I recently saw a piece of political mail. It featured a photograph of President Obama with the caption “How far will he go to protect terrorists?” I didn’t read it, but assume that “protecting terrorists” means not torturing them and giving them fair trials. This is not the only inflammatory anti-Obama political mail I have seen; others “prove” that he is not an American citizen, or is really a Muslim or a communist. I have remarked before that this is dangerous talk indeed, that it is only a matter of time before someone takes it seriously enough to see it his patriotic duty to rid the nation of this menace. One can hardly begin to fathom what a disaster this would be for the country.
Now I am no fan of the president’s; in spite of his vague but soaring rhetoric when it comes to policy he has turned out to be Bush Lite, except when it comes to throwing money to the bankers and industrialists, where he is even more reckless. On the other hand, prolifers’ fears that he would take his campaign promises seriously and make the Freedom of Choice Act his first priority have proven exaggerated. He no more wants the FOCA on his desk than Bush or the other putative prolife presidents wanted comprehensive prolife legislation on theirs’. Like them, he would sign it if he must but that is the last thing he wants.
But what caught my eye in this particular mailing was the juxtaposition of the word “terrorist” with Obama’s image. “Terrorist”, of course is the modern bogeyman; it is a word that functions like the word “communist” in the Cold War era. It is a handy tool to evoke an automatic reaction of fear and hostility. Yes, there are real terrorists in the world, ready to kill in the name of their ideology. And there were real communists in the 50s and 60s and beyond. But fear of terrorism, like fear of Marxism, is totally disproportionate to the threat. And like fear of communism, it is seldom accompanied by any attempt to understand the nature of the enemy or the context of the threat. But communism did not arise in a void. It was a reaction to the excesses of industrial capitalism and the real injustices spawned by that economic system. And radical jihadism? Not only is it a direct response to colonialism, it is an entity that was originally encouraged, funded and trained by British and American intelligence agencies, who saw Islamic fundamentalism as a counterpoint to Arab nationalism and international communism. This began with the Muslim Brotherhood and support for Saudi Arabia’s promotion of Wahhabist theology throughout the Islamic world, and continued through the anti-Soviet Afghan insurgency. This last brought us, directly, our current crop of enemies, the Taliban and Al Queda.
But there is an even more fundamental myopia here, even beyond the West’s historical culpability for the rise of its enemies: how many people have even asked themselves what, exactly defines a terrorist? A sober definition would probably state that a terrorist is someone willing to inflict suffering and death indiscriminately, not limiting his targets to military ones. The bomb in the marketplace, the slashed throat of the hostage, gunfire in the mosque; these define terrorism.
But the majority of Americans support the use of torture for suspected terrorists (and a rather large majority, if the euphemism “enhanced interrogation” replaces “torture” in the questionnaire). And a similar majority would defend the bombing of civilian populations for a just cause, ie, an American victory. War is war, they will say. Yes, the Islamist will answer, and jihad is jihad. Just because we are Americans, and on the defense against one form of terror, ought not blind us to the fact that historically our nation has taken the offense in spreading its own form of terror. What is “shock and awe”, after all, if not terror?
We who are called to a Kingdom not of this world, who are called to love our enemies, must maintain a certain detachment when faced with rival terrorisms.
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