Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 12, 2008 1:34 pm 
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Renewed lessons

The events in India in November renewed the lessons of terrorism. If there are legitimate grievances, you seek to remove them. If there are not, there is little you can do. Of course you should try to track down the malefactors by the appropriate means, through local and international police. If you can do that before the event, that's much better. What you should above all seek not to do is to be influenced by the terrorists to change your way of behaving otherwise. That is precisely what they want, to turn around the system, to transform it into an instrument directed at and responsive to them. After the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, Americans declared that "the world will never be the same." Huge mistake. For the terrorists, this was exactly the desired response. A better one for America would have been "they will not change us: the world is the same." The September 11 attacks were horrible. Like all successful terrorist acts, they had a symbolic value, as noted by Baudrillard, far beyond their actual dimensions. And there is no escaping that, or the fact that America is super-vulnerable (an ideal terrorist target) and through globalization indeed the whole world is more and more vulnerable. But Americans were exaggerating; this is a country naïve about such matters, where people overreact. In other countries, which are therefore less vulnerable to the symbolic value of a terrorist act, this kind of event is much more common. Americans only thought what happened on that day was unique because it was unusual for them.

The response should, ideally, have been as near as possible muted and invisible. The US has, fortunately, thwarted plenty of terrorist attacks, and done so without fanfare. The more silently a tracking operation is conducted the more effective it will be. The Bush government attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other hand, were and remain ideal recruitment devices for Al Qaeda and other anti-US terrorist organizations. To have done nothing visible would have only frustrated them. While moving on the Afghan strongholds of Osama bin Laden, assuming his leadership was responsible for 9/11, made some sense, it was a difficult operation to carry off and it was botched and abandoned, which had the double effect of both provoking and pleasing the targets. Obviously Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism, until the US occupation inspired its development there.

Apart from the deception and self-delusion involved in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the concept of a "war on terror," which has been an excuse for repression and violations of rights worse than the American "red menace" scare of the 1950's, is a misnomer, implying that "terrorism" is the kind of unified group or effort that's amenable to repression via open warfare. The world is full of a diversity of terrorisms, both organized and disorganized, both linked and isolated. Open warfare doesn't work against them. It works for them. All visible, violent efforts only brand us as repressive provocateurs and further their multiple causes. The misunderstanding of this by administration leaders penetrated into their thinking on Iraq and Afghanistan, as if you could drop a bomb and end terrorism, when in fact a bomb is merely an instrument of terrorism—the state kind--and the more visible the attempts to eradicate terrorisms, the more likely the action is to inspire new ones.

Though the more overt efforts to eradicate terrorism are counter-productive, that isn't to say conversely that if you respond properly to terrorism, quietly track down its perpetrators and seek to remove any legitimate provocations, it will therefore cease. It will always be present. Whatever the state of the world there will be angry people plotting to cause mayhem. This is sad, but a sense of proportion is necessary. The great success of terrorism in the world today is indicated by how widespread is the belief that it is the greatest problem. There are many much worse problems and much greater causes of destruction and death. In 2001 over 41,000 Americans died in traffic accidents (an annual figure that has varied relatively little since 1975). On the day after Christmas in the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, over 250,000 people died. If the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were part of the "war" on terrorism (a largely meaningless claim) they caused and continue to cause much greater devastation, misery and death than the terrorism has.

A bad analogy

The novelist Amitav Ghosh made a crucially important point in his NYTimes op-ed piece,"India’s 9/11? Not exactly." He emphasized (as have others, including Arundhati Roy) that the analogy drawn in India itself between the three-day siege of Mombai and 9/11 is unfortunate because it suggests India might follow up with a similarly violent and disastrous response, when in fact whatever problems there are between India and Pakistan that the November Mombai attacks crudely referred to, relations of late between the two countries have been moving in a positive direction. "India does not intend to respond with a troop buildup along the border with Pakistan" Ghosh wrote. "A buildup would indeed serve no point at all, since this is not the kind of war that can be fought along a border, by conventional armies. The Indian government would do better to focus on an international effort to eliminate the terrorists’ hide-outs and safe houses, some of them deep inside Pakistan." As Ghosh concluded, in the wake of a terrorist attack "Defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself; it is determined by the response." This is a sentence everyone who studies terrorism ought to memorize. So much writing about terrorism seems clueless, it's obvious basic lessons are still needed. The first thing to remember is that it's not the only thing wrong in the world.

As Ghosh wisely reminds us the response to a terrorist strike ought not to be "precipitate action." Rather it should be "dispassionate but determined resolve." 9/11 is not a model to follow or a suitable analogy. It is above all a cautionary tale. The London bombings and Madrid had sensible responses, and the response to the Mombai siege has a chance of being sensible too. Ghosh suggests that a better analogy for India would be with "11-M" (as he Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004 are known in Spanish), which can serve as shorthand for a response that "emphasizes vigilance, patience " We must learn from the good examples and avoid the bad ones.

Will the Obama administration be a truly new direction? There are doubts about that. On the one hand, it’s looking as though "perpetual war for perpetual peace" (in Gore Vidal’s phrase) is slated to continue. It looks that way when when Obama appoints Iraq war hawk Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, keeps on Bush’s Pentagon chief Robert Gates, and plans to withdraw from Iraq only to stage a surge in Afghanistn and to increase the size of US armed forces. But there is room to hope that “terrorism” and how to combat it will be viewed more sensibly. Obama is clearly poised to restore human rights and abolish illegal practices introduced in Bush's "war on terror" and stop using that as an excuse for domestic repression, snooping, and “dark side” tactics abroad.

You can't eradicate terrorism but you can promote peace and remove provocations. India can seek to stop Hindus from killing Muslims in Kashmir. The US can get out of Iraq and forget about the impossible goal of nation-building in Afghanistan. The British failed, the Russians failed, and the Taliban can't be controlled. The Afghan war isn't one foreigners can ever win, and the country has little strategic importance. The US should try approaching countries that are not failed states, like Iran, and talking to them. And above all the US should stop supporting Israel's violations of international law and oppression of the Palestinians. It's certainly necessary to protect a country against terrorists and to catch them when you can. But it does more for the world to carry out peaceful measures that remove legitimate grievances. The best kind of "war on terror" is spreading peace.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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