Is there really a clash of civilizations? Or are we entering the Third World War? Or the Fourth World War? Such are the models and metaphors being proposed to cope with the horror of the mass murders at Beslan in Russia. The American Right (as in the Wall Street Journal) proposes the first. Russian leadership proposes the second. The Vatican's Cardinal Renato Martino proposes the third. The last also agrees with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft that nations must give up many of their liberties to engage in these conflicts.
Each model is both an exaggeration and a dangerous (self-) deception. Arab armies are not moving on Tours, the Turks are not closing in on Vienna, the Crusaders are not attacking Jerusalem. Neither side is forcing conversions on the other side. Nor are massive armies moving back and forth across Europe with tens of millions of casualties, as in the two real world wars. Cities are not being destroyed in hideous air attacks. Women are not being raped by the millions. The Cold War, nasty and unpleasant as it was, did not involve any of these horrors, despite Cardinal Renato Martino.
What, in fact, is happening? Small bans of religious fanatics are killing relatively small numbers of innocent people -- small compared with the casualties of the Great Wars. These are terrible events, but Islam is not engaged in open conflict with the West. Many Islamic leaders denounce the killings. Most Muslims do not approve of the killings. Islam is not the enemy; only a very small number of very dangerous Muslims.
Most Muslims don't like America. However, it is not, as President Bush inanely says, that they want to destroy our freedom (Ashcroft will do that, given enough time). The reason, as the Muslims see it, is our oppression of the Palestinians and more recently the Iraqis. Our great ''war'' leader has been too busy with other things to deal with the Palestinian mess. Yet there is no more critical challenge in the struggle against terrorists.
Indeed, the metaphor ''war on terror'' is exaggerated and misleading. In fact it is a struggle against fanatical terrorists. If the word ''war'' is used to describe the horrific American Civil War AND the current struggle against terrorists (to say nothing of the ''war on drugs,'' the ''war on pollution,'' etc.), then the word has lost all meaning. Moreover, ''terrorism'' is an abstraction, while terrorists are specific people and specific organizations. ''War on terror'' is useful only to persuade the American people that Bush is a wartime president and to justify the foolish and now dangerous war in Iraq.
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The United States enjoyed extraordinary goodwill all over the world in the months after the World Trade Center attack. That would have been the time to fashion an international alliance against terror and to bring the best strategic minds together to plan the struggle.
Russia would certainly welcome such an alliance now, but it is too late. Indeed, the United States is blamed because it has negotiated with Chechnya leaders. The State Department, in the finest spirit of Bush's unilateralism, says that it will talk to whomever it wishes.
However, the president assures us that the invasion of Iraq is part of his successful war on terrorism and the country is safer because of the invasion. He does not address the question whether some of the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in Iraq might have better been spent on assuring the safety of our ports (only 2 percent of the containers coming to America are screened) and our commuter trains and buses. These kinds of targets are simply waiting for al-Qaida to attack. The war in Iraq, therefore, destroyed any chance for a major universal alliance against terrorists, created thousands more terrorists and diverted money from authentic homeland security.
Language shapes thought. The abuse of language leads to abuse of thought. Many of the presuppositions of American policy are the result of sloppy thinking. However, exaggerated and deceptive language is very useful in the political game, especially if you want to present yourself as a strong leader in time of war.