War on a Word

By Liam Sweeny

“We are fighting a War on Terror” the President said, soon after the tragic events of Sept. 11th. What the world wanted, what Americans needed, were answers, assurance, and the security of knowing that our government was doing everything it could do to physically strengthen our nation against another attack. What they got was a War-on-a-Word.

Let’s look at our “Enemy”. “Terror” could accurately be described as a heightened state of psychological fear. Is this even an enemy? On what grounds do we wage battle? How do we determine “victories” and “losses”? And since the most common emotional product of fear is anger, are we at war with anger as well?

No, perhaps, as most do, we equate the “war on terror” with a “war on terrorism”, or a “war on terrorists.” At least now there’s something more concrete to battle. But the concrete is fraught with cracks. We can see, and therefore recognize, groups like Al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hizbollah, among others, as enemies in this new war. And we can see the suicide bombers as the enemy’s “foot-soldiers.” But this will inevitably lead us down the path of another famous (and failing) “War-on-a-Word”, the “War on Drugs.”

In this war, it is the drug-dealers and traffickers who are the “Enemy.” And over thirty years after Nixon declared this “war.” We’ve seen that for every vanquished drug-dealer, ten show up to take their place. Users, put in jail, will get out and use again. A drug taken off the street will either find its way back, or will be replaced with a new drug.

We cannot win the “War on Terror” any more than we can win the “War on Drugs.” This is because drug use and terrorism are human conditions. When people feel powerless, they take up the drug. When they feel powerless, they can also take up the bloody banner of guerilla warfare, which we call “terrorism.”

The problem with a “War on Terror” is that we look to the Arab world as the source of terrorism. Yet Arabia has no lock on terrorism. As many as are nations on this Earth are terrorist groups within these nations. For the United States to “fight” this war conventionally, or geo-politically, would entail taking over, or having a substantial military presence in, the entire world, requiring the man-power (or woman-power) of the whole U.S. population.

Of course, I may be exaggerating (just a little), but you get my point. Terrorism is an aberrant social behavior. It is a problem, not an enemy. It requires a solution, not a war.

If we can ever hope to break the hold of terrorists, we need a balance of proactive and reactive measures. We seem to be driven to reactive measures by instinct. But unfortunately we’re driven to proactive measures by insight, and that isn’t hard-wired in like instinct. You can only gain insight through the active pursuit of knowledge, and wisdom, and that’s a choice one has to make for themselves.

If we, not as a nation, but as a culture, prized knowledge and education more than we pay lip service to, we would, generally, know more about what the world has gone through. We would know that our government, and our corporations, commit, condone, or support atrocities committed in the under-developed world, well below the American public’s radar. And we would know what murderous megalomaniacs like Osama Bin Laden are using to draw support, logistics, and recruits from the Arab world.

As we begin to realize the consequences of the actions of those who represent us in the world, we would see, specifically pertaining to the middle east, that for nearly a century, we have exploited the oil reserves of the Arab nations. Though we paid for the oil, we did so knowing that the money paid would never reach the vast majority of the people in these countries. “Billionaire Sheikhs”, armed to the teeth with the best weapons the U.S. Arms industry can provide, are able to repress the “common” people. This leads to a feeling of powerlessness, and repression, and despair. All of which form the cloth of the bloody flag of terrorism.

By trying to understand the root causes of terrorism, we would have to face hard facts, about the world, and about ourselves. This may be the only opportunity we’ll ever have to open a meaningful dialogue with the world, as equals. We’ll see ourselves in them, and we’ll fight for them to have the same rights that we do. More importantly, we’ll not force our form of government on them, because that’s not something that equals do. If we want to promote democracy, we’ll just have to become the example that people around the world would want to emulate. In the end, a serious reflection on the state of world affairs would create popular sentiment with the people most at risk for becoming “radicalized.” Kind of takes the wind out of the sails of the terrorist groups, doesn’t it?

As far as the “War on Terror,” if we need to fight our fears, we look to the administration as if they, and only they, can protect you. But let us rewind to that dreadful day in September 2001. The only ones in government that helped you that day were the front-liners, NYPD, FDNY, Port Authority, and rescue personnel of various stripes in NY and in Washington. These people we hold in the sacred shrines of our heart. But those who had the greatest part in preventing Sept. 11th was not the administration, who was scrambling to preserve continuity, or the military, who didn’t seem to know what was going on until it had already happened, but a small group of civilian passengers. It was they, who, armed with nothing but their cell-phones, learned of the plot, and sacrifice their own lives to attempt to retake Flight 93.

The lesson here is that we are the first line of defense, and we’ve always so willingly pawned our individual responsibilities to the government, that we now expect the government to do what is really our task as citizens.

And this has consequences. If you want to know why we haven’t been attacked in 3 years, just look at the Patriot Act. All the buildings Osama can blow up in America can’t but a dent in a single Amendment of the Bill of Rights. But the Patriot Act, an overreacted response to the threat of terrorism, has moved through the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments in one fell swoop. In short, the Administration is able to do damage to this country in ways that Al-Qaeda has only dreamed of. They haven’t attacked us since then because If it ain’t fixed, don’t break it.

Instead of trading our civil rights for the convenience of not having to get to know our neighbors, why not just suck it up, take our rights back, and assume the responsibilities that being a citizen/owner in a democracy are all about? If we, as a series of communities, can find ways to make things safer within these communities, we should do it. Plus we need to realize that, as tragic as Sept. 11th was, it is not a situation of “a terrorist behind every corner”. You’re more likely to get hit by a bus in this country that to be the victim of a terrorist act. Or another way to put it: You’re more likely to be a victim of the “War-on-a-Word” than you are of being a victim of the “Word” itself.

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