Winning the War on Terror
On September 11, 2001 the terrorists attacked us for our freedom…and won. America, Land of the Free, has become the land of indefinite detention, spy cams, intimate search for improbable cause, militarized police dressed like storm troopers, and an NSA which gathers a staggeringly large amount of data on just about everyone.
Finally, in 2014 I started to see serious pushback. With the NSA information vacuum the government has gone too far: it has threatened the profitability of some of our mightiest corporations. Those outside the lunatic fringe are now allowed to notice that the Bill of Rights was repealed years ago without benefit of constitutional amendment.
Will the pushback succeed? Will the United States make an attempt to live up to its national anthem? One can hope.
But I won’t. Freedom deserves more than hope; it deserves meaningful action. As long as the War on Terror lasts, our civil liberties will be caught in the crossfire. And to expect the government to unilaterally end the War in the name of due process is to believe in pixies and fairy dust. We are always one attack away from yet more intrusions upon our liberty.
My solution? Win the War on Terror.
This is less outrageous than you might imagine. The tools against terror lie rusting in the toolboxes of radical conservatives, libertarians, environmentalists, lefty college professors, and critics of democracy as we know it. It is long past time we put those tools to good use and reduce the major terrorist organizations to minor nutcase cults, who can be treated as just another criminal gang instead of an excuse for open ended war.
There is no other solution. To downplay the terrorists as they stand is to ignore human nature.
The Instinct for Fascism
In time of grave danger, when outsiders attack in force, it is best to band together. The ancient Romans symbolized the principle with the fasces – a bundle of sticks tied together. Each individual twig is easily broken with bare hands. The bundle as a whole is not. From this ancient symbol comes the modern word fascism, a word which properly applies to any society which tightly unites and suspends traditional liberties in times of major war – including the United States. (Do note that the fasces was used both when Rome was a monarchy and a republic.)
Fascism works. The ancient tribes of self-interested rational individuals were long ago wiped out by tattooed tribes of men willing to take one for the team. This happened often enough that the impulse for fascism resides in our genes. To this day women swoon for men in uniform while libertarian men struggle to get a date.
Fascism has its downside as well, of course. The nation which fosters freedom in time of relative peace prospers greatly. And the sticks enjoy being untied from the bundle. In our own history, as major wars ended suspended liberties were restored – at least in part.
The War on Terror is designed never to end, however. This is wonderful news for the aspiring tyrant or sadistic secret policeman. It is terrifying news for libertarians, civil and uncivil.
And so I say again: let us end this war in victory, so we can then return to normalcy.
An Operational Definition of Terrorism
Before we can declare victory in the War on Terror, we need define our enemy. “Terror” is not the enemy, obviously. Otherwise, we would be shutting down theaters running horror movies and handing beta blockers so no one gets scared of anything ;-) Seriously, the use of terror is a military and/or political strategy; “War on Terror” is obviously meant to denote a war on those who use terror as a strategy. To be technically correct, it should be called the “War on Terrorists.”
This is not good enough. Webster’s Dictionary defines terrorism as the “systematic use of terror as a means of coercion.” The threat of IRS audits and Bush’s Shock and Awe doctrine easily fall under this definition. So did Allied carpet bombing of civilian areas in WWII.
This is not what we are fighting. A narrower definition is in order. Perhaps a better working definition would be:
“Intentional focus on civilian targets as a military strategy.”
This is closer to the mark. While it still describes some of our military strategies, such as our nuclear deterrent, on a good day the U.S. does try to focus on enemy military targets. Indeed, the drone warfare that many complain of today is some of the most military-focused warfare we’ve seen since the days of muskets and Redcoats. (But the innocent and not obviously guilty still get hit, inspiring fresh enemies, fresh terrorists. Drone warfare thus has limited utility.)
However, this definition does not cover all whom we call terrorists. Even when our enemies of late hit government and military targets we have labeled them “terrorists.” The Pentagon is definitely a military target and it was attacked on 9/11. Based on our government’s actions and declarations since 9/11, the actual definition of “terrorist” is more like:
“An enemy of a government determined enough to fight, but too weak to fight fair.”
Civilian targets tend to be soft targets, and thus provide a lot of bang per buck. But so do surprise attacks on military targets, as well as foregoing uniforms and national headquarters. Those who use such strategies and tactics are whom the U.S. has been fighting of late.
Now we arrive at the troubling part of our operational definition. Any weak faction must resort to terror by this definition when diplomacy fails, whether they be Klan, Taliban, or persecuted minorities. The early United States of America was dabbling in terrorist tactics when our ancestors hid behind trees to shoot at Redcoats.
The open-ended War on Terror has turned the world’s beacon of freedom into the land where politicians don “What would Vader do?” bracelets. This troubles me.
A Holistic Anti-Terror Strategy
A strategy of retaliation only requires letting the terrorists strike first in the name of fairness and due process. This is unacceptable.
A strategy of preemption requires an NSA which can end all privacy rights, and a President with a rather open-ended license to kill. This is unacceptable as well, though slightly less so.
Fortunately, we have three solid alternative strategies:
- Harden the soft targets.
- Defund the terrorists.
- Demotivate the terrorists.
Let’s peek at each in turn.
Hardening the soft targets. This is the obvious first response, and one that the Bush Administration enacted. Unfortunately, the administration did so in a way which would make Emperor Palpatine proud. We do have a provision in our Constitution to deal with terrorist attacks without becoming a police state, but we did not use it. It is not too late – I hope. The path away from our current police state starts with ideas from the far right conservative playbook. But it doesn’t end there. The deep environmentalists also have useful ideas in this department.
Defunding the terrorists. The harder the soft targets, the more expensive a successful terrorist operation becomes. Take away their money and the major terrorist organizations become mostly toothless. The U.S. has made some moves in this regard, but they are weak, and require unwarranted peeks into our private financial affairs. Far more powerful weapons lie dormant. They lie gathering dust in the libertarian and deep environmentalist toolkits.
Demotivating the terrorists. This is perhaps the hardest of the three strategies. It requires paying some attention to pretentious anti-patriotic lefty professors, or at least a few shrill Ron Paul speeches. This is a bad tasting dose of humility for those who cling to simplistic elementary school patriotism. This does not mean we should become anti-patriotic, nor should we adopt a policy of pure isolationism. It does require a more sophisticated patriotism; it requires recognizing the crimes along with the glories of our past and being a bit more humble. And it requires recognizing when our attempts at intervention have failed and studying why those interventions failed.
For example, the Iranians are mad at us for good reason: the CIA overthrew their democratically elected government in favor of an emperor in order to ensure Britain a source of cheap oil. The U.S. has declared war on others for lesser causes. The Palestinians have even more reason to be angry. Many of the terrorists come here because we are over there.
That said, U.S. crimes abroad are not the only motivators for terrorists. There is no shortage of other evil governments, with persecuted people wanting a way out. They need alternatives to terrorism. Sometimes the only viable alternative is help from a great power willing to intimidate a tyrannical government. Such is the shortcoming of pure isolationism.
Bush and his Neocon friends understood this, to their credit. I strongly suspect that the trumped up charges against Saddam Hussein were an excuse to go in and set up an example democracy in an area dominated by monarchs and tyrants. The results, alas, were not pleasant, neither in Iraq, nor in the Arab Spring which followed. The Neocon’s naïve view of democracy was as dangerous as their simplistic patriotism. To demotivate potential terrorists we must look to the critics of democracy as we know it and see what is in their toolkits.
Ending the War on Terror
The three-pronged strategy above (which I will elaborate in more detail in the chapters to follow) will not eliminate all terrorists. There will always be violent fanatics and criminals willing to use the tools of war for profit. But we can weaken these factions to the point where we can once again treat them as criminals – like we did under Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Then we can dust off the Bill of Rights and bring Andy Taylor out of retirement.