From the caves to the capitals: who are the terrorists?
My brain is, as they say, fried. And I am only one day into a five day stint of 36 hours of lecturing. The first casualty is sleep. The second is my voice. Alas, the third is the snappy and penetrating blogging which more than a dozen people spanning the globe have taken to reading.
With that in mind today I offer an article which really consists of a question: with Osama deep-sixed in the ocean, what exactly is “terrorism”? More particularly, when do states engage in acts of terrorism? Was the infamous Allied firebombing of Dresden an act of terrorism? With more than one hundred thousand civilians massacred in a civilian area with these targeted bombings, doesn’t that make Winston Churchill (among others) a terrorist whose name should live in ignominy? Or does the fact that (a) you have an urbane, cultured wit, a big cigar, and a glass of port, (b) your soldiers wear uniforms and (c) they come backed by a government, place your actions in a different category?
What about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that happened under the watch of Harry Truman? Would we share the sentiment of Paul Fussell’s essay “Thank God for the Atom Bomb” which offered a defense of these actions against two civilian populations without a blush or an ironic twist?
And let us not think that terrorism is about killing masses of people. Terrorism is about the psychological demoralization of a population. So what about acts undertaken by governments to invoke “shock and awe” against civilian populations in our own day even where the (direct) number of casualties is relatively low? Is the branding of “shock and awe” to be understood as the gaping wonder of a family watching a Fourth of July fireworks show replete with dancing pinwheels in the sky? Or is it to be understood as people fleeing their homes in horror as the only life they have known is turned to rubble? And if the latter, why is that not terrorism?
As I return to teach my course, forgive the naive questions of a Baptist as yet still unsullied by the jaded cynicism of realpolitik. But any moderately self-reflective denizen of the enlightened and democratic West must ask the question: when does a war on terror become a war on one’s own society?