Fighting Words and False Promises

For almost five years, the “war on terror” has proved to be a false metaphor that has led to counterproductive and self-defeating policies. A misleading figure of speech has been applied literally to unleash a real war on several fronts, including Iraq, Gaza, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed, enraging millions around the world.

Yet al-Qaeda has not been subdued, as was shown by the recent plot to blow up United States-bound commercial flights from London. That plot, which could have claimed more victims than the 9/11 attacks, was foiled by the vigilance of the British intelligence authorities. Clearly, it won’t be the last.

Unfortunately, the American public accepted uncritically the war metaphor as the obvious response to 9/11. Indeed, even now, when it is widely admitted that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder, the “war on terror” remains the frame into which American policy has to fit. Most Democratic politicians, too, subscribe to it for fear of being branded as weak on defense.

But continuing support for the war on terror makes it no less self-defeating. By its very nature, war creates innocent victims, and this even more likely when it is waged against terrorists, because terrorists tend to keep their whereabouts hidden. The deaths, injuries, and humiliation of civilians generate rage and resentment among their families and communities, in turn fueling support for terrorists.