The Spine

The President Finally Uses the Word "Terror." So Abdulmutallab Is No Longer an "Isolated Extremist." He Is a Muslim Terrorist.

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President Obama used the terms "terrorism" and "terrorist" six times in his weekly address to the nation. I don't know how long it has actually been since he’s uttered those words. But my memory is that it's been a very long time. By using them, however, he was able to make, as it were, structural corrections, talking about Al Qaeda as "a network of violence and hatred" strung out "from East Africa to Southeast Asia, from Europe to the Persian Gulf." I don't know why he didn't include America in this litany. After all, there was 9/11 eight-and-a-half years ago, Detroit really only yesterday, and much in between. Maybe he was just crossing his fingers, hoping against hope.

The New York Times also tried to make its amends ... or, rather, was forced by circumstances into doing so. And, yes, its editorial also used the words "terrorism" and "terrorist," locutions it otherwise quite faithfully avoids, especially in its news reports, lest the opprobrium of ideological murder prejudice the readers of the Times against its practitioners. What the Times editorial does do--quite respectably, as it happens--is narrate the terrible sequence of screw-ups made by our intelligence services and, not just coincidentally, by the intelligence services of Great Britain and, God help us, of Nigeria and Yemen. We are in a very bad way when we have to think of Nigeria and Yemen as reliable partners in this deadly business. These are certainly not nation-states; they are barely countries. Don't ask us to count on them, please.

Still, for both Obama and the editors of the Times, these are improvements in their understanding of the real world. So the president has dropped "isolated extremist" from his dogmatic vocabulary. The fact is that, in the world of terrorists, there are no isolated extremists. The "Unabomber" may have been an isolated extremist. But Dr. Hasan certainly wasn't. His, in fact, was the modern (or post-modern) paradigm. He was not at all isolated. He was connected, at minimum, by the Internet, whose communities are maybe superficial, but stable, hortatory, and instructive. This world may seem infinite to poets and maybe even to astronomers. But it really is not. I can reach millions of you in seconds, and so can terrorists. They reach each other that way, too.

Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish man of letters, wrote in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, just before committing a double-suicide with his wife, "When bombs laid waste the houses of Shanghai, we knew of it in our rooms in Europe before the wounded were carried out of their homes." He called this the "new organization of simultaneity." This was an insight from 1942. Almost seventy years later, you do not have to be philosophically advanced to see the phenomenon of simultaneity. You can be moral primitives, like Osama bin Laden and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and still be able to mobilize the high mechanics (and the low) of multiple deaths.

If the president were truly sentient, he would not be content to enumerate the macrophysics of what we have done: "[O]ur progress has been unmistakable... [W]e've disrupted terrorist financing, cut off recruiting chains, inflicted major losses on Al Qaeda's leadership, thwarted plots here in the United States, and saved countless American lives." Yes, I suppose, all true. Some of this may have to be wrapped in the clouds. I do not insist on the right to know. Perhaps some especially fervent civil libertarians will go to law for discovery.

But what has been the animating motive for the terrorist efforts to dispose of Americans and Europeans, Hindus and Christians, Jews and non-believers, and, of course, Muslims, albeit from antagonistic or divergent sects--infidels and heretics, really--in the religious vocabulary? It is an ideological certainty laced through the Islamic tradition and the Islamic present. 

The 95 men and boys murdered at the volleyball massacre in Shah Hassan Kehl are together the debris of this culture. They are not widely mourned. Only their mothers mourn. Why are there not protests in every Muslim city in the world at this deranged harvest of life? Or in London and Dearborn? I'll tell you why. Because, in the minds of many, this mass killing was a mere tactic. Compare the silence (and the glee?) at what happened in Pakistan on that playing field to what happened almost everywhere after twelve Danish cartoonists published their imaginings of Mohammed.

This is not all we need to grasp. So, in rendering the gross and the mad, we must be truthful about the essentials and about the shadings. No, it is not everybody--not by a long shot. But it is plenty. We must know whom we are fighting. Alas, if we don't also know what we are fighting and what we are fighting for, we are fighting blind.

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