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When a War is Not a War

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A few days ago, Justin informed us that there is no more War on Terror. At least not in the language of the British government, where they’ve chosen to stop using the phrase. The Brits said terrorist fanatics are not soldiers fighting a war but simply members of an aimless death cult. The official added:

The people who were murdered on July 7 were not the victims of war. The men who killed them were not soldiers. They were fantasists, narcissists, murderers and criminals and need to be responded to in that way.

Well, it’s never been a “war” in the traditional sense. But I am much less enthusiastic about this development than was Justin. The events of the last decade have not been some crime wave carried out by an “aimless death cult.” The aim of these terrorists is pretty clear: to decrease Western and Western-allied power and make room for the ascendancy of their corrupted, radical brand of Islam. The most applicable word for these terrorists is “guerilla.” Like guerillas, they are part of a loosely (sometimes extremely loosely) affiliated network of rebels who share a common ideology and compatible goals.

I guess “the struggle against loosely affiliated, radical Islamic guerilla terrorists” is not exactly a workable name. But it’s better than no name at all. If we do not categorize events such as 9/11, London, Madrid and others as part of an ongoing pattern, we are denying that there is a bigger picture that requires bigger strategies. Additionally, labeling the perpetrators as “fantasists, narcissists, murderers and criminals” is overly dismissive of these terrorists who very much consider themselves soldiers in a global conflict.

Language matters. Labels help guide thought. I agree that the term “war” is far too limiting and contributed to the kind of narrow thinking and propagandizing that took us into Iraq. But neither is it helpful to approach these terrorists as if they are half-insane death cultists or members of some crime syndicate. The truth is more complex.

I’m sure that the British government is still taking the global threat of radical Islamic terrorism seriously. But I’m concerned by their use of language. We must find words that walk the right line between overstating and dismissing the struggle at hand.