On Terrorism

We need to have a much more thoughtful and extended discussion of terrorism. And we need to separate it out from criminality if we are not to lose (and to destroy) even more lives than we already have.

I assert that terrorism, like any ism, is more than a single act or even a series of acts. As with any ism, it represents an overarching ideological choice about how to be in the world, the pathway to achieve and fulfill the dreams of those who share that ism. Think of capitalism. Think of Marxism. Think of Catholicism. Think of patriotism.

The ideological underpinnings of terrorism boil down to “let’s make and keep others so terrified of us that they will do and will continue to do whatever we want, even and especially when they would not do so voluntarily.” This is what distinguishes terrorism from criminality, though both may well involve duress and force, mayhem and murder.

I remember clearly one of the news channels (I believe it was CNN) interviewing a retired general-cum-talking-head the night of or the day after 9/11/2001, when four airplanes were highjacked: two of which flew into the World Trade Towers, one into the Pentagon, and one crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. This general (whom I never again heard interviewed though I looked for him) stated baldly that the scene at the World Trade Center should be treated as a crime scene and not as an act of international terrorism.  This general (subsequently silenced?) maintained that the appropriate response was to investigate, pursue, and bring those behind these murders to justice.

Playing the game of historical “what ifs” is sorely tempting here. What if, instead of using 9/11 as a springboard to invade Afghanistan (where we are still mired) and Iraq (where we are still mired)–where many, many more people have died than did on 9/11 and where many, many more are yet to die as a result of our response to that criminal massacre–the United States had recognized that the people behind these killings were in point of fact powerless to impose their will upon us by scaring us (i.e., that they were not terrorists…at least not where we as a nation were concerned), but that, rather, they were criminals, irrespective of their motives? Well, rather than pursue justice, we opted as a nation to embody that which we accused a relatively small cadre of persons of Arab descent with a base in the wilds of another country halfway around the world: we, the United States, embraced terrorism. We would use our massive force to scare others into behaving the way we wanted them to. We would invade their lands. We would kill their leaders. We would bomb them into physical and psychological submission. Our game plan was to make them so terrified that they would never again attempt such attacks.

The truth is that, even before 9/11, we were already well on the path to making terrorism our own modus operandi on the world stage. In 1996, our National Defense University (did you know we had one? I did not) published a major policy analysis, entitled “Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance. The following comes from pages xxiv-xxv of this report:

The aim of Rapid Dominance is to affect the will, perception, and understanding of the adversary to fit or respond to our strategic policy ends through imposing a regime of Shock and Awe. Clearly, the traditional military aim of destroying, defeating, or neutralizing the adversary’s military capability is a fundamental and necessary component of Rapid Dominance. Our intent, however, is to field a range of capabilities to induce sufficient Shock and Awe to render the adversary impotent. This means that physical and psychological effects must be obtained.

Rapid Dominance would therefore provide the ability to control, on an immediate basis, the entire region of operational interest and the environment, broadly defined, in and around that area of interest. Beyond achieving decisive force and dominant battlefield awareness, we envisage Rapid Dominance producing a capability that can more effectively and efficiently achieve the stated political or military objectives underwriting the use of force by rendering the adversary completely impotent.

In Rapid Dominance, “rapid” means the ability to move quickly before an adversary can react. This notion of rapidity applies throughout the spectrum of combat from pre-conflict deployment to all stages of battle and conflict resolution.

“Dominance” means the ability to affect and dominate an adversary’s will both physically and psychologically. Physical dominance includes the ability to destroy, disarm, disrupt, neutralize, and render impotent. Psychological dominance means the ability to destroy, defeat, and neuter the will of an adversary to resist; or convince the adversary to accept our terms and aims short of using force. The target is the adversary’s will, perception, and understanding. The principal mechanism for achieving this dominance is through imposing sufficient conditions of “Shock and Awe” on the adversary to convince or compel it to accept our strategic aims and military objectives. Clearly, deception, confusion, misinformation, and disinformation, perhaps in massive amounts, must be employed.

Could there be any more concise description of an ism called “terrorism” than this?: “The target is the adversary’s will, perception, and understanding. The principal mechanism for achieving this dominance is through imposing sufficient conditions of ‘Shock and Awe’ on the adversary to convince or compel it to accept our strategic aims and military objectives.”

Let’s discuss terrorism.