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Should Canada Fight the War on Terror?

July 27, 2008

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, American President George W. Bush was quick to declare a “War on Terror”. Canada joined in at least to the extent of marching into Afghanistan, and passing an arguably repressive Anti-Terrorism Act in order to better combat terrorist activity and terrorist financing on the home front.

I always thought the phrase “War on Terror” was a bit silly, for a reason cogently expressed by the Polish-born American strategic thinker Zbigniew Brzezinski :

Terrorism is not an enemy but a technique of warfare — political intimidation through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.

To adapt an analogy that I believe Brzezinski himself has used, my grandfather never went to war against the strategic concept of blitzkrieg. He went to war against Germany and Italy. This is more than a semantic quibble, since it makes the difference between an idealistic crusade against all movements that employ terrorism and a sensible policy of fighting those specific terrorists who represent a substantive threat to Canada and its allies.

Perhaps Canadian troops are not fighting a War on Terror in Afghanistan, bur rather a more specific War on Al-Qaeda or at least a War on Militant Islam. The need for Canada and other western countries to actively fight such a war is obviously debatable, a point I’ll return to in future posts. Insofar as the need exists, however, it arises more from the desire of the jihadists to attack the west than from the tactics they adopt. If jihadists everywhere swore off terrorism, and stuck to more chivalrous tactics, it would still be approximately as necessary to fight with them. It would just be easier.

My other objection to “War on Terror” rhetoric is that it gives too much prominence to a phenomenon that is basically peripheral. Of course a successful terrorist attack is tragic on a small, human scale, but then, so is a car crash. According to Wikipedia, the 3,000 or so 9/11 fatalities amount to well under 10% of the number of people who die in car crashes in America every year.

By all means, we Canadians should take a few sensible measures to protect ourselves from the very small number of militant Muslims who realistically aspire to launch terrorist attacks against us. But let’s fight this minor battle with cool heads, and not let it become a distraction from our real problems.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    August 21, 2008 6:50 am

    Renee — Sorry it’s taken so long to reply to your thoughtful comments. I’ve been off in the field again.

    You’ve done an excellent job of highlighting two pieces of lazy shorthand that I use on a regular basis – the terms “jihadist” and “the west”.

    To the best of my knowledge, “jihad” is in fact oddly analogous to the word “crusade”. Both can refer either to armed conflict in defense of Islam or Christianity, respectively, or more broadly to a “holy struggle” towards some morally desirable goal. I suppose a Muslim environmentalist might launch a peaceful jihad against deforestation, for instance. In my blog posts, however, I use “jihadist” to mean, roughly, “a person intent on using armed force against perceived enemies of Islam (either locally or on a global scale)”. So a farmer with a gun would be a jihadist if his (or, occasionally, her) motives for picking up the gun were primarily religious rather than, for example, patriotic. I realise that this is at best a narrow usage of the word “jihadist”, but I can’t really think of a better alternative. Suggestions would be welcome!

    On “the west”, I think the only sensible definitions are cultural. The question of delineating Canada’s sphere of influence – to the extent that we have an independent one at all – should be separate. I use “the west” to mean Canada, Europe, the Antipodes, and (grudgingly, for reasons I may get around to explaining some day) the United States. I think of these countries as the inheritors of European cultural traditions, although by this criterion at least parts of Latin America should probably be included as well.

    Anyway, more thoughts soon. Thanks for your comments, as always. It’s good to be back.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    August 8, 2008 7:45 pm

    Cor, a comment and two questions re this post:

    1. comment: i like it that you begin to deconstruct, both conceptually and semantically, the phrase, “The War on Terror”.
    More, please! and again, t’would be useful to get your take on G.Dwyer’s perspective in The Mess They Made on same.

    2. Queries/comments:
    -what’s a jihadist anyway. No trick question. Have you seen the movie, Babel?

    I realize i don’t really understand how/why/when men/women with guns and ill intent b/come “X” – and i think it’s significant in understanding “who is the ‘enemy'”.

    Jeffrey Simpson in a long-ago column in the G&M, wrote about how little we Canadians know about places like A-Stan – all the micro/cultures and layers of history (Russia/Pathans/British etc); about who becomes and stays a “jihadist” and who’s just a farmer with a gun etc

    and finally, how do we define what “The West” is – not just in a cultural/literary way but in a strategic realpolitk manner -eg. what is Canada’s sphere of influence etc. You know, all that NATO talk…

    As per my own blog posts, i’m very interested in how writers/thinkers/commentators imagine/construe/understand
    “The West” v “The East”. Your thoughts?

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