War on Terror

The Bush administration is again playing with alternatives to the “War on Terror,” now turning the machinery of war toward “religious extremism.” (I would prefer a “Crusade against religious extremism,” just for ironic effect, but I don’t think that’s going to play well.) Many have suggested that you can’t have a war on terror, because “terror” is an abstract concept, not an enemy. I think these people are too literal-minded. While you cannot have a “war on terror” in the traditional sense of a war, with campaigns, physical objectives, etc., if you think of war as the extension of politics by other means (what a novel concept!), you can certainly concieve of the reduction of terror as a tactic. So, let’s do it. Let’s end–or at least reduce–terror.

How do we do this? The answer is always the same: education.

Terror is, according to the Oxford Consise, “extreme fear.” We win the War on Terror by removing extreme fear. I’ll extend this a bit. We don’t want to become fearless. Fearlessness, as much as it is vaunted as a good characteristic, is often synonymous with stupidity. Let’s just say we want to reduce irrational fears.

Are you afraid of being killed when your next airline flight blows up? Don’t lie. Of course you are, if only a small niggle. Somewhere in the back of your head, when you get on a plane, you wonder “Could this be the one?” Why is that? Because every time a plane blows up, it makes the news. And because most people don’t ride on planes on a daily basis, so that introduces uncertainty, which results in irrational fear. For a while there, I was on a commercial flight at least twice a week, and as a result, I didn’t have time to think about hijacking or bombing. Now that it’s less frequent, it sometimes comes to mind.

Do you feel that way when you get into an automobile? I’m just about at the age–and certainly in the health zone–where I am more likely to die of disease than an auto accident, but over the last few decades, I was most likely to be killed by a drunk driver. Did I think about this every time I got behind the wheel? Of course not. I took minimal precautions: I wear a seatbelt, I occasionally drive the speed limit, I was pleased that I could afford a car with air bags. But I do not fear the car. Indeed, I would go so far as to say I do not fear the car as much as I should.

A couple of nights ago on the Daily Show there was a bit making fun of Condoleeza Rice for considering the current situation in the Middle East to be an “opportunity.” The commentator drew the obvious, amusing, analogy–when the Twin Towers came down, we thought of it as an “opportunity,” right? The crowd turned a bit, I think. 9/11 is our sacred cow, not ready for jokes, it seems. I won’t minimize the loss of the families on that day, but we have lost all perspective. We have killed many times that number in our involvement in Iraq, and will continue to do so.

Three years ago, I had this to say about 9/11: “Walk it off, America.” We have yet to take that advice. It was the advice my little league coach would have given me after being hit by a wild pitch. Every team had a kid who cried his way into the dugout after being hit, and then flinched at each new pitch. You know that kid–and he was not someone to be admired. How did America get to be that kid?

The news media highlights terrorizing events. That’s part of its job. It seeks out novelty, and new ways to die are particularly enticing. I don’t think we can wholly blame “the media,” but there is something structurally that is troubling there. The 24 hour news cycle and a constant focus on ways we can be hurt increases our terror level. Journalists are effective terrorists.

But the government of the United States, the people we expect to be fighting against terror, is the greatest amplifier of terror we have. The “terror alert” scale does not provide us with anything even minutely useful. Is it a device intended to tell us when to no longer look for the possibility of terrorist action? That is, is it even comprehensible that we would reach a “green” terror alert? The only reason it changes is to remind us whether we should “be afraid” or “be very afraid.” It is a device for instilling terror.

Or, why not take the most recent example of terrorism as instructive? Those planning to instill terror were remarkably effective. If I were a terrorist (and yes, I can think of conditions under which I could become a terrorist) my ideal case would be to instill terror without ever actually killing anyone. That is precisely what this group of “liquid bombers” has managed to do. It has thrown the airline industry into chaos, and worried travelers across the globe who might have just started to get back to the routine of air travel. Heck, I could even bring nail clippers on my recent flights. Weeee.

How could it have been handled differently? No press release. Arrest each of these people and try them for criminal conspiracy. Downplay how close they came, laugh it off as a useless effort against the powerful security state. Indicate that they were not linked to any global arch-villainy, but were a group of local idiots who were misguided and need to spend some time in jail. And here’s the key: change nothing.

Doesn’t it seem a little dumb to make liquids illegal, if you’ve already managed to catch the people who were planning on using liquids? People will find a way to make bombs work. Once you remove every other avenue, they can always swallow them. While some vigilance in what may be permitted on board is necessary and reasonable, removing people’s ability to hydrate simply instills terror, the ultimate objective of terrorists.

So, we need a War on Terror. We need to highlight when police agencies and politicians play the terror angle for bureaucratic gain and funding increases. We need to call out terrorism when people have press conferences warning about non-specific attacks. We need to track terror-inducing reporting by the nation’s press corps, and hold them to account for it. Transparency and information is good, but when it moves on to fear-mongering, it is an attack at the heart of our nation.

Finally, particularly for those of us who are educators, we need to find ways of making people aware of danger, without having them devolve into irrational responses. We need to make clear that drunk driving and tobacco are more serious threats to our communities that al Qaeda. We need to wage a war against terror, but we need to understand that the root of all terror is our misperceptions, not the triggers that are so easy to push.

We need to toughen up. Americans once prided ourselves on an independent spirit, and the ability to stare adversity in the face and innovate our way out of it. We need to recover that toughness, mated with kindness. And when some of our fellow Americans bring up 9/11 as a rallying whine, we need to call them what they are, traitors to the spirit of this country. We need to tell them to suck it up, take a deep breath, take their base, and keep playing the game.

Update: Both Ze Frank (yesterday and today) and the New Scientist say this better than I do. And via Aaron is this claim that the timing was designed mainly to grab headlines.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 8/12/2006 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Kudos! I was so going to write an epic blog post about this, but you’ve pieced it together faster and more eloquently then me. We need to think of better things… instead of listening to the mainstream media manufacture fear, let’s make the world a better place by manufacturing happiness. Reminds me of the hippie 70s… maybe we need a revival!

  2. Goblin_Gaga
    Posted 8/19/2006 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    About the war:

One Trackback

  1. […] So this week we were reminded that we live in times of fear and doubt. Damn it, just as things were looking up, the mainstream had to ruin my whole week. Alex Halavais must have read my mind as he covered all the grounds that made this terrorism scare so wrong. We all die one day, and yes, most of us fear it. But there’s fear, then there’s irrational fear. As Alex puts it, when something bad happens, we need to learn to walk it off. […]

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