an IRS building in Texas feels better because at least the kamikaze pilot wasn’t a stinking Muslim.

I suppose we should at least give Lieberman points for dropping the tapdance and coming right out and saying it.

9 Responses to “Tapdancing Around Terrorism”

  1. Stormcrow said

    I don’t even like the word “terrorism”. The moment it’s uttered. people’s minds turn off.

    And it implies that the deliberate infliction of fear and terror is not part and parcel of all wars. Which it is.

    Further, so-called “terrorism” is an integral part of lethal quarrels between neighboring peoples who have not as yet gotten “above the military horizon”. I.e., they haven’t thought up the idea of purpose-built armies with internal social bonds that make them resistant to moral shocks that’d shatter the same number of civilians in a heartbeat.

    I just don’t like the word. It’s a useful tool when writing polemic, but I don’t have much time for that, either.

    • I don’t even like the word “terrorism”. The moment it’s uttered. people’s minds turn off.

      Which, as Crenshaw pointed out, exactly why it’s used so much. Can’t be thinking of brown people as ever having grievances, much less possibly legitimate ones! Nope, just dehumanize them — makes it easier to justify killing ’em en masse so we can take their land and resources.

  2. Charles II said

    While there’s a lot of truth in the saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” I think there is a useful distinction between those who deliberately cause casualties among innocent civilians and those who do not. No military objective is achieved by killing innocent civilians. In fact, it generally turns the population against one.

    Deliberate or reckless attacks on civilians are intended primarily to cause terror. In this sense, a number of US operations have been terroristic. But certainly so were the 911 attacks and the bombing of the Murrah Building. When the targets are primarily military or economic, it’s warfare.

    There’s a functional reason why this distinction matters. Suppose, hypothetically, that it were possible to ensure either that only civilians or only military people were killed in an attack. If only military people, then society continues functioning and the war is limited only by the willingness of people to sign up to serve. When they cease to be willing, the war is over. But if only civilians are killed, then the only way to win the war is to cause a complete breakdown in society. As in Afghanistan (which of course, is additionally plagued by being a pawn in the India-Pakistan conflict), the war never really ends. One side may withdraw its forces, but the consequences go on and on.

    Circumstances do tend to dictate the tactics that each side employs, and when one side is able to deploy unlimited force, while the other is severely limited, one can pretty much bet that they’ll turn to terrorism. This is why I have written so passionately on the need to make a primary objective of conflict the establishment of justice. That is what ends wars.

    • The whole thing about the abuse of the word is that it causes people to forget Sun Tzu’s famous maxim about knowing the enemy — and oneself.

      Because, of course, the last thing the people most busily engaged in abusing the word want us to do is to know either our enemies (or our friends, for that matter) or ourselves.

    • Stormcrow said

      No military objective is achieved by killing innocent civilians. In fact, it generally turns the population against one.

      The first statement is not necessarily true during a total war between industrial states.

      And the second statement is a given during such a war, no matter what you do.

      Not all wars are insurgencies.

      • Charles II said

        The Roman campaign in Judea worked out ok for them, I guess. Total genocide does serve to pacify the population.

        But how’d the Nazi campaign in the USSR go, Stormcrow?

        In the Ukraine, at least, they were initially welcomed as liberators. But because they insisted on carrying out their racial extermination policies, well, the history is well known.

        I would also point to the Allied bombing campaign in Germany, which was for decades touted as what won the war, and which was directed recklessly when not deliberately against civilians. And the German counterpart, the bombing of London and the V-1 and V-2 attacks, all targeted deliberately against civilians. Strategic bombardment seems only to have simply hardened public determination, making people willing to work longer, harder, and for less reward.

        I think these examples illustrate the key issues. If one power is so strong that it can simply kill or displace the entire population, it can “win” (at the cost of losing its non-coercive soft power). But when power is more evenly balanced, targeting civilian populations usually undermines military objectives.

  3. Stormcrow said

    The Roman campaign in Judea worked out ok for them, I guess. Total genocide does serve to pacify the population.

    You mean the second one, of course. The Bar Kokhba revolt.

    Actually, that was FUBAR, right from Day One, thanks to what was probably Hadrian’s worst idea ever. I really cannot imagine anything that would make things worse for the Roman occupation, than to rededicate the rebuilt Temple at Jerusalem to Jupiter.

    But how’d the Nazi campaign in the USSR go, Stormcrow?

    Not as well as it might have if Hitler hadn’t insisted on stamping on people’s necks in the Ukraine and the Baltics. As I’ve read and as you probably have as well, if the Germans had acted intelligently in the Ukraine, they might have picked up as many as another dozen divisions or so.

    But that was a non-starter for the same reason that the whole invasion of the USSR happened to begin with. The Eastern Campaign was dictated by Hitler’s notion that the German Empire would expand eastward. So pretty much everybody east of the jump-off point for Barbarossa was slated for enslavement or death, the way Hitler’s thinking ran. And he was the man in charge.

    I would also point to the Allied bombing campaign in Germany, which was for decades touted as what won the war, and which was directed recklessly when not deliberately against civilians.

    Not precisely.

    The Americans still belived that high altitude precision bomobing was God and all the prophets right into late 1944. Even though it wasn’t working.

    But the Brits were more than willing to revenge London on Dresden and Hamburg. Even though the military production in those cities was known to be as close to zero as made no difference.

    And the German counterpart, the bombing of London and the V-1 and V-2 attacks, all targeted deliberately against civilians. Strategic bombardment seems only to have simply hardened public determination, making people willing to work longer, harder, and for less reward.

    It was also completely pointless.

    The V-1 and V-2 attacks were put in so late in the war that all they amounted to was a diversion of effort. June 1944?? After Kursk/Orel, and even after D-Day?? When the Wehrmacht didn’t have so much as a hook to hang their coats on, west of the Rhine?? Worse than useless.

    I think these examples illustrate the key issues. If one power is so strong that it can simply kill or displace the entire population, it can “win” (at the cost of losing its non-coercive soft power). But when power is more evenly balanced, targeting civilian populations usually undermines military objectives

    I wouldn’t put it quite that way.

    More precisely, when power is more evenly balanced ..
    (1) Targeting civilian populations is often impractical.
    (2) When it isn’t, it usually diverts effort from other directions more critical to success.
    (3) Of course, if the war is less than total, this also poisons whatever peace is later arrived at. Because when power is closer to balance, neither victory nor defeat are total. So both powers have to live with the consequences of their mistakes.

    • Charles II said

      More elegantly stated (though lacking a mention of the stiffening of resistance that civilian deaths brings) than my formulation, but I think not fundamentally in conflict.

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