Terry Adams wrote a really good overview of the Glenn Greenwald-Andrew Sullivan debate about the definition of terrorism, Aren’t Religion and Politics Both to Blame for War on Terror? Although he tries to be scrupulously fair, I’m afraid he comes down pretty far on the Greenwald side.
This reminds me very much of the left-right economic debate in this country. On the left, we say that economic stimulus is not often that effective in helping the economy. Basically, it is only useful when the economy is in a liquidity trap and that’s only happened twice in the last century: first during the Great Depression and second now. This is not a radical theory. But on the right, the argument is rigid and extreme: stimulus never works. In this case, you have one side (the left’s) that is simply the consensus view that pretty much everyone who isn’t a ideologically dogmatic to the conservative cause agrees with. People who try to split the difference are just showing their ignorance.
In this terrorism debate we get much the same thing. On the left, we say that American foreign policy is a large part of cause of terrorism. When we bomb innocent civilians (accidental though it may be), we create enemies and make the people far more receptive to radical ideologies like martyrdom and jihad. This isn’t to excuse the behavior or to say that this is the sole cause. Just as with the economic stimulus example, this is a nuanced position. On the right, we get Andrew Sullivan screaming that any notion of causation in terrorism is a form of apologia. And what’s more that there is something special about Islam that makes it a violent religion.
I think what lies beneath this fight is really the ideology of what we wish to do. Greenwald and I would like to see the United States stop propping up dictators and trying to bomb our way to victory in the War on Terror With No Name. On the right they would like to see American hegemony throughout the Middle East. I’m sure that we on the left could be somewhat clearer about our aims. But on the right, I’m not even sure they are honest with themselves. Instead of admitting to their imperialistic goals, they claim that terrorism represents some kind of existential threat to the country. But as bad as 9/11 was, it was not an existential threat. And it is by far the worst we’ve seen.
The American people should be offered a clear and honest alternative. Do we want to be an imperialistic meddler all over the world? This has the upside that our corporations have great access to cheap resources and labor. And the people get the benefit of slightly cheaper prices. But the down side is that the War on Terror With No Name goes on forever while the threat only increases. Or do we want to be more modest in our conception of our national interests? This has the upside that it will cause fewer American and foreign deaths. But the downside is that corporate profits will be slightly lower and manufactured goods will be slightly more expensive.
I think that Americans are at heart a “live and let live” kind of people. I think that they would be horrified to get a good look at what our government does on our behalf. But maybe I’m wrong. The only way we can know is if the media start telling the truth. And the first step in that endeavor is to get rid of narrative that terrorism is an existential threat to the country and that the War on Terror With No Name is not about keeping America safe.