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How We Lost the War

‘The War on Terror’. It is not a phrase you hear much any more. The reason for its decline in usage is simple enough. We lost. If we had won, we would have never have heard the end of it.

The War on Terror was never going to be won or lost the same as other wars. Tell-tale signs of who wins or loses a war usually come at the end. It comes in the form of who surrenders, where the new borders are, how many bodies are buried, whose anthem you are made to listen to and whose flag you find yourself saluting. Not so with the War on Terror. The War on Terror was not a fight over land. The War on Terror was a fight over freedom. Apparently we had it, and the terrorists did not like it. They were going to take it away, by killing a few of us and scaring the remainder. That means that a victory in this war is measured in increased freedom. And that is why I am sure we must have lost.

The truly scary thing about terrorism is the idea that you live your meaningless, hum-drum and generally unexciting life and suddenly – boom! – you are dead. You get on a bus or plane or train, walk down the wrong street or into the wrong building and there you come to an abrupt end. One minute you are considering what to eat for dinner. The next minute you are never going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature or become an international playboy or win the lottery or a million other things you were never going to do anyway. Whilst alive, you have hope. When dead, your story is over. The terrorists will randomly, meaninglessly, cut your life short. Of course, people lose their lives every day because of a million-and-one random, meaningless acts. Your car crashes because the accelerator got stuck. You fall off your skis and hit your head. You do not visit the doctor and ask her to check that new lump. You live in Haiti and there is an earthquake. You live in the Congo and a mosquito bites you. So why no War on Skiing? Why no War on Malaria? Why no War on Earthquakes or Cancer or Toyota? It is because we do what we want to do and we want to drive cars and to ski and to spend our time watching television instead of seeing the doctor or designing a better accelerator pedal. And it is because we live in a world with earthquakes and diseases and danger and we accept that. The difference with terror is that, unlike skiers or Toyota or mosquitoes, terrorists mean to kill other people, and if their tactics seem to work, they may do it more.

The problem with dealing with terrorists is they do not know what they want. Or rather, they know what they want, but have no idea how to get it. Terrorists want things like a planet where everyone thinks like them, or glory in the afterlife. Their ultimate goals are fantastic. They are unattainable and disconnected from what the terrorists actually do. The terrorists chances of success are as good as the chances of doctors finding a cure for cancer with bombs or the chances that Toyota will build better cars using bombs. In this world, it is perfectly possible for somebody to want something and have no idea how to get it. That somebody may then do something irrelevant and nasty in the false belief it will help them achieve their goal. We have seen this conundrum with the human race many times before. Worried about the next harvest? Sacrifice someone. Suffering bad luck? Burn the local witch. The terrorists are just the modern incarnation of the innate human propensity to foolishly attempt to solve problems through a futile murder. The War on Terror was a war on a method, not on a country. The method is flawed, because violence does not beget a better harvest or a brotherhood of man. But then, the method to fight terrorism is just as flawed. Killing the terrorists is pointless if new people are born who replenish the ranks of the terrorists. The education that murder is a potential route to success lasts longer than the fear of retributive violence.

We could allow terrorists to believe what they want to believe and then kill them if they act on their beliefs. A better approach might be to change their beliefs. In Afghanistan, the US scored a great victory over the ailing Soviet Union by giving weapons to people who, by most definitions, deserve to be called terrorists. I call that a kind of education – the education that terrorism can lead to success. When the Soviets were defeated, the American money stopped. A better US investment would have been to put dollars into schools. Education would have been a better long-term investment than waiting until the time to fight another war. The West started losing the War on Terror even before it realized the War had begun. We started losing by placing our trust in the wrong methods to achieve our goals. In that respect, we were just as misguided as the terrorists. We were wrong to believe that the threat of greater violence can stop people being violent. We were wrong to believe that spending on being violent to our enemies and spending on security at home is more cost-effective than educating people to stop being violent. Our beliefs were as wrong as those of the terrorist.

It is a poor doctor that treats symptoms and not the cause. We lost the war because we became preoccupied with symptoms and ignored the ailment. Terrorism is a cancer, but killing the cancer with violence only prompts more cancer. Better to live a healthy life and reduce the chances of getting sick in the first place. The discipline of freedom is that we must use it well in order to preserve it. We had the freedom to educate; we did not use it well. Now, we fight violence with violence and sacrifice the one thing we were fighting for: our freedom. We spend on spying on ourselves. We spend on listening to our own conversations. We spend on searching ourselves as we board flights. We spend and spend and spend, and mostly we spend to make ourselves less free, because we do not trust what the terrorist will do with his freedom. We could have spent on educating our potential enemies. We could have given our potential enemy something valuable that would have been diminished each time they kill: the loss of friendships, trade, knowledge, and of their own freedom. If these things have no value to the terrorist, we should spend more on making them valuable to all. Better that than spending on making them less valuable to us.

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