Two Sides of the Same Coin

"British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Saturday the ‘evil ideology’ of al-Qaeda must be pulled up by the roots as the death toll from last week’s London subway and bus bombings rose to 55. ‘Within Britain, we must join up with our Muslim community to take on the extremists,’ Blair said in a speech in London. ‘Worldwide, we should confront it everywhere it exists.'” (Reuters, July 16, 2005)

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Blair that the Muslim community must work to discredit the extremists who promote violence. However, for this plan to work, Mr. Blair’s own penchant for war, like that of his American counterpart George Bush, must likewise be discredited. If the evil ideology of one party is to be "pulled up by the roots," then the other party is duty-bound to weed its own garden. The stakes are too high to pretend that the violence of one group is acceptable, while that of the other group is not. It’s a matter of logic: If al-Qaeda, in killing the innocent through terrorism in England, is based on an evil ideology, then Tony Blair’s pro-war administration, in killing the innocent through war in Iraq, is likewise based on an evil ideology. These twin ideologies are sides of the same coin.

To understand this two-sided coin, it is important first to consider the similarities. Both are designed to kill human beings for some purpose that the leaders of the war or the terrorism consider important. The leaders of both war and terrorism must recruit young people while they are at their most impressionable and their most gullible. In war and in terrorism, young recruits must be trained through some kind of school or boot camp that uses propaganda and mind-control techniques in order to convince them to discard moral prohibitions such as "Thou shalt not kill." Then there is the matter of training the soldiers to sacrifice their safety and even their lives, if necessary, for the "higher" cause promoted by their leaders.

Finally, in both war and terrorism, the young must be given the weaponry with which to kill other people and the spiritual justifications ("you’ll be rewarded in heaven," "you’re serving your country," "you’ll be a martyr," "you’ll be a hero," etc.) necessary for violating lifelong taboos against murder.

But there are important differences, too, between the evil ideologies of war and terrorism:

  1. Intentions: Leaders who advocate war and those who carry it out repeatedly market combat by talking about their intentions rather than the consequences of their actions. Phrases such as, "we never target civilians" or "the regrettable loss of life" serve the function of diverting attention away from the evil that has been perpetrated and onto the good intentions in the war planner’s mind.

  2. When civilians are killed, especially those whose countrymen have the clout to create opposition to the war, specific steps must be taken to give the impression that these "unfortunate incidents" were the result of "rogue individuals" and thus should not weaken support for the war. When terrorists kill civilians, not only do they not pretend to have taken every measure possible to prevent it, they brag about killing them. Thus terrorist leaders kill civilians and then say they intended to do so, while war leaders kill civilians and then say they didn’t intend to do so.

  3. Numbers killed: War kills large numbers of people over sustained periods of time, while terrorism kills fewer in brief bursts. A critical consequence of this difference has to do with recruiting potential. By harming vast numbers of individuals, families, and communities for months and years on end, war creates a ripple effect: Hundreds of thousands of people (along with many citizens of neighboring countries) will eventually be aggrieved or enraged by the deaths. Many citizens will thus become susceptible to terrorists’ appeals to "fight back."

  4. Terrorism, by killing smaller numbers in isolated incidents separated by time, is not, however, effective in terms of recruiting the masses to oppose war, because nationalistic pro-war leaders have continually "primed the pump" for safety-though-violence mindsets. Most people thus primed are, after tragic terrorism incidents, highly susceptible to calls for more force, more "resolve," more support for whatever war is currently in progress.

  5. Recruiting potential: While the masses tend to have knee-jerk reactions to terrorist incidents when they stop thinking and start looking to their "strong leaders" as protective father figures, terrorism is nonetheless no longer a good recruiting agent for new wars. After years of suicide bombers all over the world, each sending some message or other that few onlookers understand, terrorists seem to be everywhere and nowhere. Though they may be loosely linked by vague and often confusing ideologies, terrorists are different even within al-Qaeda, hailing from different religious subcultures within Islam and/or from different countries – so on which country or sect or group should the next war be declared? War, on the other hand, is an excellent recruiting agent for new terrorism because it is waged by specific leaders in specific nations with coherent, tightly linked messages/ideologies.

  6. Creating terror: Both war and terrorism create terror, but in different ways: War creates acute, focused terror in the country where it is being waged, while terrorism creates chronic, free-floating terror in many countries (indeed, the world) simultaneously.

  7. Following rules: This difference is perhaps the most pivotal in terms of shaping public opinion, for most people believe that following the rules is what "good people" do, while breaking the rules is what "bad people" do. Even when the rules are unfair, as in the case of apartheid or slavery, public opinion usually favors those persons who follow the established system and do not behave unpredictably. When the whistle blows, the football play is stopped and violators are punished. When the gun is fired, the horses can come out of their gates, but not a moment before.

In war, soldiers do not always follow the rules, but they give the impression that they’re trying to do so. The military actually uses the word "rules," which has the connotation of predictability and "fair play," to describe their guidelines for violence against civilians and soldiers: "rules of engagement." Military personnel may kill civilians with bombs, for instance, but if they say that they didn’t SEE those kids or families when they dropped their bombs, then they appear to be following the rule. The public is therefore more forgiving; oddly enough for a so-called "Christian nation," for many Americans the mere act of following some set of rules is enough to justify the killing of innocent people ("yes, he killed those civilians, BUT he was following the rules of engagement").

Terrorists who’ve killed themselves along with the other civilians at the market or in the street certainly can’t give explanations now, but if they lived to tell the tale, they’d say they certainly did see the kids and families they were about to kill. When al-Qaeda Web sites take credit for suicide bombings, they let it be known that they killed civilians intentionally. This breaks the unwritten rule that killing civilians is okay in combat only if the shooter or bomber (a) didn’t target them and/or (b) didn’t see them.

Furthermore, wars are publicly announced ahead of time (though often it’s already begun, but the media knows better than to announce it), while acts of terrorism are committed without giving the public any warning whatsoever. War leaders say they’re going to kill before they kill (thus following the rules), while terrorism leaders say they killed after they kill (thus breaking the rules).

George Bush and Tony Blair have been flipping a coin for years now, and for a long time it turned up heads: With their vastly superior armies, they could wage war with little effort and virtually no blowback. What they failed to consider was something that any mathematician could have told them: Sooner or later, they’d toss that coin and look down to see tails instead of heads. Now terrorism is palpable, and not just safely "over there," but right here where we live. As British and American citizens, our lives will continue to be imperiled until we get one simple truth through our leaders’ thick skulls: War and terrorism are two sides of the same ideological coin, a coin that will flip heads one time and tails the next. Like it or not, you can’t have one without the other.