Caleb Carr: The 9-11 Commission Is Wrong ... We Are at War with Terrorism, Not Extreme Islamism

Roundup: Historians' Take

Caleb Carr, in the Wash Post (July 28, 2004):

[The writer is professor of military history at Bard College and the author, most recently, of"The Lessons of Terror: A History of Warfare Against Civilians." ]

Toward the end of its widely praised report, the Sept. 11 commission offers a prescriptive chapter titled"What to Do?" There, it makes an assertion that is genuinely shocking. It says that in our current conflict,"the enemy is not just 'terrorism,' some generic evil. This vagueness blurs the strategy. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism [the report's emphasis] -- especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology."

At a stroke, in other words, the members of the commission have tried to rewrite the terms of the global war on terrorism and turn it into a global war on Islamist terrorism alone.

It seems almost incredible that we could have been at war this long without defining precisely who or what we are at war with. But such is the case, and it has never seemed an urgent matter to lawmakers. When I appeared before a congressional subcommittee studying strategies for the war on terrorism in 2002 and suggested that the first step should be the promulgation of just such a uniform definition, the members were momentarily dumbstruck. To their credit, they soon recovered and we began to discuss the issue, but a comprehensive definition of terrorism for the use of the American government and the education of the American people never emerged. Now, however, the president and his supporters are apparently ready to instantly approve the radical definition set forward by the commission.

Terrorism, as defined by military historians, has been a constant, ugly feature of warfare, an aberrant tactic akin to slavery, piracy and genocide. One of the reasons that some of us argued throughout the 1990s for undertaking of genuine war on terrorism (involving the military in addition to intelligence and law enforcement) was the notion that we might finally declare the tactic -- like those other aberrant belligerent methods -- to be out of bounds, for the armed forces of civilized nations and non-state organizations alike.

It's true that both slavery and piracy are still practiced, but only in remote corners of the world; certainly genocide is still with us, but its employment is now cause for immediate sanction and forceful reaction (theoretically, at any rate) by the United Nations. Banning such tactics and actively stamping out their practice has been the work of some of the great political and military minds and leaders of the past two centuries. Now it is time -- past time, really -- for terrorism to take its place as a similarly proscribed and anachronistic practice.

But first we must agree on an internationally acceptable definition. Certainly terrorism must include the deliberate victimization of civilians for political purposes as a principal feature -- anything else would be a logical absurdity. And yet there are powerful voices, in this country and elsewhere, that argue against such a definition. They don't want to lose the weapon of terror -- and they don't want to admit to having used it in the past. Should the United States assent to such a specific definition of terrorism, for example, it would have to admit that its fire-bombings of German and Japanese cities during World War II represented effective terrorism. On the other hand, few Muslim nations want to go up against the power of organized terrorist groups by declaring them de jure as well as de facto outlaws....

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Mike Crane - 7/31/2004

Trying to end terrorism as Carr suggests would be a terrible waste of our limited resources. Sure, it is nice to declare the tactic "illegal", but it will always remain a weapon for weaker opponents to strike at more powerful ones. Concentrating on preventing terrorism in the U.S. and against our allies, whatever the source, however, must be an avowed policy of any American administration. I generally loathe agreeing with Daniel Pipes, but his essay posted on HNN arguing that radical islamists are the real enemy as the 9/11 Commission reported is on the money.