When Bush Redefines "War"
On Unequal Deaths: Some are Criticized and Others Passed Over in Silence
By Thomas Rothschild
[This article originally published in: Freitag 49, November 28, 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.freitag.de/2003/49/03/03490701.php.]
George W. Bush used a semantic trick to justify his offensive wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Numerous politicians and journalists of the western world fell for that or consciously adopted the trick themselves. He redefined the term "war". As everybody knows, terminological definitions are arbitrary. These definitions are based on conventions that are accepted more or less by members of a communication society and become common understanding. We think we know what someone means when he speaks of "bread", "longing" or "Europe". When someone speaks of "bread", "longing" or "Europe", "bread" means any edible product from baked dough, "longing" that painful feeling or "Europe" the European continent (as occasionally happens in Great Britain), these decisions are not wrong but impractical and lead to misunderstandings as long as the communication community has not agreed on these new definitions. This can happen explicitly or gradually through adaptation...
When Bush redefines "war", this has massive ideological consequences and isn't a harmless language-game. War is usually defined as "a conflict between states or nations carried out with force of arms". The strikes of terrorists that Bush calls a "war against civilization" are obviously not a war in this sense. The term "terror" seems problematic. Up to September 11, 2001, no one thought of describing the actions of terrorists as "war". The reactions to terror involved other measures than war. When attacks like those of September 11 or Istanbul are categorized as war, then a war in the conventional sense appears as an adequate reaction. Who began the war according to this official version? The Tschechnians, the Palestinian "terrorists" or the murdering armies of militarily superior states occupying their territories?
With the same justification as mass murders of terrorist associations or lone operators, one could proclaim war prevails where states or nations allow the avoidable deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. According to this definition, the rich nations long ago began a war to which terror responds.
The objection is often made that there is no causal connection between the exploitation of the third world and the actual terror. The authors of terror are not the ones who suffer the "war" of the rich against the poor. However this is a half-truth. The terrorists would have had no success if they couldn't count on the approval of those who see an act of compensation for sustained injustice in terror strikes. For them the most brutal murderer is a kind of Robin Hood. They are not satisfied by strikes against the (joint) causal agents of their distress. However at least a desire for revenge based on an elementary need for justice is satisfied. The Russian anarchists and the Narodniki who fought against czarism and for the poorest of the poor - occasionally with terrorist means - belonged to the aristocracy and upper middle class. The peasants released from serfdom were not in a position for this.
What makes terror strikes like those in Istanbul or Manhattan appear so dramatic for people in rich countries, what contributes to a feeling of threat, is their arbitrariness in the choice of victims. These strikes can befall anyone. "Innocent victims" is a meaningless phrase.. How culpable are persons liable for military service who are sent into a war - in the traditional understanding? How culpable must one be to deserve the death penalty? How culpable are the civilians whose death is "taken in the bargain" according to the mercantile expression in the alleged struggle against terror?
Are the Africans who die of Aids responsible because their medicines are withheld from them? No. What is necessary is a fundamental re-orientation of the rich countries, help for the third world deserving this name, turning their mind back to a central virtue of the past working class movement, international solidarity. A little of that spirit appears whenever there is a flood in their own country.
Every murdered one in Istanbul or New York is one dead too many. Nothing can justify a murder. But every starving child is a victim in a war that did not begin on September 11, 2001. Whoever grieves one dead and is silent about another makes himself suspect of complicity.