Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Who are the insurgents?

Washington rhetoric about the war raises many questions.

By Rob Elder

In war, he who rules the rhetoric controls the high ground.

Take the current term for people we are fighting in Iraq. Previously, Washington officials called them Saddam sympathizers and foreign terrorists. But most are Iraqis and many never liked Saddam. So now they're "insurgents.''

If you ask Google for a definition of insurgent, you get "a person who takes part in an armed rebellion against the constituted authority (especially in the hope of improving conditions).''

That's not so bad. But my Random House Thesaurus associates insurgent with synonyms including rebel, traitor, turncoat, deserter, anarchist, dissenter, malcontent, maverick and upstart.

Those sound like bad guys to me. But if the Iraqis are the insurgents, how come we're the ones shooting up their country and trying to get them to adopt our kind of government?

Much of the rhetoric about Iraq raises questions. President Bush keeps saying Iraqis want freedom. But freedom from what? And to do what?

Might the residents of Baghdad want freedom from Paul Bremer, the American running the occupation government? It's pretty clear that people who live in Al-Fallujah want freedom from the U.S. Marines. And I'd guess a lot of Marines would love to be free of a war that makes our reasons for having fought in Vietnam seem clear and straightforward, by comparison.

The rhetoric Washington applies to the war against terrorism raises even more questions. This is important, because labeling it as a war has given the president and other parts of the federal government powers they would not have if this were an international police action.

Can the government arrest American citizens and hold them without charges in a military prison? Yes, the administration argued last week before the Supreme Court, because this is wartime.

The court will decide, but meanwhile we're left to wonder what it would mean to win or lose this war. Despite his use of wartime rhetoric, the president hasn't spelled out anything about defeat or victory.

Surely victory can't be defined as wiping out every terrorist everywhere, or, by definition, we can't win. Avoiding more attacks like 9/11 is certainly part of what we mean by winning the war; so is keeping known terrorists on the run. But is the war in Iraq synonymous with the war on terrorism? Washington isn't even consistent about what it means to win in Iraq.

It's easier to talk about what it would mean to lose the war on terrorism.

Suffering more major attacks on Americans at home or abroad would be part of that, but not just in the obvious sense of lost lives and real estate. Terrorists win this war if they frighten us into becoming more like them: ruthless people with no regard for law.

Writing in the New York Times Magazine May 2, Michael Ignatieff argues we could lose this war in several ways. One would be to empower the president, the CIA and other parts of the government to act secretly and arbitrarily, without restraint of law.

And that brings us back to rhetoric. In times of peril, it is particularly important for America's leaders to be clear and frank. Instead, President Bush has said almost nothing about the sacrifices Americans may have to make in the war on terrorism. The Pentagon hasn't even wanted Americans to see the flag-draped coffins of dead Americans returning from Iraq.

The president keeps talking about freedom. In fact, Americans forfeit precious freedoms in wartime, for practical reasons. Men and women in the military reserves and National Guard have temporarily lost the freedom to pursue their careers and be with their families. They and career military people alike are not free to put themselves out of harm's way. Before this war is over, Americans in general may give up some of the civil liberties we take for granted.

But if in the process we give up the rule of law and our all-important checks and balances, we lose.

"Regulating a war on terror with ethical rules and democratic oversight is much harder than regulating traditional wars,'' Ignatieff says. And I say a government that wants to keep ethical rules and democratic oversight must quit using euphemisms and empty generalities and talk clearly and frankly to the American people — even in an election year.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday, May 5, 2004.

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