We brought this on ourselves, and we are the terrorists, too

There is no more ducking the point: It's not terror only when it happens to us. Our "shock and awe" is terror, too

Published March 27, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Yorick Jansens)
(Reuters/Yorick Jansens)

Within an hour or two of the bombings in Brussels Monday, it was plain that there were two stories worth reporting from this latest turn in what has become our global conflict. There was the news story—the boilerplate “who, what, when, where, why” of it—and then the story of how people all over the world reacted to these stunning events.

In newsrooms across the planet, these two stories would have been slugged—identified by a simple name during the editorial process—as “Brussels” and “Brussels reax.” We have read and heard volumes of both kinds of stories by now, and there are things to say about both.

New York, Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Beirut, maybe San Bernardino, Calif., now Brussels, surely some other places: These are among the reasons we have to recognize we live amid a global crisis now. There is no more sitting comfortably in front of a television in any city or town and watching events unfold in some faraway place, moved for the duration of a cocktail hour.

Brussels tells us, first and conclusively, that there are no such comfortable places left. To me, this is the ultimate reason Tuesday's events so quickly disturbed so many minds. It was more than the blood and carnage this time. It was the blood and the carnage so graphically in proximity not to some desert village or sun-parched urban slum, but to plate-glass windows fronting fashionable shops and the façades of staid buildings in the Belgian style.

A lot of stories reported or implied this yesterday, and they are true so far as they went. But that is not far enough. If we want a complete list of the places touched by terror, we have to include a more or less countless number of villages, towns and cities most of us have never heard of: communities—if we can still get away with calling them such—in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Gaza Strip, Libya and so on down a long list.

I do not think there is any more ducking the point: The violence, disorder and anxiety that threaten to envelop us is not “terrorism” only when visited on Western societies and arriving by primitive rather than high-technology means—exploding bags of nails as against expensive bombs. Among the victims and perpetrators of terror, it naturally follows, no part of the world is populated by the one but never the other.

Let me try that again: Most of us still try to duck these points, but all such attempts grow ever less plausible. The true meaning of our fondness for “shock and awe” creeps up upon us, to make the point another way.

A friend asked yesterday, “Why do they target civilian locations filled with innocent people?” Another asked in reply, “Aren’t they trying to disrupt our civilization?”

These are good questions, given what they almost force us to think about. The short answers are, “On purpose” and “Yes,” and these answers derive from a simple understanding most of us tiptoe around but refuse to grasp: These attacks are at bottom replies. There is nothing arbitrary or random about them, it should by now be plain.

Replies to what? Ah, now we stand a chance of getting somewhere. Now we have at least begun.


Very few of us recognize the extent to which language defines what we think and how we think what we think. The way we say things, in other words, draws a circumference around our consciousness and conversation. There are things we will thenceforth think and say and things we can neither think nor say. Two words have been especially effective in this connection since 2001. These words are “terror” and all its variants, and “war.”

The problem with “terror,” “terrorism” and “terrorist” has been well massaged. As noted several times in this space, Richard Perle, the ideologue posing as intellectual, turned this term to purpose during the late 1990s and brought his point to prominence in the post-2001 decade, the Bush II years. He wrote of decontextualization—meaning the isolation of the terror phenomenon from its context. His well-traveled quotation was, “Any attempt to understand terror is an attempt to justify it.”

The term “war,” as in “the war on terror,” serves the same purpose without all the scholarly pretension. Dehumanizing the enemy has long been standard practice, of course: It is easier for soldiers to shoot or bomb people when they are reduced to “the Japs,” “the Gerrys,” “the gooks” (a term that dates to the American campaign in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century) or “the Argies,” a Falklands War coinage.

We have made ourselves captives of the two terms at issue for 15 years now. Perle’s assertion that context and understanding are subversive of the most general idea of human values is too idiotic to require reply. Bush II longed to be a “war president,” O.K., but the press is to blame for accepting his phrase, “the war on terror,” and then reproducing it. We have disabled ourselves. We are preoccupied with the crisis confronting us but have no clue how or what to think about it.

Nothing brings this home more squarely than the news coverage coming out of Brussels. There is a bottomless supply of “who,” “what,” “when” and “where,” but reporting of this kind provides information—data and nothing more. We have all the “tick-tock”—moment-to-moment chronologies—one could ever ask for. We have pictures of windows and doorways and police lines and police in masks, people placing flowers in the streets and all the rest. We seem to have infinite appetites for this kind of thing, and it seems to satisfy most of us. We are given to the instrumental, we can say; the most minute details of “how” events took place is more or less all we want.

We have had not a syllable of “why,” have we? “Why” requires more than data. One must wade into the waters of context, causality, responsibility and motive. One must have some modest grasp of history. One must be prepared to consider whether one is implicated to one or another degree. With these one might eventually achieve some understanding. It is for the sake of understanding that “Why?” is bedrock in good journalistic practice, however few pay any attention to this principle.

Understanding, of course, is Perle’s forbidden fruit. And for this we have lost all appetite.

This monumental omission now runs to such an extreme it can fairly be considered a collectively shared pathology. Think about how much has been written about Brussels and how endless is the footage of police and crowds and shattered glass at the airport and in the city’s streets. Then think: We can read and watch all this and no voice among us asks, “Why? How did things come to this? Where did it all begin? How should we understand it?”

In the absence of “Why,” all talk of what to do next is equally confined to the instrumental: We need more police, more surveillance, better technology applications, tighter border controls and so on. I trust I can let the inadequacy of this as any kind of considered strategy speak for itself. Note who is devising these responses: police, bureaucrats, military people and intelligence officials—none of whom are trained to think in any fashion other than the instrumental.

“Pathological” as we flinch from “Why” is the term I come up with. Conformity of the common, contemptible kind is one thing. But our shared, resolute obedience to the dictum of “decontextualization” and its cousin, dehumanization—so evident in the press coverage—seems to me a social disease suggesting there ought to be a treatment of one kind or another.

I find this worrisome in the extreme. To be honest, I worry more about what we have done to our minds and the thoughts that issue from them over the last 15 years than about where the next Brussels-like attack will take place. We seem to have surrendered most or all of our capacity to register these events and so act toward a solution to their causes.

I would suggest we are a befuddled people, but this is not quite right. We are not befuddled—that is to let ourselves off too easily. We are frightened people. And we can answer the question, “Frightened of what?” by considering our reactions to the events in Brussels—which are, good to note, of a piece with our reactions to similar post-Sept. 11 calamities.


In mid-afternoon or so on Tuesday, National Public Radio got Eleanor Beardsley, the NPR correspondent in Paris, on the telephone. Beardsley was in Brussels and gave a vivid on-the-scene account. A sadness as thick as fog came through. There was fear. One woman interviewed was grimly certain more attacks were on the way.

Then Beardsley said, “Some people are singing songs,” and with this she held the microphone in the direction of a crowd making its way through John Lennon’s “Imagine.” This was striking. There was nothing of Lennon’s vital, spirited, defiant original. When came through the airwaves was the beaten-down disharmony of the defeated. It sounded like a kind of surrender.

This is one of two reactions to be considered here. It expresses an acceptance of powerlessness in the face of events. It is recessive. It declares the impossibility of the legitimately hoped-for. It claims for itself the dispensation that is the privilege of the innocent. And there is no hint in it of any determination to act—to investigate, then to intervene according to the results of one’s investigations.

In a word, one heard an almost perfectly passive reaction. The grief evident in Beardsley’s report was palpable and understandable, of course. But it was implicitly privatized, I could not but note—grieving determined by one’s degree of separation from one of those so tragically killed.

Something different on the American side of the Atlantic, notably among our presidential aspirants. Here one found the predictable competition as to who can evince the hardest-edged affect. No one had anything new to say—no surprise, as few among us do anymore, especially those seeking high office. To say something new and useful, in any case, would risk veering toward the dangerous zone known as “Why?”

Two modes of reaction—one a dulled passivity, the other a pose that is activist to the nth degree. There are an infinite number of other responses to terrorist events, of course, but these two are worth considering in combination because they are very similar. They share something, the light and dark sides of the same moon.

At the very deepest level the common attribute is fear. And so we return to the question noted above: Afraid of what?

The fear of terror arriving on shores where it was never expected is obvious and not to be diminished (or exaggerated for political gain, either). But I mean something else: I mean our fear of facing up to ourselves, our fear of history, which is to say our responsibility for events that are gradually overtaking us, however great or otherwise one may judge this responsibility.

All of which is to say, our fear of context. We cannot avoid it forever is the best one can say.


Two thoughts have recurred since the Sept. 11 attacks whenever anything similar hits the news. I conclude with them.

Anyone who does not know the grief that comes of loss does not know what it means to be alive. This goes without saying. But I resist some aspect of the private grief survivors express publicly on these occasions. Since the obsessive public naming of all victims of the World Trade Center attacks, I have not thought it right to dwell on individual identities—not in public.

I do not mean this coarsely. I mean that the most fully human response to these deaths refuses to mourn them separately from the countless, unnamed others who have perished in the course of the common history we resist exploring. The proper way to mourn is in this consciousness. I hold to this.

There is also the thought of how to honor those who have just died deaths as useless as any others in the conflict we need to understand as a conflict with two sides to it. In this the people Eleanor Beardsley recorded in a Brussels square singing that Lennon anthem had it exactly right.

We honor them by imagining. We are very late in doing so. It is our only way out at this point, and this applies in numerous respects. And we equip our imaginations against all prospects of indulgent angélisme and faux innocence by arming imagination with a clear understanding of things and a clear determination to act.

Better than any stone memorial, this.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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American Exceptionalism Brussels Editor's Picks Foreign Policy George W. Bush September 11 War On Terror