One of my favorite actors was the late Sir Peter Ustinov. Sir Peter was not just a thespian, but an outspoken intellectual, journalist, representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and past President of the World Federalist Movement, which was an attempt to create global citizenship and thus forestall the possibility of another world war.
I’m particularly fond of one of Ustinov’s more pithy observations: “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”
This should be clear to most people who have sympathy for the world’s dispossessed hordes. Yet, in this new era of stupidity, it behooves me to have to declare yet again that acceptance of Ustinov’s axiom is in no way admission of support for terrorists. If anything, it’s a further disavowal of terrorism, as the quote lumps the tactic in with the great obscenity of civilization: war.
Yet therein lies the unspoken pathology of the present pro-war set: one may offer rhetoric to the effect that war is bad and needs to be avoided, but a current of militaristic fetishism runs deeply through such declarations, borne out through the constant reassertion of the glories of traditional military trappings: uniforms, ballads, flags, worn out slogans, and the like.
I believe Ustinov’s quote comes close to revealing the true source of discontentment from which the more virulent of the pro-war crowd suffers. If, as Ustinov correctly observes, terrorism and warfare are two sides of the same coin, how truly thin is the disk of metal that separates them?
If one defines terrorism as violent acts deliberately perpetrated upon civilian populations in order to attain political goals (a commonly accepted definition), then traditional warriors certainly qualify. The Nazis were terrorists for establishing death camps and for raining bombs down on London during the Blitz. The Allies were also terrorists for flattening Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, since the killing of civilians was the primary goal. Even in situations of what modern spin-doctors call “collateral damage,” wherein civilian deaths are incidental to the destruction of military targets, the defense is disingenuous, since if civilian death are expected, then they are de factotargets and hence are victims of terrorism. This is especially true when the goal of the operation is as much psychological as it is military, as in George Bush’s “Shock and Awe” stratagem in Iraq. In legal cliché, “intent follows the bullet.”
What then is the difference between “warriors” and “terrorists”? The difference is in the trappings. We of the “civilized” world dress up our “warriors” in uniforms that are fetishized by fashionistas and undersexed young people. We march our beloved soldiers out to standard drumbeats and to the strains of military marching bands. We wave flags that somehow have attained the status of personages, to the extent that in many armies the only right action after losing one’s flag to the enemy is to kill oneself.
All these trappings, you must admit, are frail and feeble and desperately transparent in their attempt to distract us from the true task of their bearers: to kill other people. How then did the word “warrior” take on a positive connotation in our culture? In one of the Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker tells Yoda he is seeking a “great warrior,” and Yoda wisely responds that wars do not make one great.
A warrior is someone who makes war, kills people, destroys property, causes suffering and mayhem. Yet every society seeks to grant such individuals—criminals in any other context—the shimmer of honor. We do this because the alternative is to slide into guilty, self-hating despair. We must inoculate our warriors, and thus ourselves, against such self-hatred, lest the ugly truth of our actions overwhelm us. The substance of such inoculation is pomp, rhetoric, and pageantry, and even the mysterious and mythical “honor” that supposedly besets the warrior creed.
Terrorists, according to Ustinov, are the warriors of the poor—with the word “warrior” used here in its true, unglorified meaning. But they have no such trappings under which to hide their shame, no societal inoculation, save a dogmatic belief in their cause. It is this thin and artificial veil that separates suicide bombers from B2 bombers. And it is the thinness of this veil that makes many of the hawks of the West uncomfortable: to honestly consider the motivations of terrorists is to compel oneself to honestly consider the motivations of the military actions of one’s own cultures and countries. And for many, that is an unpalatable prospect. For the truly unsettled, to see oneself in the actions of one’s enemy is a painful exercise akin to psychotherapy: only the strong and centered can survive it.
To be a “peace-keeper” is an honorable trade. To “police” a zone, prevent crime, protect the weak, and provide a psychologically buttressing presence are worthy activities for those who seek to make the carrying of assault weapons their main trade. But to make war against the innocent who have not harmed or threatened you, whether traditionally under a flag and wearing drab olive, or asymmetrically while dressed in civilian garb or a vest of explosives, is supremely psychologically and morally transgressive.
We will necessarily argue that armed action, while ugly, is nonetheless sometimes necessary. Let’s at least have the courage to admit that the killing of civilians, either by targeted terrorism or expected “collateral damage” is murder, and stop hiding behind the unconvincing veneer of honor, religion, and tradition.
Raywat Deonandan is the author of Divine Elemental and Sweet Like Saltwater and winner of the 2000 National Book Award of Guyana.