Hunting the Terrorists — The Impact of Words on Actions

Implications can be very powerful tools. When the media hypes language using phrases, such as “hunting terrorists”, listeners should be concerned with the consequences. Not does this kind of phraseology raise ethical and moral questions but lays the groundwork for heavy-handed legislation down the road.

Connotations of Hunting Terrorists

In the Who or What are Contemporary Monsters? chapter, we provided a summary of the official U.S. rhetoric that was used to communicate why it was necessary to pursue the War on Terror. Before we turn to the question of who the terrorists are that threaten the U.S. and other—especially developed countries—it will be instructive to look at some of the specific government actions that have evolved out of this war. This will add an important dimension to our understanding of the terrorist monster, as he is symbolized in the Western mass media. By and large these actions are a logical extension of the heated rhetoric that was so well communicated in the years after the 9/11 attacks.

Sending soldiers to physically go after the terrorists to kill or capture them is and has been an important component in the War on Terror. When referring to this action, the news media typically report that U.S. forces are hunting them. This is an important description that contains some implications worth mentioning.

Since the 1930’s “hunts” have become an increasingly popular word to describe the activity state forces—police or military—engage in when they officially pursue someone in order to arrest them, especially when the individual has committed what is thought to be a particularly egregious act. Today, the hunt has become the standard metaphor for describing U.S. and coalition members’ efforts to find terrorists. The following is a quote from The New York Times:

“The killing of Mr. Zarqawi and five others gathered with him in an isolated safe house north of Baghdad was announced on Thursday morning, ending a long and often dispiriting hunt for the 39-year-old terrorist leader.” 1)Burns, John F. “After Long Hunt, U.S. Bombs Kill Al Qaeda Leader in Iraq.” The New York Times (June 9, 2006): A1(L). The New York Times. Gale. Manatee County Public Library System. (accessed October 19, 2009) Gale Document Number:A146808293

Civilized society, of course, doesn’t usually countenance the hunting of other human beings. We hunt animals. For most of us, the justification required to hunt something is that it’s somehow necessary to our survival. The hunt also has a long history describing what societies have done to protect themselves from witches—people who, it has been believed, have obtained extraordinary powers by aligning themselves with the supernatural, which, depending on your orientation, usually refers to the devil. It was commonly understood that these people had sold their souls—literally exchanged them for evil powers (Faust is a famous example). Of course, the proper, Christian thing to do was hunt and kill these soulless fiends whenever possible. They were monsters. And we know, based on the discussion in the first chapter, what needs to be done with monsters.

Witch-hunting was also used to describe going after Communists during the dark days of the First Red Scare (1917 – 1920) and the Second Red Scare (i.e., McCarthyism, 1947 – 1957). The First Red Scare had to do with Bolsheviks, Anarchists, and, under-pinning it all, workers’ rights (as opposed to capitalists’ rights). The Second Red Scare was more focused on communists infiltrating U.S. society and government. History regards these as “scares” because it is widely believed that hysteria was a powerful force driving the way society perceived and responded to these so-called threats. Action needed to be taken to protect the United States from those who wanted to destroy us. The Alien Registration Act (or Smith Act) of 1940 was created out of the tension of this period and was designed to protect the U.S. government from this threat. It language was broadly inclusive. The first paragraph reads:

“Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government…”

a succeeding paragraph goes on to state,

“Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both, and shall be ineligible for employment by the United States or any department or agency thereof, for the five years next following his conviction.” 2)For the full text, reference 18 USC Sec. 2385 at the web site for the Office of the Law Revision Counsel, U.S. House of Representatives, http://uscode.house.gov/search/criteria.shtml

The point here is that the words (and images) that society accepts to describe perceptions can have a significant impact on subsequent actions undertaken by its people and/or government. To repeatedly call a class of people an animal or worse carries powerful implications. By accepting this, you implicitly accept actions that are appropriate. Lynching, for example, may seem like an appropriate action when dealing with half-crazed gorillas intent on raping white women. Likewise, hunting a witch or a terrorist implies that it is logical to actually kill one should your mission be successful.

U.S. Terror Rhetoric Gives Birth to Legal and Policy Changes

Until 2009, if a hunt in the War on Terror yielded a capture rather than a kill, a suspected terrorist was brought into the U.S. legal system as an alien unlawful enemy combatant, a category of people who, according to Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brian Mizer (who defended Osama bin Laden’s driver at trial) do not exist under international law. 3)WILLIAM DOUGLAS AND CAROL ROSENBERG, “Obama administration dropping ‘enemy combatant’ term”, The Miami Herald, Saturday, 03.14.09,
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation/story/949260.html, (accessed October 19, 2009

Although the Obama Administration has yet to make any substantial changes to Bush terrorist policy, it has vowed to stop using the “alien unlawful enemy combatant” phrase. As of this writing, it has so far only committed to replacing it with the more sterile “detainee,” a designation that, like unlawful enemy combatant, is also not recognized as a prisoner of war under international law.

Dropping “alien” and “unlawful” yields the term “enemy combatant,” which is a class of human beings recognized under international law. As The Miami Herald points out 4)WILLIAM DOUGLAS AND CAROL ROSENBERG, “White House scraps term `enemy combatant'”, The Miami Herald, 3.13.09, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation/story/949019.html, (accessed October 21, 2009, the Obama White House has raised the standard a little for defining whether someone can be detained as a suspected terrorist. According to the Obama version, one must give “substantial” support to a terrorist group instead of merely just supporting it. The idea of substantial, of course, is open to interpretation. Interpretation depends on the level of fear shared by society at any given time. For example, in times of great fear, any support could be construed as substantial. The Obama change, therefore, can’t really be considered–forgive the pun–all that substantial.

Before we completely bury alien unlawful enemy combatant in the past, it will be important to note a couple of points. Aside from it being a pretty hideous-sounding phrase that could only be produced in the bowels of bureaucracy itself, the meaning clearly underscores the fact that a terrorist or insurgent is someone whom the U.S. does not view as a legitimate soldier or fighter. International laws governing war and treatment of soldiers, therefore, do not apply to them. The controversial Military Commissions Act of 2006 was written specifically for this species of sub-soldier. The definition 5)S.3930 Military Commissions Act of 2006, The Library of Congress > THOMAS Home > Bills, Resolutions, (accessed October 19, 2009 pretty much states that you fall into this category if you’re not fighting for a “State” and are somehow involved in hostilities against the U.S.:

“(1) UNLAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANT- (A) The term `unlawful enemy combatant’ means–

(i) a person who has engaged in hostilities or who has purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States or its co-belligerents who is not a lawful enemy combatant (including a person who is part of the Taliban, al Qaeda, or associated forces); or

(ii) a person who, before, on, or after the date of the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, has been determined to be an unlawful enemy combatant by a Combatant Status Review Tribunal or another competent tribunal established under the authority of the President or the Secretary of Defense.”

This definition is similar, in some ways, to the State Department’s definition of terrorist in the previous chapter. To understand what is really meant by an unlawful enemy combatant, one must also know what a “lawful enemy combatant” is. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 pretty much defines such a person as a fighter who is directly affiliated with a nation-state:

(3) LAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANT- The term `lawful enemy combatant’ means an individual who is–

“(A) a member of the regular forces of a State party engaged in hostilities against the United States;

(B) a member of a militia, volunteer corps, or organized resistance movement belonging to a State party engaged in such hostilities, which are under responsible command, wear a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry their arms openly, and abide by the law of war; or

(C) a member of a regular armed force who professes allegiance to a government engaged in such hostilities, but not recognized by the United States.”

In other words, to reiterate a point from the previous chapter, you are not a legitimate soldier if you’re not part of an official, national entity of a state recognized by the U.S. You are a terrorist or insurgent.

The Authority to Detain and Kill

For a number of obvious reasons, it’s much easier to hunt a terrorist or indefinitely imprison someone who is legally defined as an alien unlawful enemy combatant. We’ve been told that certain basic, inalienable rights, such as habeas corpus, the right to a fair and speedy trial, or the right not to be detained after acquittal 6)This right has been explained away by more bueauracratic jargon. In this case, the monarchical-sounding, presidential post-acquittal detention power need not apply. You are a monster, a butcher, a threat. The Voice of America reports 7)Elizabeth Lee, “Some Guantanamo Bay Detainees May Be Held Indefinitely”, VOANews.com English, 10 July 2009,
http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2009-07/2009-07-10-voa6.cfm
?CFID=317981055&CFTOKEN=80853266&jsessionid=66304400f27e7ff4bbd
37b6565721c114469
, accessed October 19, 2009
that Defense Department lawyer Jeh Johnson announced during a Senate hearing recently that one group of Guantanamo prisoners may remain behind bars indefinitely.

“There will be at the end of the review a category of people that we in the administration believe must be retained for reasons of public safety and national security, and they’re not necessarily people that we’ll prosecute,” Johnson said.

So much for due process and ancient western ideas of fair trials. Security concerns—protection from the monster—win the day.

Another safeguard of American freedom that has been undermined in the War on Terror involves judicial jurisdiction. One of the most controversial sections of the Military Commissions Act is the one that states that

“no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever, including any action pending on or filed after the date of the enactment of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, relating to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission under this chapter, including challenges to the lawfulness of procedures of military commissions under this chapter 8)Sec. 950j. Finality or proceedings, findings, and sentences, Military Commissions Act of 2006,
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c109:4:./temp/~c109QmwTzf:e8389:, (accessed October 19, 2009
.”

This seems more similar to an imperial decree than a democratic law.

In the months leading up to President Obama’s election in 2008, many people believed that the time was approaching when basic, internationally agreed-upon human rights and U.S. Constitutional Law might have some concrete influence on these assaults against long-cherished American ideals. It is disappointing to state that, so far, the actions and legal framework that was borne out of the language of the Bush years remains, for the most part, alive and kicking.

The question comes down to admitting who it is we’re fighting. If it’s really monsters—pure incarnations of evil—then perhaps we’re going about things in the right way. Why not kill them all? But do we, as a country or as a people, feel that we know our enemy well enough to really believe this? Are we satisfied with the monster explanation? Perhaps even monsters can be composed of more than just evil. Is it possible that terrorists can be human beings who believe they’re fighting and dying for a worthy cause? Could this be true for some of them? It’s pretty easy to comprehend how some terrorist leaders may simply be seeking to enhance their own power by exploiting current events to manipulate others into committing horrible acts. Is it possible that there could be both types of terrorists? Have we never had people in the U.S. who held positions of power and were willing to ruthlessly manipulate others for their own personal gain?

Let’s ask ourselves the question again. Who are these terrorists who want to kill us so badly?

Of course, males of Middle Eastern descent come to mind. Thinking about this a moment longer may, for most of us westerners, yield a few more nouns: Islamists 9)Wikipedia defines Islamism as “a set of ideologies holding that Islam is not only a religion but also a political system; that modern Muslims must return to their roots of their religion, and unite politically.” Wikipedia contributors, “Islamism,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Islamism&oldid=318933356 (accessed October 16, 2009
, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, maybe even some proper nouns like al-Zarqawi or bin Laden. Most of us can even recite the names of distant lands, like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Probably not much more readily comes to mind.

Isn’t this strange? Shouldn’t we know more about those whom necessity commands that we hunt and kill? At least a clearer idea why we must take their lives? Self-defense you say? But why do we need to defend ourselves? Is our curiosity and ethics so easily satisfied that we’re still willing to accept the they-hate-us-because-we’re-rich-and-free theory? This answer doesn’t offer much to hold on to. To think that we’ve spent unimaginable amounts of money to fight people who pose such an immense threat that we must fight what seems like endless multiple wars simultaneously and still not have a clear grasp on the reasons defies comprehension.

There must be a coherent and morally justifiable reason why it is necessary to fight and kill the terrorists. And if it’s simply self-defence, then there must be a clear reason behind why they want to kill us. Yet for most of us who consume the daily news, satisfactory answers have not been provided.

The next chapter asks who are the terrorists and why do they terrorize us? Why is the threat so grave that we must cast so many of our virtues aside to protect ourselves from them?

Whoever knowingly or willfully advocates, abets, advises, or

    teaches the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of

    overthrowing or destroying the government of the United States or

    the government of any State, Territory, District or Possession

    thereof, or the government of any political subdivision therein, by

    force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any

    such government;

References   [ + ]

1. Burns, John F. “After Long Hunt, U.S. Bombs Kill Al Qaeda Leader in Iraq.” The New York Times (June 9, 2006): A1(L). The New York Times. Gale. Manatee County Public Library System. (accessed October 19, 2009) Gale Document Number:A146808293
2. For the full text, reference 18 USC Sec. 2385 at the web site for the Office of the Law Revision Counsel, U.S. House of Representatives, http://uscode.house.gov/search/criteria.shtml
3. WILLIAM DOUGLAS AND CAROL ROSENBERG, “Obama administration dropping ‘enemy combatant’ term”, The Miami Herald, Saturday, 03.14.09,
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation/story/949260.html, (accessed October 19, 2009
4. WILLIAM DOUGLAS AND CAROL ROSENBERG, “White House scraps term `enemy combatant'”, The Miami Herald, 3.13.09, http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation/story/949019.html, (accessed October 21, 2009
5. S.3930 Military Commissions Act of 2006, The Library of Congress > THOMAS Home > Bills, Resolutions, (accessed October 19, 2009
6. This right has been explained away by more bueauracratic jargon. In this case, the monarchical-sounding, presidential post-acquittal detention power
7. Elizabeth Lee, “Some Guantanamo Bay Detainees May Be Held Indefinitely”, VOANews.com English, 10 July 2009,
http://www.voanews.com/english/archive/2009-07/2009-07-10-voa6.cfm
?CFID=317981055&CFTOKEN=80853266&jsessionid=66304400f27e7ff4bbd
37b6565721c114469
, accessed October 19, 2009
8. Sec. 950j. Finality or proceedings, findings, and sentences, Military Commissions Act of 2006,
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/F?c109:4:./temp/~c109QmwTzf:e8389:, (accessed October 19, 2009
9. Wikipedia defines Islamism as “a set of ideologies holding that Islam is not only a religion but also a political system; that modern Muslims must return to their roots of their religion, and unite politically.” Wikipedia contributors, “Islamism,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,
http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Islamism&oldid=318933356 (accessed October 16, 2009

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started ModernFolktales.com in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

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