For three weeks now, ever since the horror of the World Trade Center, I have been tempted but have lacked the courage to question the use of the label "terrorism." The parsing of language seemed inappropriate in a time of profound national mourning.
Yet, now that we are in a full-blown international war against what our president defines as "terrorism," it's appropriate to ask what it is we're talking about. Clearly, terrorism applies to acts of violence aimed at innocent civilians. It's an extension of war beyond its proper boundaries and therefore the deserved subject of universal contempt.
However, while such acts are obviously despicable, they cannot be defined as exclusively the work of stateless maniacs and never the work of recognized governments. Indeed, President Bush has recognized the possibility of state terrorism when he committed to punish those governments that harbor or sponsor terrorists.
Are not all bombings of civilians, even by armies of a state in times of war, acts of terror? What of the tens of thousands of civilian dead in Iraq as the result of our much celebrated success in "Operation Desert Storm," an act of real-life carnage despite its movie marquee name? Or the million civilians killed by the United States with napalm and anti-personnel bomblets in the "carpet-bombing" of Vietnam? And that other million dead civilians in Afghanistan whose blood was on the hands of the Soviet Communists, one of whom is now the elected leader of Russia and our ally in the war against terrorism? Or the tens of millions of civilians systematically killed during World War II in acts of genocide by armies loyal to the Russian motherland and German fatherland?
What of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which resulted in the death of more than 300,000 people and which decision earned President Harry S. Truman Time magazine's Man of the Year award in 1945?
By its very design, the nuclear weapon must be thought of as an instrument of terror because the purpose of what its makers call "city busters" is to disorientate, demoralize and destroy large numbers of civilians. In the bombing of Hiroshima, with one atomic bomb pathetically small by today's standards, cutely named "Little Boy" as opposed to the "Fat Man" that obliterated Nagasaki, less than 10 percent of the dead were, by any definition, combatants.
Ironically, abandoning our already limited concern about the proliferation of these ultimate terror weapons has been a major, if barely noticed, cost of the alliance against terrorism that the United States has assembled. Pakistan and India are involved in the most virulent nuclear arms race in the world today, and our government has dropped all sanctions aimed at ending that dash for oblivion.
It would be healthy for a world transfixed by the scene of devastation in lower Manhattan to glance at the photos of the miles of destruction of family homes and the limbs of babies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Healthy, because it is inevitable that somewhere, someday, a terrorist cell will be able to lay waste to a major population center unless we get the evil nuclear genie back in the bottle. Healthy because evil does not fester only in the schemes of the obviously deranged. Rather, in the case of nuclear weapons, it was the product of the most refined thought of our best and apparently, at the time, most balanced thinkers.
It is important to remember the terror committed by governments run by those who paid lip service to the virtues of Western civilization, the Enlightenment, Christianity, capitalist freedom and socialist justice, at a time when Islam is all too easily held accountable for such acts of barbarism.
No one is invulnerable to the grip of madness, not of the left or right, religious or secular, educated or illiterate, rich or poor, and sometimes they manage to get the power of a state to endorse their grievances, real or imagined.
How easy it is to hold the obviously evil Taliban responsible for Osama bin Laden, when he is in fact all too common a byproduct of the religious extremism flourishing in his native nation, the U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. The hijackers were educated in and traveling on the passports of the very states whose monarchs and dictators now act so perplexed over their citizens' evil behavior.
How convenient to forget that it is Saudi Arabia, which owes its existence and wealth to our military intervention, that spews the most vituperative version of the Islamic religion and, indeed, exported it with missionary zeal to less benighted lands like Afghanistan. Just another caution that the war against terrorism will not end with the rout of the Taliban.