The War on Terror Was Lost at its Inception

Terror cannot be defeated with military action, no matter how powerful or how well equipped the military that takes the action. Terror, let us not forget, is a feeling. Terror grips us when fear strikes in such a way that neither fight nor flight is an option. Unable to find a solution to an adrenaline spilling situation, the mind gives up on problem-solving and devolves into the screaming, head-hiding, pants-soiling emotion we call terror. Terror causes us to act irrationally. It causes us to lash out, to over-react or to misdirect our impotent feelings of rage in misguided efforts to find security in a world made suddenly unsafe. This is terror.

A feeling like this cannot be bombed into silence. It cannot be shot at. It cannot be quieted in the roar of jet engines. No. These only serve to fuel fear. Terror cannot be countered with shock and awe, it can only be propagated.

If one truly wishes to quell terror, one sings soothing songs, reassures the afflicted, provides a sense of calm.

Nor can a war be won on terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy. If we can say that we are waging war on terrorism, than we must also accept the idea that our enemies are not at war with us, they are at war with insurgency suppression, or with occupation. They are at war with gunfire and drone attacks. They are at war with no-fly zones. Seen from this perspective, it becomes absurd. A war is waged on a nation, a state, a people. It cannot be waged on a tactic.

Already, I can hear people muttering an objection that this is merely a semantic argument. Surely it would be easy to write such people off as anti-semantic bastards, but I think this imagined counter to my argument bears a strong response, otherwise I wouldn't have posed it to myself.

Semantics are important. The language we use defines our perceptions, it defines our actions, it defines our culture, it defines us to our very cores. While there is no worldly difference between "collateral damage," and "the slaughter of innocent men, women and children," the perception is vastly different from one to the next. People who would be aghast to think that they conspire in the killing and maiming of school children are willing to tolerate acceptable civilian losses in the execution of a military operation. While few of us would sanction targeted assassinations, we have grown comfortable with the idea of surgical strikes. By changing the semantics we protect ourselves from the horror we inflict.

Conspiracy theories abound as to the real reasons for our ongoing involvement on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some say it is a war for oil. Some say it is about water. Some say it is about Israel. Some say that ongoing war is necessary simply to fuel the incomes of those who make their living in the manufacture and sale of military equipment and supplies. I do not know the truth of the machinations behind the conflicts in which we are currently engaged, except that at their heart they are the same machinations behind every great conflict in history. The wealthy and powerful decide that something is worth killing for and then set about convincing the poor and desperate that it is worth dying for.

The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 gave a magnificent focal point for such conviction. We were so angry, so afraid, so impotent in our rage and horror that we would have done anything to feel secure. We were, in short, terrorized. Rather than calming us and offering us the sense of security that had been taken away, our leaders provided us with an impossible mission of vengeance upon an intangible enemy. Trusting our leaders in our own moment of senselessness, we as a society followed them into an ill-advised conflict with ambiguous goals.

As time passed we realized the horror of what we had done. In Abu Ghraib, in our air attack that massacred Iraqi journalists, in our treatment of underage prisoners at Guantanamo Bay we saw that we had come to devalue life so completely that not only had we stopped treating our enemies humanely, we had stopped treating them as humans. When attempts are made to right even these most obvious and specific of wrongs, opposition rises up, dismissing the wrongdoings as the work of a few bad apples, justifying the dehumanization of entire cultures by reducing those who disagree with our foreign policy to evildoers.

It is always difficult to admit a mistake. It is particularly difficult to admit a mistake when it means accepting responsibility for the repercussions of the wrong-headed actions. Yet here we are, a nation that considers itself the greatest, most noble, most righteous in the history of civilization, at a crossroads.

Shall we continue a path that has led us to torture, to mass murder, to blood-letting, to a long-lasting and wasteful conflict against an enemy we dare not even properly name? We continue in a war we claim to be waging on "terror" or "terrorism" because we would be too ashamed to admit that we are at war against the Islamic world because for a moment we were too blinded by xenophobia to realize that the percentage of blood-lusting fundamentalist Muslims is probably about the same as the percentage of blood-lusting fundamentalist Christians or Jews or Capitalists. Shall we continue killing because to stop would be to admit that it was an error to start killing in the first place?

I say it is time to cease firing and live with ourselves. If we are uncomfortable with the truth of who we are it is time to do the hard work of changing who we are by changing our behavior, changing our habits. It is time to recognize that when we went to war we were acting out of irrational fear. The terrorists cannot lose until we stop behaving out of a sense of terror. Let us bring home our young men and women. Let us care for our wounded, our damaged, our loved ones. Let us begin to heal one another with soothing songs and reassurances. Let us prove our righteous nobility, as a national community, by coming calmly to our senses.