How Is the War on Terror Going?

For the last few weeks, I have pondered these questions:

  • What does it mean to be at war with a terrorist organization?
  • Are the distinctions between soldier and civilian sufficient, or does the world need a new category?

These questions were crystallized in my mind by the excellent writing of Adam Liptak in a The New York Times news analysis published June thirteenth of this year. Additionally, the Washington Post published on June twenty-fifth an excellent news analysis of Vice President Cheney office’s behaviors on these questions titled, Pushing the Envelope of Presidential Power. Both pieces are worth reading.

Citizens; Soldiers; Enemy Combatants; Terrorists

People throw these four terms around loosely in conversation, but important distinctions exist. And how the American public addresses them will define the United States for several future generations. The United States won the world’s favor with its actions in World War II, without care, this country will lose fifty years of equity in fewer than ten years. The Vice President’s office drew its distinction between these terms, as far back as 2002, stating that Enemy Combatants and Terrorists do not deserve the same respect, rights, or, importantly, ethical treatment as Citizens. The establishment of secret prisons, and the rational thinking justifying interrogation tactics—torture by any other name—were more than emotional actions from a shocked administration, they were purposeful actions designed with the intent to deny basic human rights. In my perspective you know a man’s ethics, when you observe his treatment of an enemy. All the world observed the United States’ ethics, because, as a matter of pride, the Bush administration felt little need for discretion.

The naive define ethics with the presumption of addressing friends. Before that September day when we were attacked, the broadly accepted view held that citizens, individuals or groups, US or foreign, deserved the protections emboldened within the United States constitution. The American government acted on this belief by seeking to develop human rights accords, and investing large efforts to demonstrate to other governments the values and principles at the United States’ foundation.

Post attack day, the Bush administration reversed course and said America’s enemies do not deserve basic human rights. Let me not be so harsh, the American public as well as the United States Congress all acted out of the pain and hurt from that tragic day in September 2001. But in so doing, the United States violated one of the key principles of its justice system: the victims portrayed judge and jury. Thus, a third category of human being; Enemy Combatant was rationalized. Wrath and Pride, two of the deadly sins, and we committed both. On September eleventh the American public lost greatly, but critically it lost the belief and faith in one of its guiding principles. The citizens lost trust: the faith in humanity to act for individual self-interest in rational and predictable ways.

The crafting of the Enemy Combatant category has embarrassed the United States. Likewise, the executive branch’s use of an undeniable goal to justify such horrible actions is loathsome. Is the United States protecting itself or behaving as the world’s bully? Whereas the answers of American citizens are biased, excellent leadership would assess the view and perspective of those outside the United States. To the contrary, leadership is sorely lacking in the current administration.

New Tactics Needed

The War on Terror has demonstrated to me that America’s defense systems have protected it from the wrong evil. Its defenses were supremely prepared to defend and take down another government, but woefully under prepared to address foreign citizens who want nothing more than to disrupt the American way of life. Like the aged champion caught off guard by the tactics of the young challenger who wants a do over confident that better result lie ahead—America’s pride is hurt. Inasmuch as experience matters, overconfidence breeds complacency.

Nearly every family has had to address a childhood bully. Advice to the bullied person ranges across familiar themes; kick their ass, I’ll help train you; get the principles at school involved; get your big brother to pay them a visit. Each theme, plus the examples you have thought of in your head, has common characteristics: persuasion, coercion, demonstration of strength, and maybe a measure of tit-for-tat violence. But none of these themes work when bullied by a large group, particularly if the group refuses to self identify. Notably, we, Americans, face a similar problem today: we cannot just “kick their ass.”

President George Bush proudly proclaimed, “Mission Accomplished.” Where Americans once thought a few bombs and the war will be over, the realization is setting in that this bully has more cousins and friends than expected, and although many countries support our views, a sizable few have unexpected empathy for the other side. It is time to face the new reality, the next fifty years for America will not be like the last. Accordingly, the United States government needs to devise a new defense plan. The new plan must be consistent with American values, but capable of protecting the country from an enemy with a different mindset. The enemy of today is driven by something besides self-interest and exist not as a government, nor a hierarchal entity with uniforms or identifying marks, and not with an aim to defeat and enslave us, to the contrary, the enemy’s aim is to destroy core beliefs surrounding trust, faith, and normalcy.

This country should give up on the idea of global trade as a route to peace and prosperity. The traditional logic presumed that people who trade with each other fight less because the interaction and profits are effective deterrents. Yet, what we now understand is that profits from our global trade can fund the enemy. As a consequence, we should retract a bit and broaden our perspective. As people demonstrate the unreliability of “self-interest” as a predictor of behavior, American citizens must realize that who we spend money with and what they do with the money is as important, if not more important, as determining whether we received fair value for our exchange. Ultimately, we, the government and citizens of the United States, must improve our judgment and recognition of others, we have to learn the values of those we trade with and importantly what changes in our behavior should occur when we face incompatible values.

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