Shortly before the news broke today about the Virginia Tech shootings I was reading about a Brit candidate’s decision to dump the whole “War on Terror” rhetoric and after, I can’t stop thinking about this:
“In the UK, we do not use the phrase ‘war on terror’ because we can’t win by military means alone, and because this isn’t us against one organized enemy with a clear identity and coherent set of objectives,” he said.
“What these (terrorist) groups want is to force their individual and narrow values on others, without dialogue, without debate, through violence. And by letting them feel part of something bigger, we give them strength.”
In the coming days we’re going to get a lot crap from the national press. A lot of national therapy, a lot of excuses, a lot of blaming this person or that person, this law or that law. There are going to be stories about gun regulations in Virginia and elsewhere. There are going to be special segments about security on college campuses everywhere. Some of the discussion will be well-informed and practical. Most of it won’t be.
Most of it will be, as Scout wrote to me in an e-mail earlier today, an attempt to make sense of the senseless. Most of it will be, as Mike often calls it, the Oprah-ization of the evening news, the kind of coverage that makes me want to tear my hair out, the kind of stories designed to make those far away from whatever is going on feel better about putting it back in the mental drawer they use to store tragedies, senseless and otherwise. Most of it will be an attempt to Get Us All Through This, Make Us Feel United, the kind of stuff we had for a few months after Sept. 11 until people realized they didn’t actually love their families more because 3,000 strangers died, and they didn’t want to go back to church again on the backs of murdered fellow citizens. Most of it will be horseshit, in other words, and not useful to anyone.
There probably won’t be a lot of discussion about this being terrorism. Though it was. And there probably won’t be a lot of discussion about how this fits into our ideas of safety and national security. Though it should. The “War on Terror” isn’t a failure because you can’t war against a concept — of course you can. But we defined terror too narrowly, we made the idea too small. What happened in Virginia is terror, too, and what happens everywhere in this country when someone dies a violent death is terror. I had a conversation with a comedian after 9/11, maybe two weeks later, and though I can’t remember his name I’ll never forget what he said: “Every day is 9/11 for somebody.”
Our country does in fact need a War on Terror. I just don’t think that word means what for the past seven years we’ve taken it to mean.