MORAL CORE—A CAUSE FOR CONCERN
IF WE TREAT OUR FELLOW AMERICANS AS BADLY AS WE DO, WHY SHOULD WE BE SURPRISED THAT WE TORTURE TERRORISTS—AND WHY SHOULD WE BE SURPRISED THAT AFTER 13 YEARS OF WAR WE NOW HAVE EVEN MORE ENEMIES THAN BEFORE?
Terrorism is a vicious business because its whole purpose—quite literally—is to terrorize. It is a tactic which is accurately named. Typically, you, the terrorist, do that by doing things which are beyond acceptability—even by the dubious standards of the Rules of War.
Here, I don’t wish to denigrate the Rules of War. They are a great deal better than nothing—but they still constitute a low bar compared to the standards we should aspire to. We should be working towards a superior Code of Conduct for Conflict. Instead, we seem to be doing the opposite.
You lie. You cheat. You steal. You extort. You intimidate. You kidnap. You torture. You assassinate. You hack. You cut off heads. You cut throats. You strangle. You beat to death. You hang. You abuse and kill prisoners. You blow up the innocent. You massacre women and children. You do your outmost to provoke those in power to overreact.
They normally do—and make things a great deal worse—which gives you a huge propaganda victory, and fans the flames of insurrection. In effect, you, the terrorist, are using the brute coercive power of your opponent—typically a government—to do your job.
Governments are rarely nuanced organizations. They excel at coercive power—as do most large organizations, whether public or private, the world over. They are poor at listening, slow to change, and are relentlessly authoritarian. They don’t know how to do much else.
Typical government employees are rarely highly intelligent, subtle, empathetic people, gifted with the time, patience and knowledge of context to listen and understand. They are much better at the application of mindless force. If such employees are fortunate enough to possess such higher qualities—and some surely do—they rarely exercise them at work. Advocating restraint, when dealing with terrorists, is scarcely conducive to career stability or a path to promotion.
Effective counterterrorism should start with identifying in detail the perceived grievances of the terrorists—which should then be accommodated as far as is reasonably possible. They constitute both the right thing to do—and a bargaining chip. By conceding what is reasonable you undercut the terrorist’s position. You less fanatic supporters—which is normally most people—start wondering is all this carnage really necessary. They know perfectly well that being a supporter puts them in danger too.
There is nothing that terrorists hate more than a reasonable opponent. Reasonableness undercuts terrorist support.
Many would call that weakness. It isn’t. It is very smart. Getting to the heart of the matter is a real strength—and is rarely done. If you don’t try to get to the heart of the matter, terrorism—even if you appear to stamp it out in the short term—will re-occur, and it will metastasize.
Terrorism, mostly, is carried out by desperate people who feel they have no alternatives. Normally, their grievances have some legitimacy—even if the issues are complex and their methods are to be deplored. At a certain point, terrorists become so cauterized by violence, it virtually becomes an end in itself. Much the same happens to counter-terrorists. Prolonged exposure to violence tends to have that effect. Much better not to let things get that far.
Terrorism is best fought with both the carrot and the stick by the the forces of law and order entrenched on the moral high ground. The latter is fundamental.
If you lose the moral high ground—and governments frequently do—it is incredibly difficult to regain it. Further, you are almost certainly guaranteed a protracted conflict which can—and normally does—last for decades.
Losing the moral high ground is disastrous. Regaining it—if you ever do—can take decades. Meanwhile terrorism continues.
Have we, the U.S., lost it? Yes, we have—and for numerous reasons. We over-reacted to 9/11 from the beginning, have made almost no efforts to identify the causes of the terrorism we are up against, compounded the problem by invading Iraq without good cause, and have made it worse by inflicting mindless violence on a score of countries over the last decade plus. In addition, while preaching that we are the bastion of democracy, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we have revealed that we are very far from a healthy democracy, and that our society is riddled with unfair practices, racism and blatant injustice.
In short, our claim to be the good guys—as far as much of the world is concerned—is regarded as specious. Many would argue that the American Way of Life, based upon materialist values, excessive consumption, waste, environmental indifference, and the current American Business Model (which seems to have no moral code) is deeply flawed and inferior to alternatives such as democratic socialism (as practiced by much of Europe) or the practices of Islam.
Here, whatever my own views, I am not concerned with debating the truth of the matter (I hold to the view that the U.S., despite its flaws, possesses enormous strengths) but with perception by the rest of the world. In short, I am concerned with our World Standing and that extraordinarily powerful force known as Moral Authority. We used to have it. We still have some, but we have lost a great deal.
We have weakened ourselves. This is self-inflicted damage—and it is severe.
We should be deeply concerned by this. We tend to associate our strength with military power—but military power without moral authority (as long possessed by the Soviet Union, for example) is largely only an expensive burden. The soft power, as possessed by the European Union, to demonstrate an alternative, is stronger. Nation after nation fights (diplomatically) to get into the EU—and most thrive.
Yes, I know the EU is regularly described by U.S, media as something of a confused mess—but it is a very young political alliance still which already offers a superior quality of life (subject to some exceptions) than currently most exists for most Americans).
It is common practice to argue that U.S. counterterrorism is a roaring success because we have been subjected to no serious external attack since 9/11.
I regard that as entirely fallacious thinking. Thirteen years after 9/11:
- Jihadist extremists are stronger than ever—and variants of Al Qaeda are flourishing all over the Middle East, in Africa, and in Europe. There is also cause for concern about Indonesia—in fact wherever Islam flourishes. The situation in Pakistan, a nuclear power, is particularly worrying. Our flailing has stirred the pot—and it is bubbling. Will it boil over? That is certainly more than possible.
- The Middle East is more unstable than ever—with our invasion and disastrous occupation of Iraq being a major cause (albeit far from the only one).
- The future of Afghanistan is decidedly uncertain. We had little choice but to attack Al Qaeda there after 9/11, but our de facto occupation (and neglect) of the country was both unnecessary and largely botched. We have also brought—as we always do when we occupy a country—a staggering level of corruption. We might well ask why this is so. Could it be that we are more corrupt than we generally like to admit?
- We have lost roughly 8,000 dead and hundreds of thousands physically injured or otherwise affected in Iraq and Afghanistan. The total costs of these two wars—which are not yet over—has been estimated to reach $4 trillion eventually by the time the long term care of veterans and the interest we have to pay on the money we borrowed to fund the wars has been factored in. That total could easily go higher.
- Personal freedom in the U.S. has been reined in. The problem is less what has happened to date—irritating though many of the restrictions are. However, the creation of a surveillance state combined with the militarization of our police is extremely worrying because not only is such a structure open to abuse, we already know it has been. Freedom is not something we can take for granted. It is entropic. It degrades unless nurtured. We have been doing very little nurturing.
- The U.S, economy has taken a terrible hammering—the effects of which are likely to be with us for decades if not for generations. The combination of debt resulting from our wars (both, in essence, reactions to 9/11)—and the Great Recession have been, and will continue to be, horrendous. The trillions of dollars in debt can be measured (if not grasped adequately) but other costs such as the wholesale neglect of our infrastructure have been incalculable. All of this is made worse by the fact that the current economy is rigged to favor the few—and their followers.
- Our military are tired, deeply disillusioned—and confused about the future. They have fought for 13 years, but have little to show for it. U.S, forces are deployed throughout the globe—but to what effect? And we cannot afford such a level of commitment on an ongoing basis. Our budget is still far from balanced—and we have other urgent needs.
I’m Irish—Anglo-Irish to be more precise—but my life has been deeply intertwined with the U.S. and I have great affection for this genuinely Great Nation.
Right now, and for some time in the past, my feeling is that the U.S. has lost its way. The very fact that we are debating torture illustrates the point.
I’m sufficiently well versed in the details of terrorism to give you chapter and verse on why torture and mistreatment of prisoners is such a mistake—on a practical as well as a moral level—but I really shouldn’t have to.
If our Moral Code was in good order such a truth should be self-evident.
I feel a little sad that I have had to write this.This is not the way America should be. I won’t say we are better than this—because right now we are not—but we could be.
We need to be. It’s a matter of self-respect.
The best way to fight terrorism, in my considered opinion, would be for all of us to work a great deal harder to make the U.S. a better place for most Americans—and not just for a privileged few.
We need to rebuild this country. Even more to the point, we need to re-build people’s faith in it.
Recent Pew research into people’s confidence in institutions showed a pretty massive decline virtually across the board.—with Congress in single figures.
The following is scarcely a ringing endorsement of the American Dream.
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