Understanding the ‘war on terrorism’

Mary Midgley
24 October 2002

Do we fully understand the danger of metaphors? What is a war on terrorism?

Some wars are metaphorical – war on want, war on cancer or poverty or drugs or crime. Others are real ones, fought with bombs against actual foreign countries. For the first sort of war, you don’t need bombs. Actually these ‘wars’ could just as well be called cures or remedies for poverty or want or whatever. But which kind is a war against terrorism?

The elusiveness of the terrorist

‘Terrorism’ itself is surely an abstraction. It’s a name for a kind of insurrectionary damage which people who are otherwise powerless use against established governments when they don’t see any more straightforward way of resisting them.

In essence this way of fighting is very old. It used to be known as guerrilla warfare in honour of the Spaniards, who used it to great effect against Napoleon. But up-to-date technology has now revolutionised guerrilla warfare, turning it into something much more sinister and alarming.

This change was pioneered by various nationalist movements rebelling against colonial powers after the Second World War. Among the earliest of these were the Israelis, blowing up hotels to get rid of the British. They were soon followed by the Algerians developing nail-bombs to get rid of the French, and then by the IRA, the Basque separatists and many other eager learners. By now there have been so many exponents that the techniques are available everywhere. Any group can use them, if they get sufficiently angry.

Many such groups, too, have been successful and have finally formed governments themselves. Rebels such as Nehru and Mandela, who in early life were outcasts accused of terrorism, have later become deeply respected statesmen. In short, it is now notorious that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The view we take of these people often depends on our view of the cause served.

All the major powers today have, in their time, supported some insurrectionists who used methods that they would count as terrorism elsewhere. Indeed, Osama bin Laden’s group itself is left-over business from that habit. Many of its fighters were originally funded and trained by the CIA as freedom-fighters against the Russians, and were then dropped when their help was no longer needed.

In fact, the world is not conveniently divided into the good and the bad – the white hats and the black ones. All this just compounds the difficulty that governments have always found about resisting guerrilla warfare. It is like trying to swat a swarm of wasps. You may get some satisfaction out of killing a few of them, but you are merely irritating the rest and the disturbance that you make is always liable to bring in new ones.

The trouble is that terrorists do not compose a coherent nation that can be conquered. Everywhere, they are a symptom of underlying discontent. So this discontent is surely the topic on which governments need to concentrate if they want to control the symptom. Thus the question, “Why do they hate us so much?” – a question which people in the United States are now asking themselves – is not just a rhetorical complaint. It’s a query which faces every imperial power sooner or later, one which has to be taken seriously and answered.

Terrorists are not isolated destructive individuals. Unless there is a fair mass of discontented people in the background to support them, even the most destructive individuals cannot usually raise the background resources that they need to do serious harm. They also greatly need moral support – a community that shares their aims. Even Timothy McVeigh, the apparently solitary Oklahoma bomber, was not really isolated. He belonged to the bizarre Survivalist movement that flourishes in redneck America – a sect of extreme libertarians who collect arms and raise militias because they regard the central government as an enemy who has sold out to an alien power called the United Nations. In short, they hate their own country.

The existence of this sect seems in itself to be rather alarming, whether it blows people up or not, and something probably needs to be done about it. (Incidentally, these people’s presence should probably be remembered in current scares about anthrax and other diseases). But it would surely not have made much sense to declare a war on Timothy McVeigh, even if he were still at large, nor to pursue his co-religionists with cruise missiles.

Literal or metaphorical war?

What, then, can governments afflicted with this kind of trouble do about it?

There really does not seem to be any short cut available here. Colonial powers always found it hugely difficult to believe this – to accept that there was not some simple, drastic step which would promptly rid them of the plague. They kept thinking that, if only they were firmer, these people would surely go away. They believed themselves to be benign rulers, and when that idea faltered they could fall back on the thought (articulated here by Hilaire Belloc) which had sustained them when they acquired their empires:

“The great thing is that we have got The Maxim Gun, and they have not”.

So, after each attack, they shifted into an increasingly warlike state of mind. Instead of negotiating with the more moderate of those who wanted change, they concentrated on retribution and deterrence and did not think very much about the further provocation they were giving. This meant that they were constantly adding to the number of their enemies.

They fought long rearguard actions which deeply embittered their relations with the emerging populations who had already had enough of them. For a long time it does not seem to have struck them that terrorism is a hydra which grows ten new heads for every one that you cut off – that people who are sickened by your punitive expeditions are likely to turn against you.

But they had to get out in the end.

This does not seem to be an encouraging example for the current project of declaring a full-scale “War Against Terrorism” and fighting it to a finish. That project is indeed extremely mysterious. What finish can there ever be to it?

Ordinary wars finish when an enemy state officially surrenders. But this one would presumably not be considered finished even if the Taliban government in Afghanistan did surrender, since there is no reason to suppose that this would be the end of terrorism. And if they never actually do surrender, but simply melt away into the woodwork, that will surely look even less like an end. Metaphorical Wars on Poverty or Crime are not really expected to come to an end at all – at least not before some rather rosy and distant future eventually winds up all these evils. But a literal war, fought with actual missiles, needs to come to an end before that.

The Cold War legacy

I think there is a real confusion here about the size of the enterprise – a confusion that flows from a long-standing corruption of the concept of War itself. What did it mean to have a Cold War?

The general point of this term seems to have been that, though nations were not openly fighting, they were not actually at peace either. Normally, the conventions of peace demand that (for instance) countries should not violently destabilise one another’s governments or assassinate elected rulers. More deeply, too, real peace requires that we treat other countries with some respect in our thoughts. It demands that we should not think of their inhabitants as cartoon clowns or demons but as human beings suffering and rejoicing in the same way as we do ourselves. It outlaws systematic hatred.

By contrast, the Cold War was supposed to be a spiritual division so deep that it excused all those involved – on both sides – from making this exhausting imaginative effort at all. Officially, of course, it was just a metaphorical war – a conflict between two ideologies. But this did not prevent it from involving real hostile acts of the kind just mentioned against particular people. Cold War language allowed, too, the supply of real weapons to third parties who would use them in literal fighting against the other side. And it legitimised – indeed, it demanded – that the opponents should be thought of as permanent enemies to whom ordinary human respect was no longer owed.

In ordinary, literal wars, this suspending of normal human relations is supposed to be just a temporary expedient, made necessary by an emergency. Everybody views it as an evil, to be got rid of as soon as the situation allows. The corrupt thing about the Cold War idea was that it legitimised acceptance of this evil as a normal, permanent condition of life. It domesticated tribal hatred.

It seems to me that this habit is what has made it possible for us to drift into the muddled idea of a ‘war’ which is (on the one hand) a literal war, fought with actual bombs, but is also (on the other) a kind of endless, chronic, ideal conflict against an abstraction as cloudy as terrorism, a conflict which can never be won.

Some metaphors are more dangerous than they look.

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