In two recent speeches, President Obama has repeated the conceit that the United States is “the indispensable nation.” Apparently, that means the U.S. must lead “the free world,” with a none-too-subtle corollary that other “free” nations must follow. Yet the conceit of indispensability gets the U.S. into serious trouble. It facilitates interventionism and meddling, and when the U.S. intervenes and meddles, it’s almost always in military ways, often disastrously (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya are just three recent examples).
This is hardly surprising. The U.S. military has roughly 800 bases worldwide. Its aircraft carriers are essentially mobile American bases, bristling with weapons and munitions. The U.S. spends roughly $600 billion a year maintaining this military and empire, even as it continues to dominate the world’s arms trade. This heavy investment in weaponry and war-making, abetted by a mentality that celebrates “global reach, global power,” is a strange way to define your nation as being “indispensable.”
How did America come to invest so much of itself in military weaponry and incessant wars? One reason is the quest for total safety. As one of my friends put it:
It [the notion of total safety] must be a post-1941 thing [after the shocking sneak attack on Pearl Harbor]. I think in both cases (1917 [U.S. entry into World War I] and 1941 and maybe 2001) the question Americans have asked is how to keep an evil “over there” somehow from affecting us. In all three cases, I think the answer was neutrality until neutrality no longer seemed to offer safety. My guess is that the idea that total safety required global involvement comes from c.1948, fears of the USSR’s globalism, atomic paranoia, and the desire to protect and preserve the new American affluence. Thus NSC-68 gets passed with nary a whisper of opposition.
What is NSC-68? We must turn the clock back to 1950, the Cold War, and the Truman Administration, as detailed here by The History Channel:
According to the [National Security Council’s] report, the United States should vigorously pursue a policy of “containing” Soviet expansion. NSC-68 recommended that the United States embark on rapid military expansion of conventional forces and the nuclear arsenal, including the development of the new hydrogen bomb. In addition, massive increases in military aid to U.S. allies were necessary as well as more effective use of “covert” means to achieve U.S. goals. The price of these measures was estimated to be about $50 billion; at the time the report was issued, America was spending just $13 billion on defense.
Under President Trump, we’re likely to see a new version of NSC-68, another expansion of the U.S. military (and U.S. militarism), along with covert action by a newly empowered CIA, this time in the name of containing and defeating radical Islam rather than godless communism.
Defense company stocks are already soaring at the prospect of much higher military spending under Trump, notes William Hartung today at TomDispatch.com. Trump is difficult to predict, so Hartung takes him at his word in this passage:
A window into Trump’s thinking [on defense] can be found in a speech he gave in Philadelphia in early September. Drawing heavily on a military spending blueprint created by Washington’s right-wing Heritage Foundation, Trump called for tens of thousands of additional troops, a Navy of 350 ships (the current goal is 308), a significantly larger Air Force, an anti-missile, space-based Star Wars-style program of Reaganesque proportions, and an acceleration of the Pentagon’s $1 trillion “modernization” program for the nuclear arsenal (now considered a three-decade-long project).
Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that, if Trump faithfully follows the Heritage Foundation’s proposal, he could add more than $900 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade.
In other words, Obama’s America, the “indispensable nation,” is likely under Trump to channel enormous resources into more weapons even as Trump’s military advisers, men like retired general Mike Flynn, posture for a no-holds-barred crusade against “the cancer” of radical Islam around the globe.
Here’s a harsh truth: America has allowed its arsenal of democracy of World War II fame to become simply an arsenal. A nation that fought in the name of democracy in two world wars has become one that wages endless wars driven by a crusader’s righteousness.
I’ve been writing for TomDispatch.com and the amazing Tom Engelhardt since 2007. When I wrote my first article, “Saving the Military from Itself: Why Medals and Metrics Mislead,” I never imagined I would come to write 37 more for Tom and his site over the next eight years. TomDispatch has given me an opportunity to write about topics like the elimination of nuclear weapons, the rise of American militarism, the perils of calling all troops in the military “heroes,” the over-hyping of American military prowess by our leaders, and many others. In all my articles, I hope I’ve offered a contrary perspective on the U.S. military as well as American culture, among other subjects.
My latest article, America’s mutant military, is a personal odyssey of sorts. I reflect on how the military has changed since I entered it in 1985. Today’s post-Cold War U.S. military is, to put it bluntly, not as I envisioned it would be as the Berlin Wall was falling and the Soviet Union was collapsing. Today’s military still has its Cold War weaponry and mindset largely intact, even as a new “mutant” military has emerged, based on special ops and connected to corporations and intelligence agencies, a military hybrid that is often shrouded in secrecy even as it’s celebrated openly in Hollywood action films.
My essay runs 2300 words, so I encourage you to read all of it at TomDispatch. What follows are a few excerpts from it:
It’s 1990. I’m a young captain in the U.S. Air Force. I’ve just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I’d see, short of a third world war. Right now I’m witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared. Still, I’m slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait. It’s a confusing moment. After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn’t) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs. (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.) Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam’s battle-tested forces proved to be a “cakewalk,” with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.
Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam’s army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet’s “sole superpower.”
Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone. Washington had won the Cold War. It had won everything, in fact. End of story. Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked. Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon. It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.
[But it didn’t happen. With the Soviets gone, the U.S. military itself was now uncontained, and many hankered to use its power to achieve America’s goal of global power.]
Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America’s military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking. If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here’s one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little. Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact. Indeed, it’s being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades). The U.S. Navy? Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerableaircraft carrier task forces. The U.S. Air Force? Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft — first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing. The U.S. Army? Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they’re needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army. Except it’s 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.
[Along with the persistence of America’s “Cold War” military, a new military emerged, especially in the aftermath of 9-11.]
In 2015, so many of America’s “trigger-pullers” overseas are no longer, strictly speaking, professional military. They’re mercenaries, guns for hire, or CIA drone pilots (some on loan from the Air Force), or warrior corporations and intelligence contractors looking to get in on a piece of the action in a war on terror where progress is defined — official denials to the contrary — by body count, by the number of “enemy combatants” killed in drone or other strikes.
Indeed, the very persistence of traditional Cold War structures and postures within the “big” military has helped hide the full-scale emergence of a new and dangerous mutant version of our armed forces. A bewildering mish-mash of special ops, civilian contractors (both armed and unarmed), and CIA and other intelligence operatives, all plunged into a penumbra of secrecy, all largely hidden from view (even as they’re openly celebrated in various Hollywood action movies), this mutant military is forever clamoring for a greater piece of the action.
While the old-fashioned, uniformed military guards its Cold War turf, preserved like some set of monstrous museum exhibits, the mutant military strives with great success to expand its power across the globe. Since 9/11, it’s the mutant military that has gotten the lion’s share of the action and much of the adulation — here’s looking at you, SEAL Team 6 — along with its ultimate enabler, the civilian commander-in-chief, now acting in essence as America’s assassin-in-chief.
Think of it this way: a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is completely uncontained.
[And an uncontained military, in a country that celebrates its troops as heroes, that boasts of itself as having the best military in all of recorded history, does not bode well for America’s democratic future.]
In America’s war on terror, the groundhog always sees its own shadow, meaning six (or more) years of additional war. War is indeed the new normal in America, as I argue in this article today for TomDispatch.com.
War Is the New Normal Seven Deadly Reasons Why America’s Wars Persist
By William J. Astore
It was launched immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when I was still in the military, and almost immediately became known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT. Pentagon insiders called it “the long war,” an open-ended, perhaps unending, conflict against nations and terror networks mainly of a radical Islamist bent. It saw the revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, buried in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam, and a reinterpretation of that disaster as well. Over the years, its chief characteristic became ever clearer: a “Groundhog Day” kind of repetition. Just when you thought it was over (Iraq, Afghanistan), just after victory (of a sort) was declared, it began again.
Now, as we find ourselves enmeshed in Iraq War 3.0, what better way to memorialize the post-9/11 American way of war than through repetition. Back in July 2010, I wrote an article for TomDispatch on the seven reasonswhy America can’t stop making war. More than four years later, with the war on terror still ongoing, with the mission eternally unaccomplished, here’s a fresh take on the top seven reasons why never-ending war is the new normal in America. In this sequel, I make only one promise: no declarations of victory (and mark it on your calendars, I’m planning to be back with seven new reasons in 2019).
1. The privatization of war: The U.S. military’s recourse to private contractors has strengthened the profit motive for war-making and prolonged wars as well. Unlike the citizen-soldiers of past eras, the mobilized warrior corporations of America’s new mercenary moment — the Halliburton/KBRs (nearly $40 billion in contracts for the Iraq War alone), the DynCorps ($4.1 billion to train 150,000 Iraqi police), and the Blackwater/Xe/Academis ($1.3 billion in Iraq, along with boatloads of controversy) — have no incentive to demobilize. Like most corporations, their business model is based on profit through growth, and growth is most rapid when wars and preparations for more of them are the favored options in Washington.
“Freedom isn’t free,” as a popular conservative bumper sticker puts it, and neither is war. My father liked the saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” and today’s mercenary corporations have been calling for a lot of military marches piping in $138 billion in contracts for Iraq alone, according to the Financial Times. And if you think that the privatization of war must at least reduce government waste, think again: the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated in 2011 that fraud, waste, and abuse accounted for up to $60 billion of the money spent in Iraq alone.
To corral American-style war, the mercenaries must be defanged or deflated. European rulers learned this the hard way during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century. At that time, powerful mercenary captains like Albrecht von Wallenstein ran amok. Only Wallenstein’s assassination and the assertion of near absolutist powers by monarchs bent on curbing war before they went bankrupt finally brought the mercenaries to heel, a victory as hard won as it was essential to Europe’s survival and eventual expansion. (Europeans then exported their wars to foreign shores, but that’s another story.)
2. The embrace of the national security state by both major parties:Jimmy Carter was the last president to attempt to exercise any kind of control over the national security state. A former Navy nuclear engineer who had served under the demanding Admiral Hyman Rickover, Carter cancelled the B-1 bomber and fought for a U.S. foreign policy based on human rights. Widely pilloried for talking about nuclear war with his young daughter Amy, Carter was further attacked for being “weak” on defense. His defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 inaugurated 12 years of dominance by Republican presidents that opened the financial floodgates for the Department of Defense. That taught Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council a lesson when it came to the wisdom of wrapping the national security state in a welcoming embrace, which they did, however uncomfortably. This expedient turn to the right by the Democrats in the Clinton years served as a temporary booster shot when it came to charges of being “soft” on defense — until Republicans upped the ante by going “all-in” on military crusades in the aftermath of 9/11.
Since his election in 2008, Barack Obama has done little to alter the course set by his predecessors. He, too, has chosen not to challenge Washington’s prevailing catechism of war. Republicans have responded, however, not by muting their criticism, but by upping the ante yet again. How else to explain House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March? That address promises to be a pep talk for the Republicans, as well as a smack down of the Obama administration and its “appeasenik” policies toward Iran and Islamic radicalism.
Serious oversight, let alone opposition to the national security state by Congress or a mainstream political party, has been missing in action for years and must now, in the wake of the Senate Torture Report fiasco (from which the CIAemerged stronger, not weaker), be presumed dead. The recent midterm election triumph of Republican war hawks and the prospective lineup of candidates for president in 2016 does not bode well when it comes to reining in the national security state in any foreseeable future.
3. “Support Our Troops” as a substitute for thought. You’ve seen them everywhere: “Support Our Troops” stickers. In fact, the “support” in that slogan generally means acquiescence when it comes to American-style war. The truth is that we’ve turned the all-volunteer military into something like aforeign legion, deploying it again and again to our distant battle zones and driving it into the ground in wars that amount to strategic folly. Instead of admitting their mistakes, America’s leaders have worked to obscure them by endlessly overpraising our “warriors” as so many universal heroes. This may salve our collective national conscience, but it’s a form of cheap grace that saves no lives — and wins no wars.
Instead, this country needs to listen more carefully to its troops, especially the war critics who have risked their lives while fighting overseas. Organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace are good places to start.
4. Fighting a redacted war. War, like the recent Senate torture report, is redacted in America. Its horrors and mistakes are suppressed, its patriotic whistleblowers punished, even as the American people are kept in a demobilized state. The act of going to war no longer represents the will of the people, as represented by formal Congressional declarations of war as the U.S. Constitution demands. Instead, in these years, Americans were told togo to Disney World (as George W. Bush suggested in the wake of 9/11) and keep shopping. They’re encouraged not to pay too much attention to war’s casualties and costs, especially when those costs involve foreigners with funny-sounding names (after all, they are, as American sniper Chris Kyle so indelicately put it in his book, just “savages”).
Redacted war hides the true cost of a permanent state of killing from the American people, if not from foreign observers. Ignorance and apathy reign, even as a national security state that is essentially a shadow governmentequates its growth with your safety.
5. Threat inflation: There’s nothing new about threat inflation. We saw plenty of it during the Cold War (nonexistent missile and bomber gaps, for example). Fear sells and we’ve had quite a dose of it in the twenty-first century, from ISIS to Ebola. But a more important truth is that fear is a mind-killer, a debate-stifler.
Back in September, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham warned that ISIS and its radical Islamic army was coming to America to kill us all. ISIS, of course, is a regional power with no ability to mount significant operations against the United States. But fear is so commonplace, so effectively stoked in this country that Americans routinely and wildly exaggerate the threat posed by al-Qaeda or ISIS or the bogeyman du jour.
Decades ago, as a young lieutenant in the Air Force, I was hunkered down inCheyenne Mountain during the Cold War. It was the ultimate citadel-cum-bomb-shelter, and those in it were believed to have a 70% likelihood of surviving a five-megaton nuclear blast. There, not surprisingly, I found myself contemplating the very real possibility of a thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, a war that would have annihilated life as we knew it, indeed much of life on our planet thanks to the phenomenon of nuclear winter. You’ll excuse me for not shaking in my boots at the threat of ISIS coming to get me. Or of Sharia Law coming to my local town hall. With respect to such fears, America needs, as Hillary Clinton said in an admittedly different context, to “grow a pair.”
6. Defining the world as a global battlefield: In fortress America, all realms have by now become battle spheres. Not only much of the planet, the seas, air, and space, as well as the country’s borders and its increasingly up-armored police forces, but the world of thought, the insides of our minds. Think of the 17 intertwined intelligence outfits in “the U.S. Intelligence Community” and their ongoing “surge” for information dominance across every mode of human communication, as well as the surveillance of everything. And don’t forget the national security state’s leading role in making cyberwar a reality. (Indeed, Washington launched the first cyberwar in history by deploying the Stuxnet computer worm against Iran.)
Think of all this as a global matrix that rests on war, empowering disaster capitalism and the corporate complexes that have formed around the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and that intelligence community. A militarized matrix doesn’t blink at $1.45 trillion dollars devoted to the F-35, a single under-performing jet fighter, nor at projections of $355 billion over the next decade for “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear arsenal, weapons that Barack Obama vowed to abolish in 2009.
7. The new “normal” in America is war: The 9/11 attacks happened more than 13 years ago, which means that no teenagers in America can truly remember a time when the country was at peace. “War time” is their normal; peace, a fairy tale.
What’s truly “exceptional” in twenty-first-century America is any articulated vision of what a land at peace with itself and other nations might be like. Instead, war, backed by a diet of fear, is the backdrop against which the young have grown to adulthood. It’s the background noise of their world, so much a part of their lives that they hardly recognize it for what it is. And that’s the most insidious danger of them all.
How do we inoculate our children against such a permanent state of war and the war state itself? I have one simple suggestion: just stop it. All of it. Stop making war a never-ending part of our lives and stop celebrating it, too. War should be the realm of the extreme, of the abnormal. It should be the death of normalcy, not the dreary norm.
It’s never too soon, America, to enlist in that good fight!
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. His D.Phil. is in Modern History from the University of Oxford. He’s just plain tired of war and would like to see the next politician braying for it be deployed with a rifle to the front lines of battle. He edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.
A popular headline in the media is to describe the Afghan War as “America’s longest,” as in this brief summary today from Foreign Policy:
The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest, is now formally over. The 13-year war, which claimed more than 2,200 American lives and cost more than one trillion dollars, ended quietly at a ceremony in Kabul yesterday. U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders promised their ongoing commitment under the rebranded Operation Resolute Support and insisted the war was a success. But the Taliban is poised for a comeback with a recent surge in violence in Kabul and around the country. There are concerns that Afghanistan’s military and fragile political institutions will crumble as the United States leaves.
There’s a big problem with this. America’s longest war, by far, is not the recent Afghan War; it was its more or less continuous effort against Native Americans from the early 1600s to the late 1800s. Americans like to forget that native peoples populated the land before European settlers began to arrive, and that these native peoples had to be killed, or corralled, or otherwise subjugated or shunted aside in the name of Manifest Destiny and in the pursuit of profit.
As historian John Grenier notes in The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814,
For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war … [that included] razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.
For Grenier, America’s “first way of war” relied on “extravagant violence” often aimed at “the complete destruction of the enemy,” in this case various Native American peoples. This was indeed America’s longest war. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) its long duration and brutal violence, the war against indigenous peoples is rarely mentioned today, especially by those who seek to promote American exceptionalism.
Another longer war than the Afghan one, more recent in America’s memory, was the Cold War we fought against the Soviet Union and its allies from the close of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Lasting nearly half a century, this war ended in victory of a sort for the United States, even as its legacy continues to poison U.S. culture and foreign relations. For the Cold War left us with an enormous military-industrial-Congressional complex, to include nuclear forces capable of destroying the planet, which the U.S. continues to feed and even to enlarge. The result has been the growth of a second “shadow” government, a national security and surveillance state of enormous power, an apparatus with wide-reaching and unaccountable powers that is potentially a greater threat to American freedoms than the Soviet Union ever was.
When America forgets its longest wars, and especially when Americans forget the legacies of these wars, it’s more than history that suffers.
Update: Just after I wrote this, I came across this article on corporate “land grabs” that continue to bedevil Native Americans. Some would argue that the long war against native peoples never really ended. And to state a point that is perhaps obvious: the Afghan War grew out of the Cold War and U.S. efforts to embroil the Soviet Union in its own Vietnam in 1980. U.S. efforts to support the Afghan “freedom fighters” against the Soviets contributed to the rise of Osama bin Laden, who would eventually turn against the U.S. in the 1990s. America’s Afghan War, in other words, is not a 13-year war. To understand it, one must look back to 1979-80 and the machinations of a U.S. foreign policy establishment that was much more concerned with hobbling the Soviets than with helping the Afghan people.
There’s a new bear in the woods and his name is Vladimir Putin. Remember that Reagan campaign ad from 1984 that showed a menacing, obviously Soviet, bear patrolling the woods, with ominous music in the background? Fast-forward thirty years and a bare-chested Putin is that new bear, marauding in the Crimea and threatening Ukraine.
Our mainstream media has entered a time warp and we’re back to 1984. No, not the 1984 of George Orwell and of constant monitoring by Big Brother – our media is not concerned by that. Instead, they’re concerned with a revived Soviet Union, a new Cold War, and the notion that America is unprepared and weak.
The big winner of this collective (and selective) exercise in time travel is obvious: the U.S. Military-Industrial Complex as well as Big Oil and Gas. We can’t make significant cuts to “defense” spending now that the Russian bear is on the loose again. Right? And the best way to neutralize the bear’s threats of cutting off gas shipments to Europe is by surging oil and gas drilling in the U.S., chiefly by hydro-fracturing or fracking. Right?
Never mind concerns about rising CO2 levels and global warming. It’s 1984 again, not 2014. We need to corral that Russian bear before he emasculates us. Deploy our military! Drill baby drill! Show the Russkies who’s boss! Before they go all “Red Dawn” on us.
And when was the cheesy “Red Dawn” originally released? You guessed it: 1984.
When I entered the Air Force in 1985, I grabbed a pamphlet by Brian M. Jenkins of Rand. The title caught my eye: International Terrorism: The Other World War. Back then, the country was focused on the Cold War against the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union. Jenkins suggested there was another war we should be focusing on.
In his pamphlet, he provided a “working definition” of terrorism:
“Terrorism is the use of criminal violence to force a government to change its course of action.”
And: “Terrorism is a political crime. It is always a crime…”
But Jenkins also knew that terrorism, as a word and concept, was contentious and politicized. As he explained:
“Some governments are prone to label as terrorism all violent acts committed by their political opponents, while antigovernment extremists frequently claim to be the victims of governmental terror. Use of the term thus implies a moral judgment. If one group can successfully attach the label terrorist to its opponent, then it has indirectly persuaded others to adopt its moral and political point of view, or at least to reject the terrorists’ view. Terrorism is what the bad guys do. This drawing of boundaries between what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, between the right way to fight and the wrong way to fight, brings high political stakes to the task of definition.”
Jenkins correctly notes that the word “terrorism” implies both a political and moral (and legal) judgment. By his working definition, to be a terrorist is to be a criminal.
Can nation-states be terrorists? Interestingly, no. Not if you accept the definitional imperative common to international relations. Nation-states draw their identity (and authority) in part by and through their ability to monopolize the means of violence. Because a state monopolizes or “controls” violence in a legally sanctioned international system, it cannot commit a criminal act of terror, however terrorizing that act might be. (By this definition, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and killing 200,000 people were not terrorist acts, even though the intent was to terrorize the Japanese into surrendering.) Put differently, a state can sponsor terrorism, but it cannot commit it.
It’s an unsatisfying definition to many. AsGlenn Greenwald, constitutional lawyer and journalist for the Guardian, has noted many times, terrorism as a concept is now so highly politicized, so narrowly defined and closely tied to evil acts committed by Muslim extremists, that the word itself has become polluted. It’s more weapon than word, with an emotional impact that hits with the explosive power of a Hellfire missile.
Terrorism, in short, has become something of an Alice in Wonderland word. As Humpty Dumpty put it, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” Such is the case with “terrorist” and “terrorism”: they’re often just epithets, ones we reserve for people and acts we find heinous.
Terrorism exists, of course. But so too does politically-motivated manipulation of the English language, as George Orwell famously warned. If terrorist = criminal = always them but never us (because we’re a nation, and a good-hearted one at that), we absolve ourselves of blame even as we shout, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice, “Off with their heads!” at the “terrorists.”
That shout may be satisfying, but it may also be all too easy — and all too biased.