Tuesday, October 05, 2004

War, Terror & The Space Inbetween

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BYLINE BY M.J. Akbar : War, Terror & The Space Inbetween

President George Bush made a sensible remark recently when he suggested that it was impossible to win the war against terrorism. The candour was unusual for a politician, and almost unbelievable during an election in which George Bush has bet his whole presidency on the assumption that enough Americans will believe that he rather than John Kerry can lay to rest the nightmare of 9/11. Candour died instantly when Kerry challenged honesty with deception. The war could be won, he claimed, which is within the bounds of reason; but his implication that he knew how to win it was electoral fraud. Naturally, it worked. Bush retracted, and a chance for a genuine debate on a complex problem at a defining moment was lost. Instead of a debate we will see one-liner upmanship. The discussion might as well be handed over to Jay Leno and David Letterman who, in any case, make more sense on most issues.

I believe that the war on terrorism can be won, but the first, critical, stage is to get the definitions correct. We must mean what we say, and we must know what we mean. Let us take the most obvious example of a misplaced dictionary. George Bush went to war in Iraq ostensibly to find illegal weapons of mass destruction. Let me suggest the names of two nations with weapons of mass destruction without the approval of legitimate world bodies. India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons that were condemned as illegitimate, and which provoked international sanctions. Neither the United States nor Britain has considered invading either Delhi or Islamabad. Bush should have said what he meant; that he was not going after weapons of mass destruction but rogue governments that he could not trust. That story would have had a happier ending.

The problem with war on terrorism is that while there is now sufficient consensus on the meaning of terrorism, there is equal confusion about the definition of war. Where is the primary battlefield of that war, on the ground, or in the mind? The dilemmas only begin at this point. What if the suicide-missionary is born in the rubble of a mistake, or the devastation of injustice? What if the pursuit of terror multiplies its dimensions? Is there any count of Iraqi teenagers who only wanted an education yesterday but want a gun today? Are the terrorists of Chechnya taking revenge for some terror that never appeared on our television screens? These questions would have inevitably flowed from the debate that Bush initiated and Kerry aborted.

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