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One Man’s Terrorist

There I was: my first deployment in Iraq, sitting in an idling Humvee, waiting for the moment when we would be released from the gates for our mission. My team leader pierced our lull when he mentioned our reason for being there was to fight the terrorists here in Iraq, rather than at home. Sitting there doused in testosterone, diesel fumes, and dust, I sensed that my team leader’s logic was off, that even he didn’t believe it. He seemed to be repeating something stated before, something lingering in the zeitgeist in an effort to gain some esteem for himself or motivate us.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting (or perhaps some other shooting; they are all running together now), there was a discussion on social media centered around calling the Parkland killings, an act of terrorism. The usual suspects in the center and on the right howled on about the misuse of the sacred word. To me, these holier than thou cries were too ridiculous to believe.

As if the definition of the word “terrorist”, its weaponization, and its use here at home hadn’t already stretched it beyond recognition.  Just look at how Oliver North, the new president of the National Rifle Association is using it to call gun control advocates “civil terrorists”. Why use such a word? It hinders proper discussion, stirs up fear, and plants the idea that people on the other side are beyond negotiating with. It’s the same reason we see some people on the right compare Black Lives Matter to a real terrorist group like the KKK.

So I go back to that young man I was in Iraq—all blank check to Uncle Sam. I truly believed  there was a “just war” to be fought against brutal terrorists. Yet the line my team leader had used, “fight the terrorists abroad so we don’t have to fight them at home,” caused some pause in me. Why?

Before I joined the Army , in the aftermath of 9-11, I saw how the Bush Aadministration tried to tie anyone’s use of drugs to terrorism. They ran ads saying that if you’ve bought drugs, you’ve funded terrorism. I accepted  why we were fighting an organization like Al Qaeda under the banner of terrorism, but could not accept that every fight our government deemed necessary, should be defined as terrorism.

By the time I left the Army six years later, I had changed my views on terrorism and became more committed to winning hearts and minds. This theory on counter-insurgency (fighting terrorism) accepts that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Fighting terrorism means working on the political and geopolitical issues that give rise to terrorists.

In an attempt to reeducate myself, I researched and discovered the drivers behind the word terrorism: how it was, and continues to be, misused around the world in order to suppress legitimate grievances by oppressed people.

A year ago I wrote about drone warfare and looked at our current U.S. policy as akin to mass murder - we are using bombs instead of concentration camps. I was immediately accused of putting American lives in jeopardy, because thinking outside the rubric of fighting with anything, but bombs, is tantamount to accepting “fighting them abroad rather than at home.” And therein lies the rub. Daring to even counter the framing of the main debate on terrorism places me, apparently, in league with people who look to kill Americans, but only certain Americans and only in this specific way. After all, we’re not talking about opportunity costs of this war—money that could save more lives. I speak of the money spent on war and not spent on children, on the poor, on our nation’s health. In other words I speak in the tradition of Eisenhower [1] with the added burden of knowing we must also deal with Climate Change and its consequences.

It all comes down to a certain way of thinking when the word “terrorism” is used. It’s meant to invoke fear and stifle ing clear-headed thinking. So, while people try to flee unlivable conditions created by Climate Change induced drought, we don't offer solutions to help alleviate that, but instead wait until the people lose all hope, flee or turn to violence. And then we send bombs instead. What we need to do is move away from the fear the word evokes and offer solutions for the consequences our policies create. Drought alleviation would be on the top of this list. In the end, viable solutions and the push for a better future requires clear-headed thinking.


[1] "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two, fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

Address "The Chance for Peace" Delivered Before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 4/16/53