Friday, May 24, 2013


Terrorism polarizes people, whether you’re talking about the acts themselves or just fighting over the word. President Obama was on television last night trying to set out a coherent and defensible strategy for the U.S. to follow in its endless confrontation with jihadism, hard on the heels of the gruesome slaying of an off-duty British soldier on a London street by two men who shouted Allahu akbar as they hacked and slashed him to death and then stood with bloodied weapons in hand, haranguing witnesses in justification of the act. Muslim organizations rushed to condemn the crime while the polemics heated up in the media.

In a commentary in the Guardian, Glenn Greenwald questioned the use of the word terrorism, asking, "How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners?" and asserting that "… the term [terrorism] at this point seems to have no function other than propagandistically and legally legitimizing the violence of western states against Muslims while delegitimizing any and all violence done in return to those states."

You have to deal with these issues, even if it angers you that people like Greenwald are rude enough to raise them at a time when all you feel is horror and outrage. Most of us are aware that the ethical issues involved in warfare are tangled and uncomfortable, but faced with savagery like this, we need to have our outrage validated before we can have a civil discussion. We are entitled to our outrage, aren't we?

I'd say that we are, but I'd also say that outrage isn't a policy, and we need to confront the issues Greenwald raises if we're going to come up with a policy in response to the deep-rooted hostility to the West that seems to prevail among Muslims. So let's try to make some distinctions that will answer Greenwald's question and point to an approach that might help President Obama steer us out of the impasse we seem to be in.

I don't propose to waste a lot of time arguing about the meaning of the word "terrorism." Like other emotionally loaded words, such as “racism”, it denotes something real but is often used as an incantation in an attempt to short-circuit debate. It’s a trump card that is supposed to ace any argument you may have. It's not much of a guide in making policy. The question to ask in a moral or political debate is not whether a certain action conforms to a contested definition but whether that action is justified.

So let's ask: is there any way of justifying the killing of Lee Rigby? He was, it is true, a British soldier. He was not, however, in uniform or engaged in a military operation; he was unarmed. His attackers wore no distinctive uniform or emblem, as required by the 1949 Geneva Convention, which also, incidentally, prohibits the infliction of “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds” on “persons taking no active part in the hostilities.” If you’re going to call what happened to Lee Rigby an act of war, then I’m going to call it a war crime.

But it’s not clear whether the laws of war apply in the struggle against terrorists, however defined; the so-called War on Terror is taking place in a legal gray area which is tying the lawyers in knots. Barack Obama found out how hard these issues are when he became President and actually had to take charge of the thing; his prosecution of the war by drone strikes and his failure to close the prison at Guantánamo are evidence of the difficulties he has encountered in balancing our security with the rule of law.

A better guide for most of us than legal theories is simple moral intuition. At the level of common usage we know what people mean by terrorism: intentionally targeting defenseless people in order to advance a political agenda. The defenseless part is important; we know that when a heavily armed American unit on patrol is shot at by Iraqi or Afghani insurgents, that’s war, not terrorism. If a man is willing to expose himself to enemy fire, he’s not a terrorist. The element of cowardice in terrorism is definitive: terrorists know their targets are not going to shoot back. There’s a reason Lee Rigby’s attackers didn’t pull their knives on armed sentries at the gate of a British military base.

And we know there’s no justification for the killing of defenseless people, even if we sympathize with the cause for which the act is committed. A person of sound moral intuition cringes when a cause he favors is “supported” by an act of terrorism. Sound moral intuition has a way of being smothered by emotion, and emotions run high in violent conflicts. But moral integrity requires that we condemn the killing of defenseless people whenever and however it occurs.

Which brings us to the next point: none of the above is to justify the “many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners” that Glenn Greewald decries. The people under the rubble of shocked and awed Baghdad were just as dead as the people under the wreckage of the World Trade Center. But there are distinctions to be made if we are to find our way through the fog of ideological war to reasonable policies that will protect us without victimizing others. The grounds on which we condemn an action matter in shaping policies to prevent its repetition.

The actions I presume Greenwald is referring to are not terrorism but, rather, either war crimes or what is delicately called “collateral damage.” The distinction matters because it clarifies how these offenses are to be remedied. You can argue till you drop about the definition of terrorism, but there is a legal definition of war crimes and a procedure for prosecuting them. Let’s call things by their names: the dead children in My Lai were victims of a war crime. And even if not enough war crimes are duly punished, they are recognized as crimes. The U.S. Army is not proud of My Lai. And the U.S. Army is currently prosecuting a sergeant who carried out a massacre of unarmed combatants in Kandahar province in Afghanistan. Terrorists do not prosecute themselves; only legitimate powers do that.

Collateral damage is harder to assess morally, but we have to make the effort. Most everyone recognizes that warfare is a messy business and that non-combatants will occasionally be caught in the fray. Allied bombing killed seventy thousand French civilians in the wake of the Normandy invasion, and nobody considers the Allied campaign against Hitler to have been delegitimized as a result. But even a single civilian death is too many, and a consistent pattern of civilian deaths has to call into question the strategy that produces it. Here is where our moral intuition has to kick in. To object to civilian deaths as a result of military action is not to concede any moral equivalence between legitimate powers and jihadist cutthroats. It is merely to recognize that an Afghan farmer whose child has been killed by an American missile has suffered as much as Lee Rigby’s loved ones. Some collateral damage may be inevitable in warfare, but carelessness toward collateral damage is indistinguishable from malice.

President Obama appears to be aware of this, and we should support him in his efforts to make the struggle against jihadism more just and less wasteful of innocent life. We are entitled to be horrified and angered by the killing of Lee Rigby, but we should also be outraged any time American munitions kill non-combatants, intentionally or not.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Losing Syria

Wars in far-away places usually take place at a safe remove, our awareness of them filtered through terse casualty reports in the paper at breakfast or snatches of jerky video, smoke rising from a jumbled cityscape, distant wails just audible beneath the reporter’s commentary. Most of us can’t find these places on a map, and unless there are American troops out there we really don’t care about them. We can’t afford to; there’s too much bloodshed in the world to exercise a lot of empathy and expend a lot of grief about every conflict.

And then there are the ones that hit home because we’ve been there. I made a short visit to Syria many years ago, and I brought home impressions that make that country’s excruciating suicide hard to shrug off. I’m as jaded as as anybody by the constant turmoil in that part of the world, but unlike most Americans I have sweated under that sun and brushed that dust off my shoes. It’s real to me. The people are real, too: I’ve bargained with shopkeepers, bantered with street urchins and been taken home for dinner by strangers. I’ve looked them in the eye; I know they bleed and suffer.

In 1985 I had a few days in Damascus and Aleppo at the tail end of a summer spent mostly in Jordan, studying Arabic. I had a contact in a household of Jordanian students at Damascus University, who were kind enough to put me up and show me around, including a quick jaunt up to Aleppo on the train for an overnight visit. Syria was mysterious and forbidding, a Soviet ally and a major sponsor of terrorism, oppressed by the sinister personality cult of Hafez al-Assad, whose portrait, sometimes in multiple copies, loomed prominently in virtually every public space. Armed men were everywhere, a good many of them in civilian clothes, which was ominous. You like to think that a man with an AK-47 is subject to military discipline and a clear chain of command. In Syria they weren’t always: Assad’s regime famously featured at least five separate bodies of secret police. Syria was the archetype of the brutal Middle Eastern dictatorship.

It was also, I found, a society of great complexity and considerable graciousness. In both Damascus and Aleppo, many layers of history had left a dense and visually enthralling urban core, Islamic exoticism overlaid by French colonial rationality (and the occasional eruption of brutal Soviet functionalism). There were streets where you could stretch out your arms and touch the walls on either side; there were tree-lined boulevards and vast shady public gardens. The Hamidiyeh souk in Damascus and Al-Medinah in Aleppo were labyrinthine and endlessly fascinating.

All of it, of course, was teeming with people: the Syrians were a diverse and cosmopolitan bunch. There were divisions; Christians and Muslims lived in separate neighborhoods and the regime was dominated by the minority Alawites. But they all rubbed elbows in the streets and I didn’t hear any complaining about privilege or the perfidy of other religions. They’d all been urbanized for millennia and were supremely social. Strangers were polite and helpful, friendships quick to form. My less-than-perfect Arabic was complimented. After the heat of the day the cool evenings were spent on the balcony with tea and backgammon, or on a stroll down to the ice cream shop or the café, my companions trading covert smiles with the extraordinarily beautiful Syrian girls passing in flocks.

It was all slightly disorienting. Evidence of the regime’s malevolent omnipotence was plentiful. This was a famously anti-Western state, the backbone of Arab rejectionist belligerence towards Israel and the U.S. And yet the people I met didn’t seem to hold anything against me or to hate much of anybody. They seemed to be getting on with their lives, to have the same needs and aspirations as anybody else. They were saddled with a toxic regime but they were pretty much like you and me. There are a lot of people in this world in the same boat.

When the Arab Spring reached Syria and the first outbreaks of violence challenged the regime of Hafez’s more presentable but equally ruthless son Bashar, I had a moment of foolish optimism. I thought maybe Syria would go quickly, the way Tunisia did, with minimal bloodshed and the emergence of a revitalized civil society from that age-old comspopolitan stew, some first steps on the bumpy road to an open society. I should have known better.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Britain, France and the U.S. declined to aid the beleaguered Spanish Republic, opting for a supposedly principled neutrality that let Hitler and Mussolini pour in troops to aid Franco’s insurgents, dooming the Republic. In 1991 the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on all parties in the quickly fragmenting Yugoslavia, thus assuring that the Serbs, who dominated the Yugoslav military, would get all the heavy weapons. The people in Sarajevo and Srbenica paid the price for the diplomats’ high-mindedness.

We never learn. President Obama’s reluctance to intervene directly in Syria may be understandable, given our experiences of the past decade. But if the price of involvement is high now, it’s because he has let it rise inexorably, to the point where he is now unwilling even to back up his ultimatum about the use of chemical weapons. Effective aid to the Syrian rebels early in the conflict, falling far short of direct intervention, could have made a crucial difference. Turkey would have provided cover for some discreet shipments of arms; imposition of a no-fly zone would have been more drastic but fully defensible on the same terms as our intervention in Libya. And early aid might have consolidated the power of the most liberal elements in the Syrian opposition, before the jihadists of Al-Nusra came to the fore. Now, of course, Obama can point to the danger of weapons falling into the wrong hands to justify inaction.

Meanwhile, a quarter of the Syrian population is languishing in vast squalid camps, the death toll climbs by triple figures every day, and what’s left of society is splitting along sectarian lines. There will be a bitter fight to the end. When they finally clear the rubble out of the streets, it’s going to take a while before the old neighborly grace of those Damascus evenings returns.