It's time to mothball the term "terror" for a while.  It's lost all meaning.  It was being steadily drained of meaning years ago when people started asking, "Isn't it terrorism when someone makes me uncomfortable?  Isn't all force terrorism?"

What the Obama administration has been lying about is not whether the attack and murder of our ambassador and other Americans in Benghazi was an act of terror in some ineffable sense.  It has been lying about whether the attack was a spontaneous mob reaction to a provocative video, or a professional and pre-planned armed assault by an al Qaeda affiliate in a region where the administration had been crowing over the demise of that group.  The fact that the President vaguely alluded to the word "terror" in his remarks the day after the attack is not the point, as even Candy Crowley admitted shortly after the debate concluded.  The important point is that the President and his spokespersons repeatedly insisted that the attack was an unpredictable eruption of crowd hostility sparked by a YouTube video, long after it was crystal clear the attack was heavily armed, carefully coordinated, and took place in the complete absence of any crowd demonstration, video-related or otherwise.

I'm sure the attacks were terrifying.  They would have been equally terrifying whether they resulted from a proto-military assault or a crowd that suddenly lost control of its humanity.  The issue is not whether they inspired fear but whether they were an assault by a previously identified enemy about whom we had solid intelligence, or some kind of bolt-from-the-blue mass hysteria that no one could have planned for.  I fear the distinction is being lost in the endless parade of fuzzy blathering.

If Romney wanted to nail Obama on his prevarications, he'd have done better to focus on when Obama or his surrogates first admitted publicly what he'd known all along, which was that there was no public demonstration of any kind out the Benghazi facility that night, and that the attack was a sudden, coordinated onslaught by men with RPGs, whom we quickly learned were associated with al Qaeda.


Grim said...

Well, before you mothball it, what are you fielding to replace it? Al Qaeda-linked militias are an example of...?

james said...


Texan99 said...

Asymmetrical warfare? Politically motivated violence not sanctioned by a recognized state? Maybe even racketeering.

Grim said...

All of these are problematic.

1) AW: Why "A"? Why not just "W"? Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication #1, "Warfighting," defines war: "War is a violent clash of interests between or among organized groups characterized by the use of military force." The Benghazi attack qualifies.

Terrorism is something we agree is wrong. War may or may not be. Asymmetry doesn't make it more wrong -- in fact, it may be what makes it right, if the asymmetry is between an unjust oppressor and ordinary people resisting it.

2) For the same reason, why privilege states? States are often in the wrong. States are most obviously guilty of democide, for example: large scale murder like Stalin or Mao (who did it in peace!).

3) Racketeering goes too far the other way. Racketeers are mere criminals, entitled to tons of legal protections we don't (and should not) want to extend to terrorists.

The simplest thing might be simply to say that it was an act of war. That has another problem -- it legitimizes armed groups as "warriors" and as fit to carry on war with states, which sometimes we don't want to admit. But I think it's the most honest. States are failing and falling -- not some of them, all of them. Even Europe, certainly China, is on the verge of collapse if people finally admit to the things they really know to be true about the way those states have manipulated economic facts.

Welcome to the new world.

Texan99 said...

I don't privilege states, but the response to an act of war is different if there is an identifiable state that takes responsibility. It's not even a question of whether the state is wrong, only whether other states are prepared to fight back.

Grim said...

The response is likewise different if a state attacks with a navy versus if it attacks with an infantry division. What you're talking about is strategic, operational or tactical. The first thing you need to take on board is that you are at war.

Quite possibly permanently, whether you like it or not.

james said...

Privileging states has advantages that make it hard to discard the concept. When you deal with states you encapsulate the interactions: legal entities with each other in peace, and warriors with warriors at war. You have a group who represents the whole and who can surrender or offer terms, and all the rest (barring a few diehards) will accept the agreement.

If you have to deal clan by clan the conflicts are factorially more complicated (A sides with us unless B sides with us unless C also sides with us) and I don't see how the conflicts can avoid trending to preemptive killing and revenge on whole clans (not just the warriors). (I use "clan" to include ideological groups as well as blood relatives.)

If that's the way wars will be fought we'd best not be blind to it, but I can see why one might want to keep hoping.

Grim said...

You may even get to deal with states sometimes. In Benghazi and elsewhere, though, you're under attack... and it's not by states. We've been calling this kind of thing "terrorism" for a while, but ultimately, it may just be war. It may be that war is no longer a privilege of states, with other actors safely treated as criminals of some sort.

If we get there, it's not new: in fact, the idea that only states could wage wars is quite new itself. The idea that only a "legitimate authority" could declare war is rather older, and might still be defensible in some sense. If you want to be thought a legitimate faction, you maybe ought to have a declared leader and mode of authority. Thus, not long ago, I was wanting to know what Islamic law judge had justified the shooting of the teenage girl in Swat. That person takes responsibility, and bears it.

Texan99 said...

I understand that there are different tactical options in a traditional military response, but that's not what I meant. A state that is attacked by another state employs diplomatic avenues and protocols that it does not apply when it is attacked by organized, but stateless, antagonists. The state consults differently with its neighbors, for instance, and may consider treaties and alliances. The Geneva Convention comes into play. The attacked state has an entity to deal with according to traditional standards. It has an enemy with a fixed territory and capital and a recognized leadership that is responsible for all the actions of its armed forces. The culprit state may be invaded. All these things change when the attack is committed by a stateless band.

Grim said...

Well, yes and no.

The fact is that we treat people according to the Geneva Conventions if they are captured in Afghanistan, whether they are part of al Qaeda (i.e., belligerents in the character of a stateless band) or the Haqqani Network (i.e., racketeers), or Afghan insurgents (i.e., irregular guerrillas who may have a legitimate right of resistance, but who are acting out of uniform). Those are three distinguishable categories of non-state actors, each of whom maybe deserves to be treated by a separate standard.

The first group we probably ought to hang or shoot once interrogation is finished. They are closer to brigands or pirates than anything else: enemies of all humanity. The second we might hang, but might trade for advantage: the Haqqani have something like a defined territory and capital interests. The third group we would prefer to convert to some more traditional land-holding structure, perhaps by a negotiated process whereby they gain some autonomous status and governance within a state.

Three separate problems, but they're all forms of war, and all non-state actors, and we're fighting them all in AFG.

Grim said...

More on the possible collapse of Russia and China, but I think you can't omit Europe from the list of super-states on the verge.

douglas said...

" Al Qaeda-linked militias are an example of...?"

Islamic extremism. We should have been calling it that from the beginning.

Joseph W. said...

Douglas, but consider how the terms translate - since our pronouncements will, after all, be read overseas.

Describing the enemy as "terrorists" - there's a good Arabic word, irhabi, that carries the right kind of social opprobrium, if I remember rightly.

Calling them "Islamists" or "Islamic extremists" - how does that translate? I'm afraid into terms that play into the enemy's hands - "You see? The Americans are making war on Islam."

Calling them "jihadis" runs into the same problem - mujahedin is a term of honor (even here, at least among people who cheered on the Afghan resistance in the '80's, as I did).

Grim said...

Yeah, it's worth going back to read American thinking on the Haqqani at that time.

Texan99 said...

Don't get me wrong. The attack in Benghazi obviously was terrorism by the classical definition. It's just that there's little use arguing with the President over whether he's lying about it while still using that word, because he's likely to use the same word to cover all kinds of things that aren't terrorism, and to refuse to use it to cover things that are. So the Tea Party engages in terrorism, but real terrorist attacks are man-made disasters. There still is such a thing as terrorism, but as euphemisms and Orwellian trash-talk evolve, we sometimes have to coin new terms.

Where the President clearly lied was not in whether he used the word "terrorism," but in when he blamed the Benghazi disaster on a movie review.

douglas said...

Joseph, that's a good observation, but I was responding to Grim, not the President. The 'We' I was referring to was the American public and commentariat, but I've always understood why we used the WoT terminology. If I were advising the President, perhaps I'd suggest that we can't let the translation dominate to the point that the original audience (Americans, and Westerners) don't get the message. If necessary, we could take to saying it correctly in English, and following that with the proper Arabic term. "It's a war on Islamic Extremists, irhabi.", though that is a bit cumbersome.