Partners in Stupidity and the War on Terror

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Partners in Stupidity and the War on Terror

Where’s the debate on going to war?

Let's remember a few things about the so-called 'war on terror.' (Photo: Larry Downing/Reuters)

Casus belli anyone? So Obama wants Congress to authorize a war on ISIS. They’ll do it, of course, but not before the usual partisan sniping.

So far the “debate” has been a festival of irrelevance. Should it be sun-setted? Is three years right? What about the open-ended authorization for Al-Qaeda from 1991? Does it limit a future President’s options?

Oh, the self-satisfied sagacity of these people. Why, they’ve thought of everything … well almost everything.

Among the things that’s missing in this discussion is the Casus Belli … you may remember the search for the missing Casus Belli just before we hurdled headlong into the Iraqi War – you know, the one that created ISIS in the first place? The one that gave them arms, motivation and a modicum of training?

There’s also no acknowledgement that the “war on terror” approach to terrorism has been a complete, utter and abject failure. In fact, it encourages terrorism as a tactic, and serves as a recruitment tool. Here’s why.

The US as ISIS’s Best Ally

Someone once observed that terrorism is not complete until those being terrorized react. The more they react, the more effective terrorism is; the less they react, the less effective terrorism can be.

The fact is, terrorism is – by definition – asymmetric. The weaker party employs it precisely because they are not strong enough to achieve their aims either politically or militarily. They count on terror to provoke a reaction, and it is only when they achieve that goal that they can have an effect. In short, terrorism can only be effective when the target is complicit with the terrorist’s tactics.

Judged by this standard, the US is one of the most effective allies al Qeada or ISIL or any other crazed and lunatic group could ever hope for. Declaring a “war” on terrorism, occupying countries, spending trillions of dollars -- the whole grotesque overreaction we engage in -- is not only counterproductive, it is the greatest gift we could ever conjure up for the whackjobs of the world. We might as well stride across the globe with a giant “kick me” sign pasted to our backs.

That’s what makes the US’s whole reaction to ISIS or ISIL, or whatever moniker the boogeyman of the moment is adopting today, unfathomable. Declare War? Really? Why not just relinquish our freedoms outright? Oh, wait. We already did that with the Patriot Act and its various incarnations since.

But ISIS is Barbaric and Cruel – doesn’t that justify declaring war?

The fact is, there are literally dozens of organizations and countries that are equally barbaric. If beheadings justify war, then we should be bombing Saudi Arabia into the stoneage. Between 2007 and 2010, Saudi Arabia reported beheading 345 people – nearly half of them foreign nationals. And they do it as a public spectacle for a wide range of crimes, including drug use, apostasy, adultery, and sorcery – yes, sorcery; Saudi Arabia beheaded some poor “sorcerer” as recently as 2014. And when beheading just isn’t enough, Saudi Arabia will crucify the headless body for three days. Stoning to death is also an option.

How about cruelty beyond the headless variety? Well, Boko Haram slaughters civilians almost as a matter of course. Militias in the Central African Republic are slitting the throats of children and committing genocide across a broad swathe of the country.

This tragic list could go on and on … but the point is, cruelty has not been used as a justification for war, and shouldn’t be. We should respond to barbaric behavior of course, but war is a counter productive response that creates more terrorists and – as we’ve seen – empowers the terrorist.

But wait, doesn’t the threat of terrorism justify our reaction?

Well, no, it doesn’t.

As Michael Shermer pointed out in an article in Scientfic American, terrorists are mostly a collection of poorly-trained incompetents, not brilliant strategists. Consider:

  • The shoebomber couldn’t light his shoe;
  • The underwear bomber only managed to burn his genitals;
  • The Times Square bomber succeed only in burning up his SUV;
  • The Boston Marathon bombers had no escape plan and one of them failed at a suicide attempt;

Actual studies of terrorism – as opposed to fear mongering hyperbole – clearly show it hasn’t worked very well. From Shermer’s article:

In an analysis of 457 terrorist campaigns since 1968, George Mason University political scientist Audrey Cronin found that not one extremist group conquered a state and that a full 94 percent failed to gain even one of their strategic goals. Her 2009 book is entitled How Terrorism Ends (Princeton University Press). It ends swiftly (groups survive eight years on average) and badly (the death of its leaders).

Moreover, since 911, terrorists have killed just 33 people in America – which, as Shermer notes, is “statistically insignificant.” How does this stack up against other causes of mortality in the US? Well, let’s look at some numbers:

  • Traffic Fatalities kill more than 25,000 times as many people as terrorism each year;
  • Gun Related Deaths kill about 25,000 times as many people as terrorism each year;
  • Lightening strikes cause ten times as many deaths as terrorism each year …

On and on it goes...

To put the threat of terrorism in perspective, even including the deaths from 911, each year it kills about as many people as falling furniture, and a little fewer than are killed by bee stings.

Ah, but what about 911 when nearly 3000 Americans were killed? The fact is, it was very likely preventable – the Bush administration consistently ignored actionable intelligence from the CIA warning that al Qaida was planning imminent strikes within the US.

Which brings us to the question of what exactly should our response to terrorist actions be?

What’s worked?

Good intelligence, international cooperation, and good police work.

What hasn’t worked?

Wars of occupation, traditional military force, and extreme overreaction. In fact, ISIS – which was spawned by our policies and is equipped with our own military equipment -- is yet one more proof that our current strategy is dramatically increasing the number of terrorists.

Terrorism thrives on poverty, ignorance, inequity, and injustice, real or perceived. The solution to terrorism rests in addressing these issues, not waging expensive and counterproductive wars. But you won’t hear this discussed Congress; you won’t see it explored in the press; and the fear-crazed citizens in the land of the formerly free and formerly brave are being scared stupid by a trumped up enemy that is 7000 miles away without a Navy or an Air Force, so don’t look to them for a dose of sanity.

John Atcheson

John Atcheson

John Atcheson is author of the novel, A Being Darkly Wise, an eco-thriller and book one of a trilogy centered on global warming. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the San Jose Mercury News and other major newspapers. Atcheson’s book reviews are featured on Climateprogess.org.

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