12/30/2005 10:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Othello, Anyone?

Perhaps, one of the most helpful ways of thinking about the current state of hostilities was reported to me by a friend,from an article that she had read. Purportedly, this article claimed that we have been fighting the war on terror as if it were analogous to a game of chess. You martial your resources, you array them on the battlefield, and you march across the field to take territory and, ultimately, the enemy king. However, this writer suggested that the better analog would be the game Othello. Here, the goal is not so much to take territory or to capture pieces, but rather to transform the other side into being just like you.
You know the game, right? Both sides start out with a number of disks, black on one side and white on the other. After initial set up, the players add one disk at a time seeking to flank opposing disks, thus flipping them to your color. Simple to learn, complex to master. Once the disks are played, the winner is the one who has succeeded in making the board mostly his/her color. As I said at the start, the goal is to transform the other side into being just like you. Well, if this is the correct analog for the "war on terror," the winner will be the one who succeeds in making the other side more like them. So, how are we doing?
Well, the predominant response to the horrific attacks of 9/11 was expressed by the oft-cited comment made by a foreign leader to the effect that "we are all Americans today." Several responses were open to us at that time, and it is appropriate now to reflect on the ones we took to see if, along the lines of Othello, we are flipping or being flipped.

1. It is interesting that the one of the president's first responses was to declare that "you are either for us or against us." Recall bin Laden's earlier announced fatwa, declaring all US citizens to be enemy targets? Guilt by association--you are either with us or with them, against us or against them.
2. One of the tools used by the likes of bin Laden is fear-mongering and demonization. They view America as "the great satan," and our culture as corrupt. The administration has consistently appealed to fear to empower themselves and their policies--"they are not like us," "they hate our freedoms," "they are evil incarnate."
3. Both sides have made frequent appeal to religious justifications for engaging in war with the other side. The implication by both sides is that those warring with the other are most aligned against God's will. Neither side has made any serious attempt to decouple religion from this war; rather, quite the opposite.
4. We have often railed against the lack of freedoms that bin Laden and his ilk are willing to grant in their cultures. We have recently discovered that this administration has been engaged in spying on its own citizens. Much has been written of the undermining of basic civil liberties contained in the so-called patriot act. Sometimes, we have to wonder if it is only "they" who hate our freedoms.
5. We have long been a champion of basic human rights--including the right to be free from torture and inhumane treatment. That was something only the bad guys do, but now we have an administration openly decrying any efforts to put teeth into restrictions on such behavior. Further, frequent disclosures have trickled out over the last year regarding our own use of torture.
6. We do not intentionally target non-combatants, yet reports put the loss of Iraqis as high as 100,000 plus (though, the power of presidential suggestion is evident when Bush's number of 30,000 has become the new standard). "They," on the other hand, intentionally target civilians. There is no moral equivalency here--intentionally targeting non-combatants is clearly more evil than killing them unintentionally. We should remember, though, to say we have engaged in a lesser degree of evil does not transform that evil into a moral good.
7. They kidnap and "disappear" folks; we "extraordinarily render" folks.

One could expand the list, but the point is evident: one cannot defend "our way of life and values" by sacrificing them. This only transforms us into the thing we fight against. Who knows what 2006 will bring? Yet, as we sit at the close of 2005, one cannot help but hope that the idea that Othello rather than chess is the proper analog for the "war on terror" is mistaken. At this point, doesn't it look like "they" are winning?

(This is a summary of a longer essay that can be found