August 17, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense
Travel is educational.
Recently, I have crossed the Atlantic six times, making three trips
to three different European cities. I've learned two things: (1)
international air travel is about one step up from riding a cattle
car, and (2) Europeans still don't get the war on terror.
Five years after 9/11, many Europeans argue the best way to deal with terrorism is to deploy cadres of cops, intelligence analysts, public relations specialists and social workers. Calling it a "war," they argue, only "antagonizes" the peoples and places that produce terrorists, thus making it harder to address the root causes.
Many Europeans also fear that labeling the hunt for terrorists a "war" gives America a "license to kill" -- unleashing the Pentagon's unchecked military power on a defenseless world, like some kind of Mongol horde.
The European desire to debate words is more about fighting a silly semantic battle to constrain American power than a serious exercise in stopping terrorism. And it is just flat unproductive -- in part, because it is not a real debate.
The United States has never contended that terrorists can be fought with armies alone, by unilateral U.S. strategies, or by ignoring the rule of law. Some Europeans may take issue with how America deals with unlawful combatants, how we gather information or how we attempt to discredit terrorist ideologies. But none of those policy differences will be solved by simply banning the word "war." They can be addressed only by serious discussions that recognize we have common interests and goals: keeping terrorism from becoming a transnational corporate enterprise.
Simply put, terrorists are trying to kill us. We must stop them. We should invest our energies in deciding the best ways to do that, not in arguing over terminology.
There's another, far more important reason not to shrink from calling the war a war. Denying we're at war with the terrorists may actually encourage terrorism. While Europeans feel that talk of war is "antagonizing," the terrorists believe that those unwilling to fight a war display a lack of honor -- even cowardice.
The Western conception of honor is colored by generations of Judeo-Christian heritage that have fused it with notions of morality, virtue and principles. Bin Laden's concept of honor is untainted by gentlemanly Western values. It draws on a more traditional and fundamental concept of honor, one that remains prevalent outside the Western world.
To terrorists, honor is simply maintaining (through deeds and words) the good opinion of people that matter -- whether it is the family, tribe, village or larger groups. "Honor" killings and rapes, for example, are honorable acts because they restore the status of the family or individual in the community.
Bin Laden and his ilk certainly think they're honorable -- despite the fact that what they do is illegal, immoral and heretical. And they certainly believe they're at war with us.
Their perversion of a legitimate religious obligation described in the Koran as jihad essentially calls for their followers to make war on anyone who doesn't subscribe to their authority. In their twisted world of ideas, they believe they're performing an honorable act -- recovering the good name of their people who have been assaulted by Western perversions like sexual equality, democracy and secularism.
If the West refuses to engage in "war," it signals to our enemies that we lack the courage and strength to defend our own culture and ideas. That would confirm for bin Laden and others that modern Western ways are corrupt and devoid of honor. And it would reaffirm al Qaeda's belief in its own propaganda, which says Western nations are a "paper tiger." A lack of resolve invites, rather than deters, aggression.
To beat bin Laden, we must convince him that we are warriors -- as fierce and determined as he -- and convince the non-Western world that what we stand for is honorable and worth fighting for.
We must also make a sincere effort to convince ethnic groups, countries and religious sects that we are not at war with them. They are not our enemies; only those who try to kill us are.
We can win the long war by fighting it the right way, the honorable way. But we cannot win by denying we are at war with murderers intent on slaughtering innocents.
Too many Europeans remain reluctant to acknowledge the hard truth that there is a war to be won and they are in it. Their denial only emboldens our common enemy.
James Carafano is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org), and author of the new book "G.I. Ingenuity."
Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune wire