Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Kerry's nuisance 

The blogosphere's alive with the sound of musings - or, rather, teeth gnashing. Today it's about John Kerry's remark that "we have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." I think I understand what in his very tortured and nuanced sort of way Kerry was trying to say, and what he said had a very 1990s nostalgic ring to it: look guys, terrorism, like death and taxes - and the poor - will always be with us, so the best we can do is try to go back to how it was a few years ago, with a few bombs going off here and there, mostly killing some black people and some Muslims in obscure parts of the world most of us couldn't place on the map. In other words, an explosives-laden Palestinian killing Jews at a pizzeria or an explosives-laden Kashmiri separatist killing Hindus at a bus stop - who cares?; an explosives-laden boat once in a while ramming into a US warship on duty overseas - bad but manageable; an airliner ramming into a US skyscraper - definitely bad. In Kerry's ideal world we would go back from the definitely bad to who cares, or at worst, to the bad but manageable.

John Kerry is right in a sense that terrorism cannot be completely eliminated; the best we can do is to marginalise the phenomenon. But he's wrong that we can ever return to previous normalcy - there is no "place" to "get back to" anymore. S11 might not have changed Kerry, but it certainly changed the international state of play. In the past, terrorism was used as a limited tactic to achieve limited objectives (unification of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic, statehood for the Basques, elimination of the "Zionist entity" in favour of a Palestinian state); S11 was not the first, but certainly the most emphatic statement that for some, terrorism would now be used as a total tactic in a total war against the West to achieve a totalitarian objective of a global theocratic super-state. Too bad for Kerry that an Islamist genie is out of the bottle now - to turn terrorism back into a nuisance would require us to completely eliminate the spirit that animates al Qaeda and its cheerleaders and followers. And that will be neither easy nor quick.

Then there was the matter of the analogies used by Kerry to explain his terrorism strategy - "other things we're never going to end," like prostitution and gambling. As Hindrocket at
Powerline wrote, "The reason why those crimes are notoriously hard to eliminate is that they are victimless. They are consensual acts in which a great many people voluntarily engage. How can Kerry possibly see an analogy to terrorism?" Comparing terrorism to car accidents is also a no-no: "car accidents are an unintended by-product of a constructive activity. The automobile has revolutionized and improved life for billions of people. If we, as individuals, were determined to avoid the risk of automobile accidents, we would avoid riding in cars. But the small risk of accident is one that we voluntarily take, in exchange for the extraordinary mobility and freedom we enjoy, unparalleled in the history of the human race."

So what can we compare terrorism to? Violent crime is commonly overused - after all both involve people harming other people; hence we end up with the whole question of whether terrorism is a military or a law enforcement phenomenon. The problem is that terrorism is essentially a political act - to be Clausewitzian about it, one could say that terrorism is an asymmetrical continuation of politics by other means by the people who cannot achieve their objectives through political means.

Terrorism is enough of a problem when pursued to achieve limited objectives, as the decades' long campaigns in Ireland, Spain or the Middle East have shown all too clearly; it will be a significantly greater problem now that it is being pursued to achieve utopian ends.


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