Sunday, January 22

Dehumanizing the Enemy

This week a new recorded message from Osama bin Laden warned of coming terrorist attacks, but offered a conditional “truce” with the people of the United States of America, if the United States withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration has given its stock response: “We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

I think the United States might have reached a place where as a nation we no longer possess the moral authority to attach the terrorist label to others without taking a closer look at our own policies and actions. Some would argue that Al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency deserve to be labeled terrorists because they kill innocent civilians. So do we. They torture. So do we. Yet we feel our use of violence is both justified and justifiable, while theirs is neither justified nor justifiable. I make that distinction because the United States claims the exclusive right not only to commit violence, but to justify those violent acts. Whereas, when we look upon the violent acts of others, like Al Qaeda and the insurgents in Iraq, we do not say merely that their reasons for committing violent acts are bad reasons. By labeling them terrorists we deny them the right to offer any reasons at all. With the terrorist label comes the implicit assumption that there is no right reason that they could ever offer under any circumstances whatsoever.

And that is the correct position only if one applies that prohibition to oneself. One cannot justify one’s own violent acts, but not allow others the opportunity to justify theirs. That is intellectually dishonest and unethical. I concede that it is sometimes possible for one to claim that some violent acts are justified and others not depending on the particular circumstances, but only if one believes that all violence is potentially justifiable regardless of who commits it. In other words, one can listen to another’s reasons for committing violence and declare those reasons unsound; but the other side has at least been allowed to offer a defense, even if it’s a bad one, and that defense is then judged on its own merits. What is unethical is defending one’s own violent deeds (we’re fighting the War on Terror, we were attacked on 9/11, etc.) while claiming a priori that the violent deeds of others are always illegitimate under any circumstances (they’re terrorists). Either all violence is justifiable or none of it is. My own views tend to gravitate to the latter.

The United States maintains that there is no right reason Al Qaeda could ever give for attacking us. Affording them the right to defend their actions will seem to many (or most) like blasphemy, ridiculous and seditious in the extreme. Perhaps it will seem as if I’m siding with the terrorists. I am not. Nor am I defending Al Qaeda’s actions. Only a deliberate misreading of this post could cause one to reach that conclusion. I won’t defend the violent actions of the United States, so I would hardly turn around and defend the murderous actions of Al Qaeda.

This post is not about defending terrorists. Rather, I am questioning those who live in a conceptual universe in which the United States is the only nation on the planet (except for maybe Israel) that has permission to commit acts of violence. If one finds preposterous the mere suggestion that Al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgents might have a legitimate reason for committing acts of violence against us, then why is it not also preposterous for us to come up with reasons for our violent acts? Why are we allowed to give a reason while they are not? Is it because we’re the United States, and they’re barbarians? Is it because we have too readily swallowed whole the rhetoric that “they hate us because we’re free?” To those who subscribe to that notion, I ask only this: Are you sure that’s why they hate us?

Do we deny Al Qaeda the right to justify their violent deeds because we fear that they just might have a good reason for wanting to attack us at home and overseas? We think our reasons for waging war are pretty good. Maybe they are. But Al Qaeda and the terrorists think their reasons are also pretty good. Are we so sure that those whom Al Qaeda represents have not a single legitimate grievance? Or do we feel that their grievances are invalid because of the tactics they employ? If so, why are our grievances not invalidated by our tactics? Moreover, is our track record at home and abroad so spotless that we can rightfully claim to have reached a place where we no longer need to look critically at our actions? Are we so sure of the purity and rightness of our aims in Iraq and the Middle East?

It’s easy to dismiss Osama bin Laden as a dangerous fanatic. He is. However, it’s not so easy to dismiss the fact that we encouraged bin Laden’s fanaticism when it suited our interests, such as when we aided Islamic militants in Afghanistan in their fight against the former Soviet Union as part of our strategy in the 1980s for winning the Cold War. Likewise, it is not so easy to dismiss the notion that our Middle Eastern foreign policy is blind to everything but our own commercial and military interests. For the sake of our interests we willingly support corrupt and oppressive regimes, like the one in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia, which seeks to gain legitimacy among its own people by supporting the very terrorists that wage war on one of their greatest allies, the United States. That’s pretty fucked up if you ask me.

It seems to me that the Bush administration’s “no negotiation with terrorists” policy is part of its larger strategy of dehumanizing our enemies. In other wars, enemies have come to the table to negotiate with one another, or agreed to submit to some kind of arbitration. But, as I have said in other posts, everyone agrees that the War on Terror is not like other wars. And it’s not that we won’t come to the table with Al Qaeda because the War on Terror is not like other wars. The War on Terror is not like other wars because, among other reasons, we won’t come to the table with Al Qaeda. For that reason, the conflict is likely to continue indefinitely. One thing is for sure though; our refusal to grant Al Qaeda the legitimacy afforded conventional enemies in wars past does not rob it of its legitimacy amongst those thousands of potential recruits who believe in its mission.


Blogger The Persian said...

well, I read this whole post yesterday and had to think about things a while. I understand many of your excellent points, however I very much think Al Qaeda is a weak example to illustrate the main arguements set forth in this post. I am not trying to disagree with you, I believe that the USA does make attempts to remove credibility from it's "enemies" by labeling them in a way which will neither allow their voice nor ideals to be heard. However Al Qaeda is in my opinion one of the few who does not deserve to be heard, not after the senseless intentional incidents of 911, and not after constant threats of something similar. They must learn that this type of attack will not be tolerated, and cannot be used as a bargaining tool. Perhaps this will be to our detriment in the end (look how many we lose daily), but there can be no other way.

Excellent post.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Sandouri Dean Bey said...

first off, thanks for commenting. because this is such a difficult topic, i want to try to respond to each comment individually, though honestly, i don't expect many. i don't think anyone wants to touch this one, which is why i am grateful for your willingness to share your own thoughts on this. your openness is much appreciated.

i tend to think that from a purely ethical point of view (putting aside realpolitik for a moment), neither side has a right to justify its violent acts. in other words, i don't know that violence is ever justifiable. however, if we reserve the right to justify our deeds, then so do they. let's call this the "justifiability rule" (i.e. if our acts are justifiable, then so are theirs). you clearly reject that premise, but only by making an assumption about al qaeda's exceptionalism.

if we think that their deeds are so heinous so as to render them an exception to the "justifiability rule," perhaps we need to look more closely at our deeds. now, i'm not at all saying that the acts of al qaeda aren't heinous. they are. but so are ours. your reference to "the sensless intentional incidents of 911" really struck a chord with me, because i think that from the perspective of those who have been victimized by the united states, our deeds seem just as bad. and the response cannot simply be, "yes, but we have a good reason for doing what we do..." in other words, remembering your own visceral reaction to 911, try to imagine what our deeds look like to someone who has been on the wrong end of american military might or political interference.

we feel we're the victims. they feel they are. in reality, both sides are victims. we suffered a great loss on 911. however, the people of the middle east have certainly suffered as a result of western imperialism and economic exploitation. and yet, we still don't feel that this gives them the right to commit acts of violence. but we claim that our status as victims gives us that right. why is that?

our gut reaction to the suggestion that al qaeda has a right to defend its actions is to think such a proposition is absurd, and it is absurd. which is why it's also absurd to claim that right for ourselves. but if we absurdly reserve the right to commit and justify violent acts, then the only intellectually honest and ethical response is to recognize that others also possess that right. it is for precisely this reason that violence always breeds more violence and creates an endless cycle of recrimination.

so (in summary) if i've understood your comment correctly, jim, you seem to be saying that, while you agree with me in principle, al qaeda is different. i myself am not so sure that we're any different than al qaeda. i hate having to feel that way. but our nation's actions (and i'm not just talking about the gulf wars) leave me deeply troubled and more than a little ashamed.

if your'e interested, i'm happy to chat more about this. you should feel free to email me at aman.yala [at] gmail [dot] com.

and thanks again for your comments. you've given me something to think about. i hope we're still cyberfriends :)

12:09 PM  

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