There are many bits transmitted (ink isn’t really spilled much these days) over the issue of whether to treat international terrorism as an act of war or as criminal action that should be dealt with in civil courts.   Heretofore I’ve been staunchly in the ‘war’ category, but I’m beginning to rethink that proposition.

Obviously there are differences between a terrorist act of the international sort (particularly the Radical Islam variety) and what we typically consider to be criminal acts, and I’ll come to those shortly (I’m hoping to keep this whole post brief).  However, I think there are also enough significant differences between “terrorism” and “war” that I’m no longer certain that they should be treated in the same way.  Most importantly, with a traditional war, there is a discrete endpoint at which violence no longer persists.  It ends and peace ensues.  Perhaps not an easy or prosperous peace, but peace.  The end of violence is one of the primary goals of a real war, if not the only goal.

Our “War on Terror” cannot be seen in those terms, much like a “War on Drugs” (in fact, this post by Andy McCarthy, of whom I think highly, is what triggered mine).  It has a potential for being everlasting, and the goal is not particularly war-like: you may never have real peace as such, but rather a sort of tolerable containment.  Of course, in some abstract sense, it is possible that we could kill every person on the planet that has designs for violence against America and her people, but it doesn’t seem like a practical goal to me.  I’ve said otherwise in conversations, but at this moment, I don’t think so.  I’m certainly no progressive (I have a rather strong antipathy to progressivism, as anyone who’s read much of my writing could attest), but I do think it is prudent to try and understand some basic things about the motives of the enemy in this case.  I don’t claim to be the expert on this, but I think there are a few things we can reasonably observe:

  • Radical Islam hates the West and America in particular as an existential matter, not because of something it did.  Some believe this to be a hatred of something in the essence of the West, and others believe it to be mere scapegoating of the West whereby it’s easier to say “they did it” than to face honestly the failures of one’s own civilization.  The latter seems like the best explanation to me.
  • Radical Islam wants to establish an Islamic empire

Here we have actors with very war-like aims, but manifest their tactics and strategy in a way that the methods of war don’t seem to be particularly well-suited to handle.

Anyway, the point is that the aims of these enemies are unlike those of criminals, who seem to be to be more focused on material gain and less willing to sacrifice their lives to some larger goal or movement.  Traditional law enforcement institutions are suitable for this kind of criminal.  Individual rights of the criminals themselves are honored to avoid abuse of the innocent and justice is the primary goal because peace was never in jeopardy.  Punishment is meted out in the interest of justice, establishing a broad deterrent, and secondarily with the goal of rehabilitation (if everything works out just perfectly).   Little of this sort of criminal justice approach applies.  Firstly, the goal isn’t to contain what we can and achieve some sort of post-facto justice for what we can’t like we do in civilized society – the point is to prevent harmful acts in the first place.  As in a traditional war, the goal is peace.  The enemy in this case won’t be deterred by punishment, and won’t be rehabilitated (the most recent near-successful attempts at terror attacks were perpetrated by educated, middle class, Westernized Muslims).

These aren’t anything like new conclusions, if you can call them that. I think the Bush administration, through the wisdom of some sharp military thinkers, came to recognize this in the latter stages of the war in Iraq and shifted its military strategy accordingly and prevented the invasion and subsequent occupation there from being as bad for the Iraqi people (and us) as it could have been. I also think the approach of using military tribunals is probably a pretty good idea, and a good way to protect some core human rights for the enemy combatants without allowing them access to privileges they have no claim to or allowing them to take advantage of opportunities for abuse that our system so readily presents. Effective counter-terrorism campaigns and military tribunals really don’t address the issue of peace. I think the things we’ve been doing up to this point (trying to freeze financial assets, international law enforcement and intelligence agency cooperation along with targeted combat, all of which is aimed at destroying the ability of the enemy to make war) represents the best approach we’ve been able to come up with, and after thinking through as many of the issues as is practical for a guy with a day job, I’m not sure I have anything better to offer.

† I tend to agree with Jonah Goldberg’s thinking about these things in many ways. The above observations bear resemblance to fascism, properly understood.

‡ Let me add here that I don’t necessarily approve of or endorse every tactic or government activity employed in the course of dealing with the enemy in our “war” against Islamofacism. Those are topics for another day. For example: in my opinion, the Patriot Act goes too far and our foreign policy objectives don’t define our “interests” narrowly enough. “Torture” is a minefield because our language and thinking about it is very muddled. Definitely deserves its own entry.