If we destroy human rights and rule of law in the response to terrorism, they have won - Joichi Ito


image by: Freedom House

Oversimplification is never healthy. It is an increase of ignorance masquerading as insight, and choices made based on oversimplification often ramify in ways directly counter to the oversimplifier's desire.

Perhaps no act in today's world is subject to more oversimplification than terrorism. Terroristic acts are designed to elicit a strong emotional response, and as such, people tend to eschew careful consideration in favor of reflexive reaction—which, ironically, often does more to perpetuate conditions that foment further terrorism.

As has become customary, the November 13 ISIL assault on multiple sites in Paris elicited the kind of oversimplification that pushes us further away from a world in which such attacks are unheard of.

Among the select few things for which Facebook is truly good is putting one in touch with the Zeitgeist, including swaths of public opinion you might never encounter in your day-to-day life. Naturally, Facebook was immediately abuzz with talk of the Paris attacks, much of which was epitomized by a conversation thread generated from one of my friends. "Islamic Extremists, Islamic Extremists, Islamic Extremists, Islamic Extremists, Islamic Extremists, Islamic Extremists," she wrote hours before ISIL had been identified as responsible for the attack. "There I said it...for all the chicken sh*t politicians who are too PC to call it what it is and make apologies after the fact instead of making the hard decisions in the first place. I am so pissed, you should be too. And they wonder why we want to be able to protect ourselves...because they won't. "

This comment attracted a fool's parade of ad hominem responses. While the most overtly bigoted among them was photo of a topless girl flipping the bird (caption: FUCK ISLAM) and holding a picture of the American and Israeli flags together, a large portion articulated a similar level of ignorance in alternate ways, often railing against President Barack Obama for everything to having the temerity not to presume Islamic extremists were responsible before obtaining the facts to being at fault for the attacks to being an terrorist sympathizer or ally.

Less puzzling than the simple bigotry (because, hey, we know our country is full of bigots) is the belief that shouting "Islamic extremists" or "radical Islam" from the rooftops in any way reduces the threat of terrorist acts. To be sure, intelligence-gathering to detect specific threats is of tremendous value; however, the religious beliefs of those who would actualize such threats is beside the point. Where ISIL fighters train, how they acquire resources, who is helping them, what they are doing and plan to do—these are actionable pieces of information; the rest of it is just noise.

Behind such noise is the false belief that labeling the attackers provides a defense against them. This seems to be a form of what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls being bewitched by language, as if hanging a sign on them—which, as Wittgenstein also says, is all that labels do—magically gives us insight or even some apotropaic effect. "Islamic extremists," Obama proclaims from the Oval Office—and poof, we not only understand what's happening, but we're safer! If only it were that easy.

There is no doubt that in today's world Islamic extremists generally—and ISIL specifically—are good guesses for such an attack in today's world. But why guess? Twenty years ago the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a car bomb, killing 168 persons. Despite the fact that the bombing came on the second anniversary of what came to be known as "the Waco Siege," a 51-day standoff between federal officials and Christian extremists that resulted in 82 deaths, it was widely presumed that Islamic extremists were responsible for the bombing, a presumption that led to attacks on Muslims, including multiple shootings and two mosques being set on fire. You probably recall that the bombing was perpetrated by Americans Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who had no ties to Islam, so you know the moral of this part of the story.

The murkiness of playing guessing games with terrorism came home less than a month after the ISIL attacks in Paris when two masked assailants opened fire on a group of San Bernardino County workers, murdering 14 and injuring 21.  At a press conference during the early hours of the investigation an FBI spokesperson went on live television and stated that it was believed the suspects were American, which would mean that the attack was not an act of terrorism. Ultimately it turned out that one of the two suspects, Syed Farook, was American, but that the FBI investigated the attack as an act of terrorism once it became clear that Farook and wife Tashfeen Malik had been "radicalized" for some time.

Was the attack terrorism, and would the exact same attack be terrorism if perpetrated by the likes of Nichols and McVeigh? It depends on your definition, a reminder of Wittgenstein's dictum about labels. The FBI's legal handbook on terrorism is the U.S. Code, which provides various definitions of terrorism, all of which pivot on the "inten[tion] (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping."

But a label can be applied to an act only after its commission. However useful the label "terrorism" may be for discussing such acts, it doesn't diagnose the conditions that precipitate such acts, it doesn't predict them, and it doesn't prevent them.

The question of terrorism (qua both act and label) becomes all the more complex when considering the practices of our own government. Consider, for example, how often you have heard U.S. officials castigating the Iranian government for supporting terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, while you never hear these same officials holding their own to account for U.S. support of governments and militias who commit exactly the same type of terrorist atrocities. Perhaps the most well known case is U.S. support of !raqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who used chemical weapons against civilians and regularly abducted and tortured political dissidents. But the list of U.S.-supported organizations that engage in the same tactics we are quick to label "terrorism" when perpetrated by Muslims against Western targets is infamous, ranging from the Contra rebels in Nicaragua to Osama bin Laden himself. Terrorism, it seems, is only "terrorism" when it's not perceived to be in our own interests.

Then there is the consideration of why terrorists (wherever we find them) do what they do—the historical contexts in which they came to be this way, whether any of them have legitimate gripes, etc.—even if we agree that their methods are unjustifiable. It's a consideration that too few people are willing to make, preferring a tacit fiction that terrorism comes ex vacuo. Believing that all terrorists—even all "Islamic extremists"—are cut from the same cloth, and that such cloth weaves itself, is yet more oversimplification, one more way in which the label takes us further from understanding what is happening in the world, further from making it better. It's as benighted as believing there can be such a thing as a "War on Terror," as if the people and the tactic are one and the same".

For our present purposes, suffice it to say that terrorism is not as simple as they say, and sometimes talk is very, very cheap.

Source: Greggory Moore, Terrorism Is Not as Simple as They Say, Moore Lowdown, HWN, December 18, 2015.

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Last Updated : Thursday, November 8, 2018