A fatal misnomer


The war on terror was resumed in London this week when four – possibly five – terrorists failed in an attempt to blow up themselves and hundreds of others on the public transport system. It seems that like the successful suicide bombers of a fortnight ago these young men were British Muslims. In Egypt suicide bombers managed to kill at least 89 local Egyptians and foreign tourists and injure hundreds of others. To this point the identity of these bombers remains unknown, but three groups have so far claimed responsibility for the atrocity on the internet. Of course in Baghdad and other places in Iraq, as in every other week, suicide bombers killed and maimed scores of people. In various parts of the world George W Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard expressed their sadness at the loss of life, their loathing for the killers and resolute determination to win the ‘war on terror’.

What they didn’t get round to was telling us who or what precisely the enemy is. In Iraq they are generally called ‘insurgents’. Elsewhere they are terrorists. Wherever they are, President Bush likes to call them people who hate our freedom and way of life. We know that they are not all ‘insurgents’ in Iraq: the people who captured Douglas Wood, were simple criminals although one would have thought from the reporting that they were driven by the same demons that possessed the four suicide bombers from West Yorkshire. Among the ones to whom the term ‘insurgent’ might sensibly apply, there are local Sunnis, foreign revolutionaries and disaffected leftovers from the Hussein regime. And doubtless there are others engaged in violent resistance for different motives and beliefs, including resentment of the occupation.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

The point is we don’t really know who it is we’re fighting in Iraq. Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or George Bush might know. It’s possible that Blair and Howard know. But if they do, they have not told us in a way that is believable. We are saving the government there; we are keeping faith with the brave Iraqi people who voted in the elections: they seem like good reasons, but they are also old and notorious reasons for occupying armies to stay on and on until there is nothing left to defend and face is all there is to save. Some people might connect the events in London with the scenes of John Howard in Iraq among Black Hawk helicopters in a helmet and body armour. Others might make a connection with Vietnam.

As it did for so long in Vietnam, in this ‘war’ any old thing will do. The lies that made it possible, the tens of thousands of civilians killed, the damage to the United States’ reputation, the fact that the occupation daily incites the rage of young Muslims everywhere and that while it has been fought at such obscene cost Osama bin Laden has gone free – all this ought to make journalists hyperactively skeptical and probing. But no: this week in London, though Paul Bongiorno tried bravely, the rest of the pack were either overwhelmed by five minutes of artful and passionate vapidity from the Prime Minister, or too confused to care.

It’s the word ‘war’. From the moment the ‘war on terror’ was declared everything went fuzzy. Australians persuaded themselves that refugees from terror might be agents of terror. American soldiers went to fight in Iraq believing they were avenging 9/11. The whole world was conned into believing Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The consequences of these now well known delusions are still with us and compounding. No one responsible for creating them has been punished or paid the smallest price and it seems unlikely that they ever will.

So long as it is a ‘war’ on terror we are easily persuaded to do and think all sorts of other things that in normal times we’d shun. It’s a war so we’ll put it down as collateral damage. We will give up civil liberties as Phillip Ruddock says we should, for instance. We will find reason where there is none to speak of, and cling to beliefs despite the evidence against them. We will render our enemies monolithic and insensate like a thing, rather than pathological like human beings; we’ll flaunt our own anger but never recognise theirs. We’ll condemn suicide bombers as subhuman filth who kill civilians, but not stealth bombers which also kill them. We’ll conceive of them as cowards or at best poor deluded fools and never think that wars have always required young men to give their lives in battle and young men have always done it. It is war and nothing can compromise our righteousness.

We’ll call it a just war, which of course is what the terrorists believe it is, and so we’ll join them in the folly of forgetting that there is no such thing. There are just causes and necessary wars, but no war is just. Read Homer. Ask the dead. Ask the family of the young Brazilian held down by British plain clothes police and shot eight times in the head. And then ask if Simone Weil did not have a point when she said that war – or ‘force’ which is its stock in trade – ‘petrifies the souls of those who undergo it and those who ply it.’

The ‘war on terror’ is a convenient brand, but it is also hard to think of a better way to elevate the enemy’s self-regard and, in the long run, through lies, hubris, monstrous acts, eroded rights and self-deceit, lower our own. The British fought the IRA’s bombers without doing them the honour of calling it a war. Better to say we’re just defending ourselves and the things we believe in.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.