Today is September 11. The day is significant not just for the terrorist attack that occurred but the counter-terrorism effort it begat. I’ve never before expressed my opinion on this wider “War on Terror” and have hitherto confined my commentary to specific pieces of it. But I think it’s time we try to understand the War on Terror as a whole, and I think the best way to do that is through an analogy.
Think of terrorism as a disease like gangrene. Imagine that the president learns of an outbreak of gangrene in New York City. He orders doctors to round up people who have discolored toes and amputate their feet. However, the doctors sometimes guess wrongly and amputate the feet of non-infected people.
Later, it turns out that not only did the doctors amputate many healthy people, but that they did not wash their knives, and have given gangrene to people who did not previously have it. To correct this, the president orders a second round of amputations, but somehow the doctors forget to wash the knives, so the problem reoccurs and gangrene continues to spread.
Doctors learn that gangrene may be caused by diabetes and long-term smoking, and that efforts to prevent these maladies will diminish the likelihood of future gangrene outbreaks. The president dismisses these explanations as “blame-the-patient” propaganda and declares that gangrene is in reality caused by other-worldly demons. He said there is no way for an earthly being to reason with the demons or control them in any way other than to amputate the limbs they inhabit.
Back to the real world now. My position on terrorism is that the government will have to put some people in prison and may even have to kill some people, just like in our example in which some people really do need amputations. However, the government has killed a lot of people with nothing to do with terrorism, just like our doctors amputated the limbs of uninfected people.
Secondly, much of the terrorism since 9/11 has come as a result of US counter-terrorism and would not have occurred without it. The Fort Hood Shooter is just one of many people who became a murderer because of counter-terrorism operations, just like the patients in our example who became infected only after the first round of amputations.
Lastly, the real president of the US (George W. Bush for most of this War) really did say things about terrorism as stupid as those in our example, where the fictitious president blames the disease on supernatural forces. And just like in our analogy, efforts to understand the disease were dismissed in real-life as “blame-America-first.”
How can we expect to cure a disease when we’re not even interested in its causes?