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What Seven Years Have Taught Us

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September 13, 2008

The insightful Suzanne Spaulding has a great Op-Ed in the Guardian on Thursday. Spaulding is the former Assistant General Counsel at the CIA and has spent the last 20 years handling national security issues for Congress and the Executive Branch. She argues that in order to effectively fight terrorism, the U.S. will have to abandon the politics of fear that characterized a September 12, 2001 mentality.

She pays particular attention to the language we use to talk about terrorism. Spaulding argues that the gratuitous use of terms like “jihadist”, “crusade”, and “global war on terror” after 9/11 helped to unite disparate dangerous groups and grant them legitimacy they did not have on their own. She writes:

Giving terrorists their long-desired but unmerited status as global “holy warriors” reflects a failure to heed the lessons learned in the years since September 12, 2001 — and it strengthens our enemy.

If nothing else, the musings of a certain Secretary of Defense (known unknowns, unknown unknowns…) and a grammatically challenged President have shown us that words really do matter. So the rhetoric of “balancing” civil liberties and security that permeated dialogue after the September 11 attacks has serious implications. Spaulding leaves unanswered the question of why politicians continue to use that language, even after intelligence agencies and the C.I.A. have warned that it puts us in more danger, but it’s an important one to ask.

Spaulding does point out that the things that define the United States — civil liberties and democracy key among them — are what we cannot compromise if we want to win an ideological fight. Warrantless spying, rendition, torture, excessive secrecy, indefinite detention, and other constitutional violations don’t help but harm us in the end:

On September 12, we thought we could defeat terrorism by going to war. Today, most of us understand that we are engaged in a battle for hearts and minds, competing against the terrorists’ narrative of a glorious “global jihad” that attracts idealistic young people looking for answers. The image of America ensuring that even suspected terrorists get their day in court is a powerful antidote to the twisted allure of terrorism. Continuing to work toward the ideal of the shining city on the hill, contrary to the fears of some, is how this country will ultimately prevail against the terrorists.

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