Georgie Anne Geyer

Three Years Later, We Struggle to Define 'Terrorism'

WASHINGTON -- Curious, isn't it, that after three years of George W.'s grandiose "war against terrorism," we as a nation of thinkers, voters and activists are just getting 'round to defining exactly what "terrorism" is?

To the Bush administration, terrorism is like a fearsome minotaur or dragon, a creature infused with evil so pure there can be no qualifying (and, thus, resolve-weakening) characteristics.

But there was another important element that distanced one from critical thought: The terrorists, the Bush war party repeated ad nauseum, hate us not for anything we have done, but because of all the liberty-loving, truth-trumpeting things we are. These rationales have led the Manicheans and Hobbesians among the Bushies to attack John Kerry as (in terms I've heard recently among them) "Senator Complexity" and "Senor Sensitive" and "Mr. Morose." When you recover from such cleverness, you find that these attacks on the Massachusetts senator are being deliberately orchestrated because he strives to see terrorism and terrorists as the complicated, contradictory phenomena they really are.

"First, it must be understood that terrorism is a method and not an ideology," Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke write in "America Alone: The Neo-Conservatives and the Global Order," their splendid new book giving a rich background on these areas of thought. "Terrorism neither occurs in a vacuum, nor is it generally the product of outside agitation or imported ideologies ... Placed in a political context, there can be no military conclusion to a counterterrorist campaign. Even former terrorists agree that the only way to fight terrorism is to address the problems that have motivated their actions."

Or, to cite another recent book, "Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror," by a famously "Anonymous" prominent CIA analyst: The Muslim world sees Osama bin Laden not as the terrorist of the West's perverted perception, but as a holy defender of the Koran, a "bandit hero challenging authority and eluding capture" and part of the "continuum of Islamic history."

Far from fearing American law enforcement, these radical Islamists will only be "amused by hearing Washington piously warn that the end of the jihad road is trial and prison ... Bin Laden believes he is abiding by the spirit and letter of the law -- as Anglo-Saxons might say -- revealed by Allah and explained by His prophet ..." Or, in bin Laden's own words: "Law is not what man has made. Law is that which Allah has given."

Of course, understanding their thinking does not mean forgiving what they have done; nor does it mean succumbing passively to their very real violence.

It does mean -- as John Kerry is trying to tell us -- that we must understand the wellsprings of their actions, that we must differentiate those insurgents or militants who can be saved by changes in policy, and that we must above all not drive those insurgents into the arms of religious fanatics.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what we are doing.

Two case studies:

-- Take Fallujah in the now infamous Sunni Triangle near Baghdad. Under President Bush's policy of wiping out all "terrorists" because they hate us for being so nice, American troops attacked the city for weeks last spring. At that point, it was run by remnants of Saddam's old Baath Party, men who were willing to "make a deal." But they left, and Fallujah has become a hotbed of the most radical Islamists.

"The war there has now shifted base from the Baath Party, which still operates within the framework of the state, to religious elements, which do not," William S. Lind of the Free Congress Foundation, and one of the era's great military analysts, wrote recently. "So now, instead of the Baath, what we face in Fallujah is a genuinely dangerous opponent, its ideology not Saddam but Allah ... If that is George Bush's definition of victory, it would be interesting to know what he would consider a defeat."

-- Or take the remarkably parallel case in Russia last week. When radical Chechen rebels, reliably reported to be backed by extreme foreign al-Qaida-like terrorists, took over the school in Beslan, it was clear there had been a turn from the past, politically motivated, Chechen violence to a new terrorism without end. Soon it will be too late for any "deal" there, as well.

Historians would point out how much this ominous development resembles Russian history before the Russian Revolution of 1917. A chap named Sergey Nechayev developed a new form of Russian terrorism. His group was called the "Society of the Axe" or the "People's Retribution," which became known for killing its own in orgies of nihilistic violence. He became Dostoyevsky's anti-hero in "The Possessed."

This may be the way the world is going -- and the way the American presence in Iraq is leading it. In Russia, the leadership, having destroyed all the moderate leaders, says there are no moderate leaders left to negotiate; in Israel, the Sharonists, having successfully radicalized the Palestinian leadership, say the same thing. Will we end up the same way in Iraq -- and God only knows where else?

In every situation where nations have been successful in putting down guerrilla insurgencies that could have reached the point of no return, they co-opted those with genuine political demands and separated them from the Nechayevs, who must always be exiled, imprisoned or destroyed.

That, to me, is all that John Kerry is averring. He's saying that we must deal with the complexities because otherwise, we won't be able to deal at all -- the situation will be too radicalized. Yet that is the road that George W. Bush continues down, stubbornly and inexorably.

We know he has us in Iraq and the impasse that is Fallujah. Are we heading toward more Beslans as well?

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