Thursday, May 25, 2006


Begs to Differ has suggested that I blog on terrorism. I have been meaning to for some time in part because my MIT professor Noam Chomsky has claimed (not necessarily his exact words) that America is the greatest terrorist nation in the world. This sort of claim would typically be greeted with outrage by Americans but, given how he means it, his claim is one that deserves serious consideration.

There are at least two relevant terms, terrorism and terrorist in evaluating Chomsky's view. The Merriam-Webster OnLine dictionary "defines" terrorism as "the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion." It doesn't define "terrorist." Answers.com "defines" terrorism as follows: "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." Answers.com sees a terrorist as "One that engages in acts or an act of terrorism." You who have been following this blog know that dictionaries do not actually define words but are at best guides to usage but that's what we actually want here.

In the "definition" of terrorism Answers.com speaks of the acts as being "unlawful" We might go a step further and say that terrorist organizations are unlawful in that they are not established via any conventional legal process such as being created by a recognized political state. In any event, I shall take the position that any military or extra-military organization is capable of committing acts of terrorism without being terrorist organizations per se. In fact, my morning paper reports that the US military is investigating a Marine unit's alleged unprovoked killings (see the National/International section) of civilians. This is little different, assuming this event happened, from an extra-legal Palestinian organization using a suicide bomber to kill civilians in Israel. The deaths are as real. The actions are equally illegal by all normal standards of judgment (remember that the US military is investigating the case). And the actions were directed at civilians or noncombatants, a term I prefer to use.

The terrorist organizations we normally think of -- Al Queda, Hamas, the IRA, etc. -- come into being because they cannot field conventional armies to do battle. Al Queda was formed in part out of the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan. The latter were a military organization of the revolutionary sort and they fought the Russian military directly. Al Queda is incapable of fighting the US military in a similar way (except for occasional skirmishes in Afghanistan and allegedly also in Iraq). So, it resorted to the use of suicide pilots and crews to hijack and then fly airplanes containing noncombatants into buildings containing noncombatants, at least in the case of the WTC attacks. And, had Hamas or the PLO tried to form a conventional army to attack Israel, Israel would have nipped such actions in the bud with pre-emptive attacks. So, if they are to fight against Israel, one of their most effective methods is to use terrorist attacks on noncombatants such as shelling noncombatants from outside Israel or use of bombs planted in Israel or carried in by suicide bombers. The point would presumably be to convince the people to pressure the government to find some accommodation with the Palestinian people. Now that Hamas is a part of that government. the issues have become more complicated.

The US and British forces during WW2 were not above the use of terror. The Brits firebombed Dresden in a clear attempt to kill civilians and scare hell out of those not killed. And the US dropped two A-bombs on cities in Japan in a clear attempt to kill civilians and scare the hell out of those not killed. These were terrorist acts by anyone's criteria. So, in the case of the US, we have a history of occasional deliberate attacks by our conventional military forces on noncombatants either at the direction of its leaders (the two A-Bombs) or as extra-legal acts by rogue military units.

Chomsky takes the position that the motives of any government or extra-legal organization in taking action against others are irrelevant to evaluating the morality of the actions since every such group has motives it views as lofty. The Palestinian-Israeli case provides a perfect example of the futility of evaluating motives for each side can make a credible case at least from the perspective of outsiders. Instead of looking at motives, Chomsky would argue we should look at the results. In the case of terrorism, we look at whether or not the actions taken kill noncombatants and/or scare hell out of (i. e., terrorize) noncombatants.

Taking this view, we must look at US bombing campaigns of the last three Administrations. We have killed noncombatants in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan and perhaps other places. In the case of the first Iraq war, perhaps because it knew that the press was taking a close look at the killings of noncombatants, the military emphasized how "smart" its weapons were. We were given show and tell movies to prove the point but after the war it turns out that the smart weapons were, in general, not as smart as advertised. In any event, in the current Iraq war, the US has killed many noncombatants and by normal legal standards, given that this war was built on a fabric of Administration lies, misrepresentations, and factual mistakes, we are arguably responsible for any deaths of noncombatants on analogy with the notion of "being an accessory to murder." If we hadn't started this damn war, none of these people would have been killed, at least not in the way they were. So, arguably we are responsible for them all.

In any event, knowing that many will not accept my "accessory to murder" argument, let us just consider deaths of noncombatants by US military actions whether deliberate (rare, I would think or hope) or not. Tote up the deaths of noncombatants in the current Iraq war. Add them to similar such deaths in Afghanistan. Add them to those of the previous Iraq war. Add the results to deaths in former Yugoslavia. When you add all these deaths up, it is clear that no organization of any sort has killed as many noncombatants as the US during this time period. One reason is that we fight more wars than anyone else -- an odd sort of thing for a peace-loving nation to do . In some of these cases, we probably did intend to scare hell out of noncombatants in an effort to coerce them into causing a change of government. My memory is dimming but I believe that was the point of our bombing in Yugoslavia Minor (what's left of the original). And, it worked. Milosovic was eventually booted out. Keeping this murderous bastard around was getting too costly.

I am uncomfortable with Chomsky's claim that the US is the greatest terrorist nation in the world since it depends on twisting the notion of "terrorist"about 90 degrees for most alleged "terrorist" acts were not done specifically to terrorize and/or kill noncombatants. However, like the deadly side-effects of certain medicines, the side-effects of our military actions have been to terrorize and/or kill noncombatants whether these effects were deliberate or not. For this reason, we must be very careful about going to war against anyone to make sure that the side-effects on noncombatants are justified by the positive effects of taking action and negative effects of not doing so. The Bush Administration appears to have considered only the positive effects of invading Iraq and vastly over-rated those while lying or misrepresenting the evils of Saddam in defense of its actions. For this reason, I see their engagement in Iraq as so irresponsible as to be borderline criminal.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

In any event, knowing that many will not accept my "accessory to murder" argument, let us just consider deaths of noncombatants by US military actions whether deliberate (rare, I would think or hope) or not.

This would normally be the case but if the good guys knew that you or people like you were in the line of fire I think exceptions might occur.

9:47 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The terrorist organizations we normally think of -- Al Queda, Hamas, the IRA, etc. -- come into being because they cannot field conventional armies to do battle."

It is true that a belligerent may employ terrorist methods because of an inability to oppose their enemy by conventional means. But this is not the only reason a terrorist organization might spring into being. There is nothing to preclude any force with substantial conventional capability from employing terrorism to augment more conventional methods. This can occur when such a nation foments a proxy war, where terrorist tactics are used. Such an approach might be employed for a number of reasons: the terrorist attacks can be used to directly intimidate and coerce, but they can also be used to tie up forces, create political problems, cause economic damage, etc. Oh, and they can just be a lot cheaper than conventional warfare. The larger point is that, while the proxy war/terrorist methodology creates direct violence against victim nations, the larger powers can use it to discommode and manipulate each other while avoiding direct contact.

12:36 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I actually mentioned the mixture of terror with conventional warfare in the case of the Dresden raid and the A-bombing of two Japanese cities.

From descriptions by soldiers who fought in Vietnam, napalm is a terrorist instrubment since it entails causing people to burn alive, something most people react in horror to.

There is an irony in having rules of war that, say, outlaw use of biological and chemical weapons. If one's nation's life is at stake, why would you hold back from using what ever you have? I suspect that Israel if attacked nuclearly by Iran would destroy every Arab state it could with its nukes.

9:41 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You did indeed reference the mixture of terror and conventional warfare. I apologize if it seems I was implying otherwise. I just wanted to highlight the relationship.

Regarding your point that a nation would use all means at one's disposal when it's very survival is at stake, you may very well be familiar with Clausewitz, who makes a similar point. In "On War" he describes the nature of war, starting from a kind of Kantian logical framework where he tries to describe war in terms of an idealized phenomenon (ideal meaning something like "pure for purposes of logical analysis", not "desirable"). Anyway, he says that, in it's idealized state, war must always tend towards extremes--toward total warfare. In such cases, all means must be employed in the struggle with the enemy. And employing all possible means must necessarily include the deliberate employment of terror to its utmost.

Having discussed war from this framework, he points out that it is logically contradictory for a nation to do less than its utmost, and so he sets out to try to explain why this total warfare does not always occur in reality. Thinking from his Kantian framework, it certainly does seem ironic, if not downright surprising, that we make any effort at all to constrain ourselves from the use of all effective means at our disposal--from the use of biological and chemical weapons, to use your examples.

He goes on to point out that war never actually occurs in the idealized state. Rather, it occurs in a political context. ("War is the extension of politics by other means"). It is the influence of the political context on warfare that allows the explanation to emerge as to why we constrain ourselves in conflict, and why war doesn't always proceed to the extremes of total warfare. We begin then to see why limited warfare is even logically possible.

Historically, in fact, there have been many periods during which limited warfare has been the dominant form of warfare. During the age before Napoleon, warfare in Europe was generally engaged in on a limited basis. Much of Napoleon's success, I would venture, might be attributed to the fact that he switched the paradigm by overwhelming his opponents with something closer to total warfare, and they were not able to adapt. In the last century, we saw two world wars that have approached the extreme of total warfare. Lately we seem to be in a period where we once again expect wars to be limited.

While it does seem preferable to only engage in limited wars, with limited destruction and loss of life, it is important to recognize the danger that a war of limited aims will not remain limited. It is delusional to believe that a war must remain limited even though its original aims are limited. My impression, from hearing people talk, from the newspapers and television, etc., is that our society tends to believe that we can safely engage in wars of limited aims and not have to worry about whether the conflict will escalate towards the extreme of total warfare. We think of wars being "over there", but the enemy must necessarily seek to bring the war "over here". Terrorism is one way they can do that.

Whenever we voluntarily engage in war--even a presumably just one--even a war of limited aims--there will always be a strong tendency for the war to escalate towards the extremes--in the direction of total warfare. And as it does, we are more likely to seek the means to shed our constraints and to make virtues of those things that seem so abhorrent to us now. In such cases, even nations will torture, if only because they must. They will kill civilians and terrorize all.

When we speak of this country, or that country, being too honest or decent to fight in this way, I find that highly doubtful. It is true that a civilized nation may be more likely to constrain itself as long as the situations remains limited, but it does not seem likely to me that their military organizations would not make provisions for their own ability to wage terror for at least some of their scenarios. You have certainly provided historical examples of where the allied forces did just that during WWII.

One question that seems to me to remain is, how does this or that country--the US, for example--actually behave in its more limited conflicts. Does it, in truth, refrain from terrorist activities? This point certainly has been debated, and will continue to be debated for a long time to come, I would expect.

Another question is more along ethical lines, and is perhaps more relevant to this post: If we accept that war tends to procede to the extremes--that a war of limited aims will tend towards total warfare, and therefore towards a war in which we ourselves must employ all means, including terror--is it enough to use "forseeable consequences" as the basis for differentiating between terrorist warfare and non-terrorist warfare? Is it not foreseeable that all war may drive us to commit terrorist acts?

(I am not so much arguing the last point, as advancing the question.)

11:55 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is a thought that was running through my mind last night:

Imagine a two belligerent forces: the Blue Force and the Red Force.

The Blue Force has a policy of deliberately aiming only for military targets, but is able to foresee that they might directly cause as many as 5,000 civilian deaths if the war goes as expected during the planned campaign.

The Red Force, by contrast, has a policy of deliberately targeting civilians, and can foresee that they will probably kill on the order of 2,000 non-combatants.

It seems to me that, in such a(n admittedly artificial) scenario, if we are throwing out intention as a criteria for assigning culpability, we end up saying that the Red Force is more just than the Blue Force. That is because we have chosen not to assign any blame to the Red Force on the grounds that they intentionally aim to kill civilians; we can only blame them for the numbers that they could foresee that they would kill. And they were able to reasonably suppose that they would kill far fewer non-combatants than the Blue Force.

Is there something missing here?

12:29 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

It seems to me that the people who are in a position to create a war or wage one, treat it more like a game of chess then anything involving real people.
In their case the winners get to decide who the terrorists are.

I think the best 'judges' of a war would be the civilians.

8:05 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

ptarmigan raises an interesting question but I think there is an resolution to the apparent problem. If a country knows that its operations are likely to kill 5,000 people accidentally but goes ahead, that would be the legal equivalent of a willful disregard for human life and be a candidate for voluntary manslaughter if not worse. Their continuing their war policy knowing this level of death would happen would be cynical.

I think the military has a good idea how likely it is that a bombing raid will lead to strikes on homes, hospitals, and other buildings occupied by noncombatants. And, added to that, there will be misstakes, as in the bombing raid in Yugoslavia that hit the Chinese embassy.

This illustrates why Chomsky's approach is valid -- for the Blue Force is cynically proceeding with its campaign knowning what the consequences will be. This hardly puts them in a superior moral position.

In both Iraq wars, the Iraqi government put military assets (say, command structures or military communications hubs) in civilian sections so as to force the US either not to bomb them or to risk killing concombatants. The latter would allow Iraq to trumpet our killing of innocent people. That too is cyncial and if the war were just -- the second one being quite unjust, IMO -- I would go ahead and bomb the structures. The deaths would be on the Iraqi's heads, not ours.

8:53 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Under what circumstances in war is culpability legitimately transferable? And when is it not?

12:14 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

There is a clear distinction between commission of X (lie) and omission of Y (truth), as when the makers of a dangerous product may not lie about its defects but simply fail to note them, as has happened many times -- cigarettes being the most notorious case) that applies as well to political acts. The attack on the Serbs in Bosnia was an act of commission which, IMO but not that of Hugh) was correct whereas the failure to act decisively in cases in Africa constitutes immorality on the rest of the world through omission.

In a case like Iraq, it seems to me that the economic notion of cost vs benefit must apply. We (certainly I and others) recognized what the cost would be better than Bush et al did. A civil war was totally predictable and that is what we have. Handing over the country to the Iraqi military would simply mean that we have trained the troops that will splinter off into sectarian militias. As it is they may already be complicit in the acts of reprisal by Shiites and attacks by now powerless Sunnis against Shiites.

The cost in lives, Allied and Iraqi, and treasure, ours and Iraqi (since their piplelines are constantly attacked), greatly outmeasures the benefits (deposing Saddam being the only one so far). If the Bush Administration's leading lights -- Wolfowitz, Pearl, Cheney, etc. had not wanted to clean up Daddy Bush's alleged mess, a thorn in Baby Bush's foot, and to impose democracy to make the world, mostly Israel, safe we would be living in a better world.

9:31 AM

Blogger Steve Hayes said...

My ancient Oxford Concise Dictionary defines terrorist as "One who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of governing or of coercing government or community".

"Shock and awe" just about covers it.

6:59 AM


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