Among the active public intellectuals, one of my favorites is Jeffery Sachs. He is a humanist, a fine economist, a thoughtful and compassionate man and a practical thinker. Often he’s about half right.
In a recently published short piece, Dr. Sachs argues that terrorist attacks such as the recent one in Paris are acts of war, and that until the Western powers cease their wars in the Muslim world, they are likely to continue. I think he’s half right.
For legal and rhetorical, as well as practical reasons, I think it is better to consider the terroristic attacks to be crimes rather than tactics of war. A digression:
In the early 1980s, when I was a newspaper reporter in Memphis, I covered the local angle of a bizarre story about some white supremacists who had bought an old, small warship, outfitted it with weapons and set out to establish an Aryan utopia on a Caribbean island known as Dominica. They were apprehended and prosecuted as criminals, which they were. They, of course, thought they were at war, and what they did was something a country at war might do. But they weren’t a country, they were just a bunch of crazy criminals.
To acknowledge that these fools were at war would have given them a number of advantages. It would have elevated their expedition into something notable and even, in a way, legitimate on the world stage. It would have been implicit recognition of their status as a nation-state, which is what they wanted. It would have allowed the use of the American military, other than the Coast Guard, against them, breaching the separation of foreign and domestic jurisdictions. It would have granted them status as combatants, as opposed to common thugs.
All of that is what happened three decades later, when George W. Bush, followed by Barack Obama, treated terroristic activities by certain thugs – though not others, such as Timothy McVeigh – as acts of war. Moreover, it plunged the United States into an extra-legal war footing from which no retreat is clearly apparent. We live in an age of presidents exercising war powers without any declaration of war, but without serious challenge from left or right.
That said, Sachs certainly is right that the acts of terror proceed from war (and, implicitly, that the “end of combat operations” here and there does not signal the cessation of hostilities), and that without the perpetually warring state of affairs in the Middle East, these acts would not occur. Moreover, these acts are directed at the West because the West continues to meddle in the Mideast and the disaffected people there make a connection – logical or not – between their troubles and the interfering capitalists of Europe and America.
Sachs’ conclusion, therefore, is logical enough: it is past time to turn our backs on war. This trouble would not have descended upon us had we not descended upon someone else to protect “interests,” all of which were vague, save oil. The oil, needless to say, comes with complications.
For starters, our wars have been waged at a ghastly expense: a trillion apiece or more. War as practiced by the United States these days is a high-tech business, and it doesn’t create a lot of jobs, but it does generate a lot of profits for, you know, interests.
Second, war is still old-fashioned in that it results in a great many deaths. America alone has spent nearly 4,500 soldiers’ lives in Iraq and upwards of 2,300 in Afghanistan. That doesn’t count other countries’ contributions, contractors, bystanders and the countless lives of people who are deemed enemies. It doesn’t count the civilians dead in drone attacks, or the ones who die, tortured and alone in prison, never charged and never tried.
Nor does it account for the hideously maimed and psychologically devastated people who come home. We make a habit of calling them heroes for defending our freedom, which helps to recruit more people behind them. It’s easier than saying, “No, your son didn’t die in vain. It was far worse than that. He died in the commission of a crime against humanity, and no one’s freedom was at stake. None of us can hold it against him, though. He believed his congressman, which young people tend to do.”