Studying the T-Threat

The T-word was back in the news this week as the U.S. Supreme Court upheld laws barring material support to “terrorist” organizations, even if, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “the supporters meant to promote only the groups’ nonviolent ends.” Alas, “nonviolent terrorists” is an oxymoron, and its use underscores the struggle faced in simply identifying our foes.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle - (click to reprint)

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle - (click to reprint)

In the latest National Security Strategy, published last month by the Obama Administration, the word “terrorism” in its various forms ““ terror, terrorist, etc. ““ appears 57 times. The nub of the document’s 52 pages, essentially consistent with the view of prior administrations, is: “The American people face no greater or more urgent danger than a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon.”

These ambiguously defined nuke-toting terrorists would seem to include all foes ““ political, religious or simply demented ““ who target civilians with violence. Indeed, the threats we face, especially within our own borders, have become so sweeping that to speak of a “terrorist attack” is the same as saying, “we fear attacks by attackers.”

Since 9/11, when so much changed in our view of domestic threats and foreign policies, we seem at times to be bogged down in a war of words. Terrorism, for instance, is a tactic, not a opponent. Moreover, it is a tactic sometimes practiced by states as well as non-state groups. And the killing of civilians, although often the result of an act of terrorism, is not a defining element of the tactic.

It is difficult to defeat an enemy without first identifying it and understanding its ideology.

Such work is occurring at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, where this fall the nation’s first masters program will be offered in nonproliferation and terrorism. Among the early lessons taught by Jeffrey Bale, the director of terrorism research, is that “most definitions of terrorism ““ including those employed by many government agencies ““ are imprecise if not seriously misleading.”

According to Bale, terrorists select victims “for their symbolic or representative value, as a means of instilling anxiety in, transmitting one or more messages to, and thereby manipulating the attitudes and behavior of a wider target audience or audiences.” Absent from his definition is any mention of civilians or religious groups.

“Even within the U.S. government,” he adds, “there are probably 13 different definitions of terrorism, and most of them miss the point.

What about the nuclear threat, the one given so much weight by government policy makers?

“I don’t think it’s a particularly imminent threat,” says Bale. “Within the vast array of extremist groups that use violence, there’s only a small subset that’s interested in using chemical, biological or radiological materials, and within that group there’s an even smaller subset with the resources and means to do it. Such an attack is not likely.”

But the most controversial element in the Obama administration’s security statement isn’t defining terrorism or its weapons of choice, but whether to put a face ““ or at least a clear label ““ on the “enemy.” Even more so than the Bush administration, which targeted those who would “exploit the proud religion of Islam,” current leadership is fearful of identifying violent Islamist extremists as the greatest threat to U.S. security.

Obama’s top advisor on terrorism, John O. Brennan, insists that terms “jihadists” or “Islamists” are inappropriate because their use would “play into the false perception” that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are “religious leaders and defending a holy cause, when in fact, they are nothing more than murderers.”

Prof. Bale, an Obama supporter, sees it differently. “This is the one area of his policy that is potentially catastrophic. It’s just muddying the waters and making it impossible for people to clearly understand the agenda of the enemy.”

What undoubtedly concerns the administration is that so many Americans incorrectly see all Muslims as enemies, real or potential; worse, that an increasing number of the world’s peace loving Muslims believe such a distorted view to be U.S. policy.

Which approach would best address the problem: not labeling an enemy so as to avoid misperception? Or carefully identifying the violent Islamist component to make clear that the vast majority of the world’s billion Muslims do not fall within those ranks?

Like the “war” on terrorism, the war of words can’t ever be won. But seeking to understand and properly identify our enemies is certainly a battle worth waging.


Peter Funt writes about newspapers at: and may be reached at: .

©2010 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail [email protected]

Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He’s also the long-time host of “Candid Camera.” A collection of his DVDs is available at

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