Thoughts on terror

Inevitably the scoundrel found refuge in patriotism last night, speaking to a literally captive audience of the military and promising victory over terrorism. The primary reason he gave was that if Afghanistan fell to the Taliban it would become a haven for terrorists, this despite the fact that terrorists don’t need Afghanistan any more, if they ever did.  The only haven a terrorist needs now is a room with a computer and an internet connection, anywhere in the world. So the endless war the President proposed in his speech will not do anything to stop terror, which leads to the question, is there anything that will?

To arrive at an answer we have to understand that terrorism is the strategy of failure and despair. The suicidal aspect of much terror confirms this. The historian Jacob Burkhardt called terror “the rage of the literati in its final stages.”  Educated people are unhappy with the world as it is, they develop ideas for improvement, these ideas are rejected by the societies in which they find themselves, and so they resolve to organize the mass murder of those who reject them. Terror thus cannot and has never in history created the changes that terrorists desire. Its essence is to be trivial and futile. That is part of its charm for the terrorists.

This is not to say that terror can have no effect on the societies it attacks, because in practice terror has two components—the terror act itself and, far more important, the reaction to it on the part of the target.  Terrorists win only if the target population and its government is in fact terrorized and driven to do stupid things through fear. Unfortunately, stoking fear is both good business and effective politics. Consider that a relatively minor assault, like the recent one in Barcelona, is front page news and “breaking news” on every network, while the more fatal Peruvian bus plunge or the Indian well poisoning sit on page seventeen, three column inches. This must be because while few Americans will ever ride Peruvian buses or drink from Indian wells, the media and our leaders have convinced us that we are all in danger from the terrorists. That the most casual acquaintance with actual relative risk would show that the domestic risk of dying from a terror attack is right down there with toaster electrocutions and falling out of bed cuts no ice here. We are all lost in a dream supplied by the entertainment-politics industry. 

Awakening from that dream will require something quite out of fashion these days—simple courage. Even though we’ve all sung the national anthem a zillion times, we’ve somehow forgotten the dependent connection between “land of the free” and ”home of the brave.”  We imagined we could outsource bravery to a small population of young men and women from the lowest socioeconomic quintile, and excuse ourselves by waxing sentimental about their sacrifices, as the Chief Chicken did in his speech. It won’t do.  We learn by the time we enter kindergarten that some good things are inextricably tied to bad things. The playground is sure fun, but we get skinned knees when we’re out there.  We love our cars, but they cost forty thousand deaths a year. We love our guns so much that we tolerate thirty thousand gun killings a year.  So how many terrorist killings are we willing to tolerate in exchange for living in a free society?

Because that’s what it comes down to. If citizens of a free society are not willing to give their lives for freedom, they will lose it.  Some kid gets blown up on a road in Afghanistan and we say “he died for freedom,” and we go through all the rituals of mourning and honor, the flag, the rifles, the sad tune played on the bugle, and the rest. But we don’t do the same when some civilian dies by terror, although her death is arguably more in service of freedom than that of the soldier. For it is obvious that reigns of terror—the regimes of Saddam, or Mao, or Stalin or Hitler, for example—are generally untroubled by terrorists.  Terrorism as a tactic can exist only in free societies, and our choice is to put up with it, sweep up the glass, scrub out the blood, set up the café tables and laugh at death, à la Français.

So that’s one way to deal with terror, and by definition it works fine. If we’re not frightened, there’s no terror, and no need for trillion-dollar programs to stop it.  The President, however, presented us with a plan to deal with the other component, the terror act itself.  He said we’re going to stop terror by killing terrorists. There are some ideas so stupid that it’s hard to deal with them rationally, and this is one of them: that defeating a religio-ethnic insurgency in Afghanistan has something to do with preventing murderous nuts from driving cars into crowds, setting off bombs, shooting up restaurants, and stabbing pedestrians in American cities.The basis for this belief is that once upon a time, a serious terror attack, 9/11, was conceived by a bearded fanatic resident in that unfortunate nation. To believe that terrorism requires havens you have to forget all the undoubted terrorist actors, from the Black Hand and the Molly McGuires way back at the turn of the twentieth century up to Carlos the Jackal, the Italian Brigada Rossa, the Japanese Red Army, the Baader-Meinhoff gang, and the American Weathermen, all of whom committed terror acts withoutsafe havens far away. Come to that, 9/11 itself was largely planned in Hamburg and Laurel, MD, the latter in a motel that sat a long fly ball away from NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade. 

So if the safe-haven claim is as much nonsense as Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, why are we trying to defeat the Taliban? The President says we are no longer in the nation building business, so we shouldn’t care how the Afghans are ruled. Yes, the Taliban are religious fanatics who oppress women, but so are our wonderful pals, the Saudis, who do more to foment Islamic fanaticism than any other nation. If we can work with the Saudis, surely we can work with the Taliban. As I listened to the speech, I kept wondering why the three smart generals who now effectively run our national foreign affairs are going this route. The only thing I can come up with is that they’re trying to lay the ghost of Vietnam, to finally get counter-insurgency right, to at last win those hearts and minds and pull off a victory and show that they’re better men than their dads. They’ve convinced the President to flip on his oft-stated contempt for the Afghan adventure and thus betray his America First constituents, I suppose in hopes that a successful military campaign will be a win for him, where no others seem likely just now. That really doesn’t matter, though. What does matter, is where Mr Trump declares that he is essentially giving carte blanche to his generals, ceding civilian control of war, and “changing the rules of engagement.”

What can this mean, in practice? It might mean just trying to use the military’s new counter-insurgency doctrine, although why they think an additional few thousand troops will succeed where a hundred-thousand did not some years ago is a mystery. I don’t often agree with Edward Luttwak, but I think his description of counter-insurgency as military malpractice is just right. There is nothing nice an occupying force can do that can counter-balance the insult of foreign troops stomping around. We build schools and dig wells; the insurgents come back at night, cut the schoolteacher’s throat and throw the corpse down the well. (Nor is the current successful campaign against ISIS in Iraq at all generalizable to Afghanistan. ISIS is an alien force, based on foreign fighters, fanatic Sunnis in a largely Shi’ite land, with no important popular support. The Taliban, in contrast, are in the Pashtun mainstream. Their religion is alien, true, but they are deeply of the Afghan soil and stand for the long Afghan tradition of resenting foreigners.)

But it could mean something far more dire, because, really, we know very well how to defeat insurgencies. Empires have been defeating insurgencies since forever.  The ever-available riposte to insurgency is genocide. Mao famously pointed out that the guerrilla is the fish and the people are the water. The occupying power needs merely to drain the water and the fish become easy targets. Rome knew how to make a desolation and call it peace; no rebellion against the established empire ever succeeded. More recently, the US Army suppressed the Philippine Insurrection around 1900 by killing or causing the death of about one third of the population of Luzon. Around the same time, the British in South Africa crushed the Boer resistance by literally removing the non-combatant population into the first “concentration camps.”  As already noted, the great dictators of the 20th century were untroubled by terrorists, because they killed, tortured and imprisoned without limit. Sadly, atrocity works, and the only interesting question now is are we going to try it too?

The first hint will be seen in how the military treats the press. That the President did not reveal how many troops he is adding, and his boast that he is not going to supply that information, stands as a bad sign. What if we get no news from Afghanistan?  We may say, the generals may say, that we are not that sort of people, but, of course, both My Lai and Abu Graib show that we are just that sort of people, given a dehumanized enemy, impunity from the laws of war, and what the Nazis called night and fog—the secrecy that made mass slaughter possible. One may argue that it is not 1900 anymore nor 1942, that the world has changed, that we don’t do colonial brutality any more, that there are international norms now that all decent nations respect. Maybe so, but it hasn’t been a great eight months for norms. I hope a modern hope here, that it all ends in mere stupidity,