by Lael Ewy
We call one person mad who attacks a public gathering for political purposes, but we call heroes those who “engage the enemy” knowing full well that innocent civilians will die in the process. Indeed, the war that we now look back on as “the good war” also brought us the concept of “total war” and involved both sides in the wholesale targeting of civilian populations in order the wear the enemy down and force a surrender.
Granted, some of our disconnect here involves how our media cover such events: the details of an “act of terrorism” are repeated endlessly and dissected microscopically; the families of those who died are interviewed, the life stories of the dead recounted. If any information at all is reported about the effects of war on “the enemy,” it's extremely vague, of the “we've got them on the run” variety, often reduced to number of missiles fired, sorties run, troops deployed, bodies recovered. In other words, “terrorism” has human effects and war has statistical effects.
But underlying the impulse to report this way we find, I believe, the heart of the matter: we judge the mass slaughter of innocent people not by its effects or by its real horror or even by its relative justice (or lack thereof) but by the perceived intentions of its perpetrators.
Killing a bunch of Afghans who had nothing to do with attacking us is acceptable because we believe that our intentions are pure, even if part of our strategy is to so terrify the population that it will no longer “harbor terrorists.” We judge the terrorists' intentions as impure and unjust (“What did we ever do to them?” we often ask.) based on what we see as individual motivations toward evil instead of selfless impulses of national defense.
But, of course, the terrorist, just like the soldier, believes that he is doing the right thing, defending his homeland from the imperialist West and his faith from the infidels.
And the effects on those who die are exactly the same: pain and trauma, destruction of bodies and disruption of lives.
In the end, both war and terrorism turn us all into psychopaths, allowing us to condone evil acts for the sake, we think, of noble causes.