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Monday, January 19, 2015
Blokker on Terrorism: Defining our Terms
Blokker on Terrorism: Defining Our Terms
The War on Terror goes on and on, through terrible acts and horrific responses throughout the world. The incidents in Paris were just another set in a long string of attacks by fanatical individuals against “soft targets,” that is, vulnerable people without the means of returning fire against the attackers. The other obvious element in such attacks is that the victims are often innocent bystanders, or, in another Twentieth Century term that I hate, “Collateral damage.” The greatest irony for me, in this particular brand of attacks, is that the Koran, to which many of the current fanatics pledge their faith, expressly and strictly prohibits the slaughter of innocents. But the fact is that terrorism targets the innocent. We can go further back, since Moslems, Christians and Jews all are “children of the Book,” to the Ten Commandments, specifically, Number Five. As often stated, what part of Thou Shalt Not Kill do we not understand? There is no fine print. There are no clauses: except on alternate Tuesdays. Yet governments and organizations feel free to order us to kill, and we feel free to follow those orders.
Let us be clear at the outset: terrorism is not a philosophy or a way of life, as are so many “isms.” Terrorism is a tactic. It is perpetrated to instill deep fear (terror) to draw attention to a cause or to manipulate others into bending to your will. In today’s jargon most people want to define terrorism as “political or religious violence by non-state actors.” But the definition is broader than that: some want to include any act of unlawful violence or war. This means we have to include state actors. And since war was outlawed in 1928, any war is unlawful, and by extension, a form of terrorism. The origin of the concept itself comes from the Reign of Terror in France in the late Eighteenth Century, from the institutionalized employment of terror by the new government of that country to establish and maintain their control.
Terrorism therefore is a relatively new concept, gaining deeper and more expansive meaning in recent times. When the Greeks took the city of Troy, it was understood that they would rape, pillage, steal, vandalize, burn, murder, even toss babies from the ramparts. Civilians were part of the “spoils of war.” When Nieuw Amsterdam faced attack by the British in the 1660’s, it was understood that, if the Dutch resisted, the British would be within their rights to level the colony to the ground and kill anyone within it. To avoid that outcome, military governor Peter Stuyvessant capitulated. The city, renamed New York, thrived as the center of international trade and the seat of progressive Dutch-influenced thinking. The outcome would have been radically different and acts of terror would have destroyed that influence, and been well within the understood laws of the time.
The use of terror as a weapon has been a constant in human history. But the concept of terrorism is a modern one. Along with pacifism, genocide, and collateral damage, terrorism grew as a concept in the 20th Century to help define current legal and moral ideologies. But it remains a tactic, and fighting against a tactic redirects the real struggle. That struggle, the reality of human nature, is clearly seen in the historical record.
The Nazis institutionalized terror when they turned the center of Rotterdam into rubble on May 14, 1940, and then told the Dutch government to surrender or Utrecht was next. In past battles and sieges, civilians were often targeted, but never so blatantly. The bombing of that city was designed to kill civilians in order to terrorize the population and force the Dutch government to capitulate – and it worked.
And terror works every time a Nobody like me thinks, “If I speak my mind will they come after me?”
Using this broader interpretation of our term, President Obama and before him President Bush could be seen as terrorists – and are seen that way, by those on the receiving end of mass bombings and drone attacks. Radical Islamists will point to such acts as justification for their own. This is not to excuse those extremists: to paraphrase Stephen King, if they did not have radical Islam (or White Supremacy or some other radicalized cause), they would have to find some other reason to justify murder.
The tragedy in Paris is another in a long list of terror attacks. This one is different in that this attack was as much an assassination as anything else: the attackers intended to assassinate specific cartoonists and the paper itself. They only partially succeeded. They failed in this: the French Parliament voted, 488-1, to join the fight against ISIS. Yet it turns out that Al Qaeda in Yemen claims responsibility for the attack. The one dissenter, echoing California Democratic Representative Barbara Lee, who was the only dissenting voter on September 14, 2001: military action will not prevent future terror attacks. History has proven Lee correct.
On HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the guest panel made this critical point: the West is a side show. Even though western soft targets have been pinpointed, and western nations are continually stirred into a frenzy by such attacks, those attacks are as much propaganda as anything else to those who organized them. Hating the West is convenient and useful in recruiting followers. Successful terror attacks are a recruiting tool. Hitler used anti-Semitism to the same effect. But what the radicals in the Middle East want is control – of the Middle East. They want to push their agenda upon the rest of the Moslem world. They see freedom of thought and expression as dangers to the moral center of the world and want to pull the Moslem world backward into what they think is true Islam. In other words, there is a power struggle going on in the region between many factions, and every act of terror is designed to strengthen the position of the responsible faction.
ISIS is an organized army bent on regional conquest and willing to do anything to achieve their goal of a separate state, part in what is now Syria and part Iraq. They may be brutal and behind the times but they are not unprecedented. When three thousand Saxon prisoners refused to convert to Catholicism, Charlemagne had them decapitated one by one. There were, however, no children among the Saxon victims and terrorism as a concept did not as yet exist. It was business as usual even for the most enlightened ruler of his time.
I see no real difference between a suicide bomber in Iraq, a set of gunmen killing school children in Pakistan, a lone gunman doing the same in Sandy Hook, a neo-Nazi planting a bomb in Oklahoma, nineteen plane hijackers on 9-11, a crazed bomber/shooter slaughtering more children in Norway, and on and on. They all are mass murderers. And all mass murderers are terrorists. Those brutal and ignorant killers can point their finger wherever they want. But terror extends far deeper than acts of random or targeted terrorist attacks. 26 million human beings are enslaved worldwide. Most of them are women pressed into sexual slavery. Terror and the threat of violence is a key tactic in keeping them in chains. And that is just perhaps the most extreme example of how terror can be used against even one individual. It is all well and good to stand up and say, “No more!” But no one has taken either the tactic away, or the root inhumanity within each of us that allows it to have power over us.
It would be difficult at best to accept a terrorist calling someone else a terrorist. Ultimately, we are what we do, not what we say.
I was born in Holland in 1950. My parents immigrated to the US when I was two. I have many close friends and family on both continents. My wife Diane and I have been happily married since 1974. I have four children and one grandchild (two more are on the way). I love writing and sharing what I wrote most of all..