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Daniel Goldin Headshot

Becoming the Enemy

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A few years ago, The Onion ran a headline, "Drugs Win Drug War." The ridiculousness of the headline pointed up the meaninglessness of declaring war on a product. It also told a twisted truth. If it were possible to wage war on a product, this particular product would be winning.

It is time to run a new headline, "Terror wins War on Terror." As has been noted by others (see Soros), the "War on terror" is a false metaphor. You cannot wage war against an emotion, any more than you can wage war against a product. But if you could... terror would be winning. And at least in part by our own doing. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, enhanced interrogation techniques -- these are ways to increase the stock of terror in the world, not decrease it. The truth is we aren't fighting a war against terror. We are setting up a competitive shop.

Consider what overwhelming terror does to the individual. Terror works its black magic by causing a dissociative response in its victim. Parts of the brain stop speaking to one another. PET scans of PTSD patients listening to descriptions of their terrifying traumas show heightened activity only in the right hemisphere, within emotional centers of the brain, and little or nothing in Broca's area, which has to do with putting experiences into language. An inability to reconstruct what happened verbally seems to spur the victim to try to master his trauma by reenacting it, either by exposing himself to similar traumas or by victimizing others. In this way, terror spreads from person to person and across the generations.

Has terror taken away our words to the point where we have made a false metaphor the basis for our foreign policy? Or has the "War on Terror" just become cover for a compulsion to repeat?

We can look at terrorism as a hybrid of a philosophy and a disease, an ideology that spreads from perpetrator to victim. As a philosophy, it requires seeing the enemy as sub-human, as so other-worldly evil that the rules that govern how we treat our fellow humans no longer apply. As a disease, it transmits that philosophy to its victims. Guantanamo is not a solution but a symptom. Abu Ghraib is evidence of further infection. The Detainee Act shows that the disease has begun to inflict structural damage, working away at our core beliefs.

Without realizing it, we have let the enemy past our borders by letting them inside us. We have cut and run from the principles on which this country was founded when we suspend Habeas Corpus and torture prisoners into confessing. Certainly we must fight when we are threatened, as we have in Afghanistan, but the greater danger comes from within, when we edge closer to Sharia on our own by spying on our citizens, when we begin to doubt our democratic institutions, and when we absorb an ideology that splits the world into good and evil.