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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Terror

The Bush administration is conducting a "war on terror," but policymakers and scholars do not have a simple consensus definition of terrorism.

Nonetheless, a few dimensions of terrorism are widely agreed, including the intentional use of violence against "noncombatant targets."

While the US State Department views terrorism as an act committed by non-state actors, the term originally referred to violence by states -- terrorizing their own polities:
Interestingly, the American definition of terrorism is a reversal of the word's original meaning, given in the Oxford English Dictionary as "government by intimidation". Today it usually refers to intimidation of governments.

The first recorded use of "terrorism" and "terrorist" was in 1795, relating to the Reign of Terror instituted by the French government.
September 11, 2001, was tragic, in large part, because of the death of nearly 3000 innocent noncombatants.

Why am I bringing this up?

Well, in the US, there has been surprisingly little public discussion of the innocent civilians killed in Iraq. They are quite significant, however. The Iraq Body Count project estimates that, as of today, at least 8900 civilian Iraqis have died as a direct result of the US military campaign. The same source gives a maximum number of 10,740.

The recent attacks on Fallujah (a city of 250,000), which some call reprisals for the deaths of four American contractors, apparently resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. The Christian Science Monitor reported "a US assault left 600 dead last week. The victims include hundreds of women and children, according to hospital and clinic records in Fallujah."

In any case, approximately three times as many innocent civilians are dead as a direct result of this part of the President's "war on terror" as occurred on September 11, 2001.

I know, these deaths, while unfortunate, are not always the result of targeted action. Many are "collateral damage."

Still, the main purpose of the "war on terror" is to protect innocent civilians and the perverse outcome is that it is killing innocent civilians.

Moreover, media reports are starting to suggest that the US military may be using disproportionate force that results in indiscriminant targeting. Last week, in a report originally appearing in the British newspaper The Telegraph, a "Senior British commander" was quoted anonymously from Iraq:
Speaking from his base in southern Iraq, the officer said: "My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are."

The officer explained that, under British military rules of war, British troops would never be given clearance to carry out attacks similar to those being conducted by the US military, in which helicopter gunships have been used on targets in urban areas.

British rules of engagement only allow troops to open fire when attacked, using the minimum force necessary and only at identified targets. The American approach was markedly different, the officer said.

"When US troops are attacked with mortars in Baghdad, they use mortar-locating radar to find the firing point and then attack the general area with artillery, even though the area they are attacking may be in the middle of a densely populated residential area.

"They may well kill the terrorists in the barrage, but they will also kill and maim innocent civilians. That has been their response on a number of occasions. It is trite, but American troops do shoot first and ask questions later."
The article notes that "The phrase untermenschen - literally 'under-people' - was brought to prominence by Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf, published in 1925. He used the term to describe those he regarded as racially inferior: Jews, Slavs and gypsies."

As I've blogged before, this is not the first time the US military has been accused of using excessive force in Iraq -- perhaps as a result of counterinsurgency lessons learned from Israel.

Question: How many innocent noncombatants must die from brutal violence in the name of protecting innocent civilians from terror?

I think this echoes John Kerry's questions from his famous testimony, April 22, 1971:
"We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? But we are trying to do that, and we are doing it with thousands of rationalizations..."
Before anyone tries to change the subject to alleged Iraqi WMD, keep in mind that the US isn't even guarding Iraqi nuclear facilities. Maybe I'll consider that soon.

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