Friday, January 20, 2006

Laws of War, Wars of Law

Today's New York Times contains several articles of public interest, most notably about bin Laden's latest tape and Gonzales's attempts to rationalize the administration's Fourth Amendment violations.

Man, I am sick of everyone involved in this conflict.

That seems a callous way to put it, and obviously I would not be so callous were I feeling more raw about bin Laden's actions, or were I Iraqi or Pakistani with a recent memory of Bush's. Is there any way to discuss being sick of all these men without equating all their actions? Is it appropriate to equate all their actions? I guess that begs the larger question: in an age of terrorism and globalization, when the national boundaries imposed by colonizers on many parts of the world are finally showing themselves to be arbitrary and fallible, when nations fight wars against abstract concepts rather than other nations, to what degree does a state's sanctioning an action mean anything?

What Bush has that bin Laden does not are national--non-privatized--resources for destruction, the implied consent and support of three hundred and eighty million people for his actions, and the ability to conduct not only his attacks but his plans therefor in the open. Each man believes his cause to be righteous and each man's values are, ultimately, inimical to mine. Bush is also to some degree constrained by and invested in secular mores, which bin Laden is not. Bush is (ostensibly) beholden to a secular, constitutional legal system, which limits crusades, and bin Laden has no such limitations. I don't know, have no way of knowing, what Bush would be without them. Probably somewhere he is a reasonable man who can control himself and his thoughts and his actions; I've certainly never known the intoxication either of stress or of power at that scale. But as he shows less and less respect for a system intended to keep his actions in check, one has to wonder.

bin Laden has it right on one important count: when it comes to the War on Terror, U Can't Win. (Bottom of the webpage.) Yet it may, in some ways, be the War on Terror that has validated bin Laden's activities. As in, by waging a full-scale war on al-Qaeda we've validated them as an enemy. Instead of treating them as dangerous rogues, we've made them into a valid, cohesive enemy. But there again is our failure: that they aren't really a cohesive enemy and won't fight us in this traditional frame. We don't have a clear idea of what we're fighting for or fighting against; we can't, since our enemy hasn't taken on that cohesive a form. A War on Terrorism is unwinnable; could anyone think for a second that eliminating al-Qaeda will eliminate terrorism, that eliminating bin Laden will prevent another such demagogue from springing up in his place? A war on al-Qaeda, on the other hand, could be won, but are we better off declaring war--all-out, state-sponsored war--on a several hundred people than we are declaring war on an abstract concept?

Wikipedia has a pretty well-reasoned, fair and balanced definition of terrorism. The Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary beside my desk defines it as "[t]he unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons," not specifying the instigators beyond that.

While I recognize I'm walking a fine line here, I'm still not comfortable saying Bush is as bad as bin Laden--but more and more I wonder if it's just my American ignorance that allows me that discomfort. Our decision here, and it is one I have not yet made, is how much we accept the authority of a state to act as a force, an instigator, in a globalized society, how much the United States still gets to look out for number one. Bush's War on Terror does not, ultimately, conform either to the rules of war or to the rules of the country in which he lives and which he rules. If a state, in the current world, has more right to attack haphazardly, to inflict terror, to destabilize than has a rogue force more bound to a concept than a nation, then Bush ethically has the upper hand. But only then.

And if the state has more authority, than certainly the state has substantially greater responsibility to conduct itself ethically, ethically according to the codes it has set up within itself. Whatever difficulties there are with the Supreme Court (and soon-to-be Justice Alito), the Constitution embodies the ethics of government. The Constitution is a conscience. Upon ignoring it, one loses the right as a representative of the government to decry unconscionable actions and be listened to.

I wonder about the concept of a truce: obviously no one should accept a truce with unspecified terms, and there's no way to contact bin Laden, since any American who might happen to see him would be unable to resist killing him. But what's he asking for? Is it, indeed, a sign of defeat or suffering, as Cheney would have it? Certainly bin Laden is not sane enough that he'd ever stop what he has been doing for much of his life, and he's right that the greatest asset of terrorism with no allegiance to a state is that it can wait, and can hold societies in thrall just by waiting, and thereby take all the time it needs. I can't say I feel like making bin Laden a sympathetic figure, but why would he try for a truce? What does he have to gain? Did he simply want to flummox commentators, and so threw it in without any specifics purely for that purpose? Again, not something I would put past him. He may also want to appear to have a political (not religious) motivation, if a flimsy and cursory one. If the United States rejects his truce, as he might see it, they're inviting him to act.

The Bush administration's particular engagement with bin Laden has, in some ways, prevented our seeing him as insane. It engages with him as if he's not a rogue, not in combat, as if he might someday be bound by the same rules they pretend to be bound by, and should be bound by. He's not, and never will be. Someday America will be again. That, or it will cease to be America altogether. I guess both of those things are equally possible.

I can't say I hate America, or hate Americans. But I hate what this administration has caused "being American" to mean.


At 10:18 AM, Blogger Michael said...

It is a puzzlement, isn't it, Gemma. I note that one does not have to be "as bad as" someone else to still be bad. The present American administration is bad. Period. The fact that it runs and points the finger self-righteously at bin Laden or at Bill Clinton does not change its own illegal, immoral, scandalous and oppressive behavior. I am sickened that we have come to this point, and that we have done so with the overt or tacit collusion of the religious leadership of this country. I hate what "being Christian in America" has come to mean.

I do not approve of bin Laden, but then he is not my president. I have a responsibility to hold my elected representatives (all of them) accountable for what the government does. Come November, for a moment at least, some of the power is in my hands. How I use that is what I am responsible for.

(PS -- I am also responsible for letting those guys know what I think about what they are doing with my money. That is why God made e-mail and faxes and telephones and the USPS to operate on all the non-Election Days.)


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