Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald’s Vicious Debate Over Terrorism Definition

FILED TO: Politics

Andrew Sullivan vs Glenn GreenwaldThe killing of British soldier Drummer Lee Rigby by two proclaimed Muslims has instigated an increasingly nasty intellectual battle over the definition of the word ‘Terrorism’. The debate is best encapsulated by  the back and forth between Andrew Sullivan (for calling the killers terrorists) and Glenn Greenwald (against).

In response to the killing, Greenwald penned a lengthy argument as to why the definition of terrorism is becoming meaningless, given it now only refers to violence committed by Muslims against the West. Greenwald asserted that given Western violence against Muslims is never labeled terrorism, it shouldn’t be used to label Muslim violence against the West. Sullivan, incensed by Greenwald’s refusal to label the killers terrorist, wrote an angry rebuttal to Greenwald’s piece, accusing him of being an apologist for terrorism and not  understanding the global conflict between the West and the Muslim world.

The debate has continued with Greenwald slamming Sullivan for being an imperialist apologist in his latest Guardian column, and accused him of smearing his position on the killing.

Both Sullivan and Greenwald’s arguments are flawed (at least in my opinion), but Sullivan’s characterization of the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is almost farcical, making his rebuttal to Greenwald border on the meaningless. He writes:

Does Glenn really believe that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however flawed, were deliberate attempts to kill Muslim civilians, in the way al Qaeda deliberately targets and kills Muslim civilians?

If he does, then I beg to differ. The reason we invaded Afghanistan was not because we decided to launch a war on Islam. It was because wealthy, Islamist, hypocritical bigots launched an unprovoked Jihadist mass murder of Western innocents from a cell based in a country run by a regime that specialized and specializes in the mass murder of other Muslims….And the war against Saddam, though a criminal enterprise and strategic catastrophe, nonetheless removed one of the most vicious mass murderers of Muslims on the planet.

First of all, Greenwald isn’t arguing that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were ‘deliberate attempts to kill Muslim civilians’. Greenwald has argued that they were illegal wars fought for oil and geopolitical power in the region. Unless Sullivan was attempting to deliberately distort Greenwald’s stance (which isn’t much of a stretch given Sullivan’s long history of emotionally manipulative writing), it is unclear why Sullivan would use this particular line.

His argument then goes from distortion to outright fantasy. The notion that the UK and US governments attacked Afghanistan and Iraq in response to an ‘unprovoked’ attack (9/11) is the stuff of Neo Con mythology, not history or fact. The attacks on 9/11 were a response to decades of US interventionism in the Middle East – a fairly mainstream concept noted by many prominent scholars and historians (and referred to as ‘blowback‘ in intelligence circles). Military and financial support for brutal dictatorships in the has not gone unnoticed by Muslims in the Middle East, and while this doesn’t justify the heinous use of violence, it helps explain that it is not born out of hatred for ‘our freedom and way of life’. Middle Eastern countries have legitimate grievances with the West, and no one should be labeled a terrorist apologist for pointing this out.

Also, Afghanistan, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11. Repeating the facts gets rather tiring, but for those who have forgotten; the attackers on 9/11 originated overwhelmingly from Saudi Arabia, and the others from Egypt, Lebanon and UAE. While US/UK attacks on Afghanistan may have been a response to 9/11, it was 1. illegal, and 2. a distraction from the pursuit of the actual perpetrators. And if Sullivan is really arguing that the war in Iraq was a result of the benevolence of the Bush Administration and their love of freedom, there isn’t much point engaging him in debate, as this is so completely ridiculous it doesn’t warrant a serious response.

Greenwald’s point that Muslim violence towards the West is no worse than Western violence towards Muslim countries surely isn’t a radical idea. As he writes:

Labeling the violent acts of those Muslim Others as “terrorism” – but never our own – is a key weapon used to propagate this worldview [that Islam is a uniquely violent force]. The same is true of the tactic that depicts their violence against us as senseless, primitive, savage and without rational cause, while glorifying our own violence against them as noble, high-minded, benevolent and civilized (we slaughter them with shiny, high-tech drones, cluster bombs, jet fighters and cruise missiles, while they use meat cleavers and razor blades). These are the core propagandistic premises used to sustain the central narrative on which the War on Terror has depended from the start (and, by the way, have been the core premises of imperialism for centuries)

Sullivan’s attack on Greenwald isn’t completely without merit however. Within hours of the horrific act in London, Greenwald launched into the same narrative he has used in virtually every other article he has published over the last 10 years. While his pieces are well substantiated, he has said the same thing over, and over again regardless of the situation. You can be assured that moments after another act of terror against the West, Greenwald will be on his laptop penning a lengthy screed against American imperialism, drone policy and the expansion of the security state. He may technically be right, but the timing and tone is relentlessly combative and insensitive. In that regard, I think Greenwald’s work is often rendered useless given it is almost guaranteed to fall on deaf ears. Had Greenwald come out with a non-political piece expressing sorrow and anger about the London killing, then waited a few days to put it in perspective, he may have found a more receptive audience for his analysis.

When someone gets beheaded in the street in broad daylight, what exactly is the point in coming out against it being called ‘terrorism’ within hours of it happening? I’m sure Greenwald isn’t completely unfeeling, but his writing is often more about him  being right and getting his point across than anything else.

It is my opinion that terrorism can be applied to both Western aggression in the Middle East and acts of horrific violence committed by Islamic fundamentalists against Westerners. It is a loaded word with menacing connotations, but then invading people’s countries illegally and chopping people’s heads off in the middle of the street probably warrants it.


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  • Vipsanius

    I have, for a long time, regarded Sullivan as ‘all over the place’; emotional and scattered. Sometimes, he makes sense; sometimes, he does not. I have not read very much Greenwald. But, reading what he has written lately, I am not impressed. he seems to regard Snowden as some sort of hero. I think that Snowden is, at best, a useful idiot.

  • Rebekah Y.

    Cohen does a poor job of actually analysing Greenwald’s views on terrorism. To call Sullivan’s rebuttal “farcical” shows either denial or lack of informed overview.

    Based on what I have read, it is entirely fair to state that Greenwald sees no moral difference between deliberately targeting civilians and killing them by accident. This lack of moral distinction is almost the sine qua non of anti-American and anti-Israeli positions on the left, because it obviates the need to really grapple with violence from those to whom they are sympathetic. Further Cohen neglects Greenwald’s attachment to the views of Noam Choamsky, especially the view of ‘state terror’ as the predominate if not only form of ‘terrorism’.

    In turn the “blowback” thesis is valid to a point, but fails to account for the widespread nature of Islamic terrorism. Is every nation from Thailand to Nigeria individually guilty of provoking Muslims to violence or does something about Islam promote such violence?

    And of course Greenwald’s stated view is that Islam cannot possibly have any “unique” ethos of violence, misogyny, etc. Greenwald has reacted angrily to a variety of people, from Dawkins to Maher, for having the audacity to suggest as such. Yet Greenwald never actually examines his own premise. It is the worst sort of axiomatic thinking, in service no less of a conservative ideology.

  • SoundsLikeDelores

    Ben it looks like your singular criticism of Greenwald is that he’s consistent. To wit, “…same narrative … ten years.”

    I disagree that there is anything particularly “insensitive” about the timing and tone of his commentary, although I suppose that is a matter of opinion. What I do object to is the logorrhea. He uses 4000 words when 1200 would do fine.

    Sullivan, meanwhile, is unhinged.

    • Rebekah Y.


      When you are “consistent” across disparate events it is a failing. It shows a reflexive rather than considered worldview. For example, killing a British soldier and randomly attacking parade goers are highly different acts in terms of both their moral legitimacy and the degree to which they can be blamed on “blowback”.

      • Vipsanius

        You do have to discriminate intelligently.

  • js hooper

    One of the most offensive aspects of Greenwald’s relentless bullshit is his attempt to muddy the waters and blur the lines between average Muslims and radical Islamic terrorists.

    As a black man it reminds me of the faux liberal hipster douchebags who try to conflate black criminal drug dealers with average upstanding black people. As if our blackness is supposed to make us sympathetic to their actions.

    Regular Muslims don’t want to be associated with the violent radicals in Al-Qaeda, Taliban and the oppressive dictators in the Middle East. It’s part of Greenwald’s agenda to try lump them all together so he can “shame” the West for combating the dangerous extremists.

    In Greenwald’s world the extremists represent the “true” Muslim sentiment and they must be protected and defended at every turn.

    In many aspects Greenwald is no better than the Neo-con Christians who view all Muslims as a unified threat. In his case they are all unified victims.

    • Aaron Litz

      That was exremely well said.

    • ronbo

      Unfortunately I’ve never read Greenwald post any of this nonsense. Are you trying to read minds again? Or is this just a group-think mind-reading he-man girl-haters club? Link it, or it stands defined as a lie.

      • ronbo

        Downvoting a request for a link merely says, “I can’t substantiate my opinion; but, I’ll maintain it anyway” or “I like my invalid opinion more than actual truth.”

        Link or it stands defined as a lie. That’s how comment sections maintain validity.

  • kfreed

    It has gotten to the point that one can read just about any headline these days and know exactly what Glenzilla will have to say about it come morning. This particular back and forth reads about what you’d expect from conservatives. Yes, Greenwald is a Cato-bred “libertarian” conservative.

    Just for the record, I’m pretty much done paying any attention whatsoever to boy wonder Glenn Greenwald. Contrived and predictable don’t even begin to describe it. Sullivan, OTOH, was never on my radar to begin with as someone to be taken the least bit seriously.

  • js hooper

    Greenwald has become a spokeman for Islamic extremists and Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism.

    1) 170 plus people get their limbs blown off in Boston and he immediately tries to exploit the tragedy and use it an opportunity to whine about drones.He then attacks Americans in the comment section who are outraged by his heartless Anti-American rhetoric.

    2)Days later, he then proceeds to spread lies about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev being tortured and denied his rights.He also tries to play up the idea of Boston being a “Police State”

    3) Two men brutally murder a defenseless soldier walking on a street in London…while yelling radical Islamic political rhetoric and threaten further violence if their demands aren’t met

    4) the next day Greenwald decides to lecture people against calling them terrorists….and also sympathizes with their agenda

    5) he also disgustingly attempts to legitimize their savagery by highlighting the fact that the man who was killed was in his words…”a soldier in a nation at war”
    As if that makes him a legitimate target of Islamic terrorist aggression

    Glenn Greenwald is a disgusting demagogue who is now the leading spokeman / apologist for Islamic terrorism in the Western Media. Whether the attacks are against the West or innocent Muslims in the middle east, it doesn’t matter to him. America, UK & Israel are always to blame.

    • Lady Willpower

      Agree with all of this.

      • ronbo

        As do most members of the “tea-party”.

        • Lady Willpower

          Do you actually have anything to say here? I mean, other than slobbing Greenwald’s knob, and accusing everyone who disagrees with you of being a teabagger?
          12 might have been too generous. You argue like a preschooler.

          • ronbo

            Well now, we know just what kind of “lady” you are. (seriously, your filthy mind spews way too much projection).

            If you use tea-baggin’ language and you spout hateful, hurtful rhetoric against anyone who disagrees with your self-anointed opinions, theres a name for you: tea-bagger.

          • Lady Willpower

            You’re a fuckwit.

          • ronbo

            Said the tea-bagger, Lady Willpower, who is neither a Lady or nor demonstrates any willpower. Invectives are not exclusive to teabaggers, merely their main form of expression.

            Here we have an example of a “moderate” teabagger, who like both the “rightwing” or “libertarian” teabaggers, displays a heightened sense of self-importance, power and intellect. They believe that the world is their subject and only their opinion is valid. Unfortunately, their opinions and talents are mismatched, as invectives and put-downs are their primary form of debate.

            These individuals cluster to preserve their groupthink which is their identity. Anything outside of their accepted thoughts are verboten.

            The 1% identify these people calling them “useful idiots” knowing that their infighting allows the Koch brothers and ALEX full political reign.

          • Rebekah Y.

            Is this why the Greenwald set is so defensive about Islam, you see a commonality in your misogyny?

            Women can have “filthy minds” just like men. I guess in all your ‘progressive’ readings, feminism has never played much of a part.

          • ronbo

            “Misogyny”?!? Read her filthy comments about “slobbering on Greenwald’s knob”, disturbing invectives including “fuckwit” and perhaps, then, you’ll be more inclined to think critically rather than spit unfounded accusations.

            Labeling those with filthy minds “just like men” is sexist, pedantic and closed minded, at best. Is it misogyny to respect persons and demand logic and respect (versus insults and invectives)?

            “All men” are NOT filthy minded, as you suggest. Perhaps you should start dating OUTSIDE of your immediate family.

          • Rebekah Y.

            You are good for a laugh. I am just imagining you shrieking “filthy” over and over.

            If you are that sensitive to some sexual imagery and profanity I suggest you go to a G-rated political site.

            “versus insults and invectives”

            Well then start by practising what you preach instead of hurling childish insults like “you should start dating OUTSIDE of your immediate family”.

          • ronbo

            This IS a G-rated political site by 99% of the people here. Your contempt for men stands noted. Not all men are not filthy minded…except perhaps those in your friends and family – as based upon YOUR statement.

            Try to meet someone nice who will respect you; it’s common for women to base their choices upon their relationship with their father. Was your father “filthy minded”?

          • Rebekah Y.

            Accusing a woman of being single. Accusing her of having daddy issues. And yet you wonder why you get labelled a misogynist? All you need to do is make a ‘tone argument’, calling me ‘angry’ or ‘shrill’ and you would have pretty much covered the basics.

            I have no contempt for men, merely an acknowledgment that we almost all have sexually-explicit thoughts. It is YOu who considers that “filthy” in a pejorative sense. I am sorry we lack your asexual ‘progressive’ purity. LOL.

          • ronbo

            I do not care if she is single, married, straight, gay or just a teabag kook.

            Disrespecting ALL men as, “filthy minded” is BIGOTED and absolutely wrong. The same stands for women.

            I object to tossing around words – which are intended to hurt – “fuckwit”, “slobbing Greenwald’s knob”, “fuck”, “cultist”, etc….

            I also noted that LW uses words, terms, phrases and ideas coined by teabaggers. I don’t think that she is a moron, but it demonstrates that she has the same mindset, means and style.

            Most persons learn their personal and unique likes, dislikes, temperament and roles from their parents. And I believe that suggesting the idea of “slobbering” the “knob” of someone I’ve never met is “filthy”. You may looooove it; you may not. But her language, tone and expressions are repugnant.

            Would you want her around YOUR children? Would you want LW teaching them? Would they be better people spouting her term “fuckwit”? Logic, reason and civility are better choices.

  • Robert Scalzi

    As Soon as I see Glenn Greenwald I stop reading, I don’t even need to know what he is saying to know I am on the other side of his whiny I hate America BS.

    • ronbo

      Is that a veiled reference to your ability to read his mind – rather than read what he actually publishes?

      • Robert Scalzi

        I have read enough of his drivel to know that it is a waste of my time to read anymore of his garbage at this point.

        • ronbo

          Whew! I was concerned that everyone posting here thought they could read minds. This place is getting like RedState with everyone knowing what others think and their motives (some call it tea-baggin’; I call it projection).

  • ThePanicMan

    Sullivan fighting Greenwald. Penny Arcade summed it up well, though for a different purpose: “I think the dumbass was about to cut the shithead.”

    • D_C_Wilson

      Aliens vs. Predator.

  • ronbo

    If I answer the question, “what is 1 + 1?” with the answer “2” every time, author Ben, am I guilty of “he has said the same thing over, and over again…”?

    Ben, the answer is “2”. Always will be always has been. If you don’t want the absolute correct answer, don’t ask Greenwald. Greenwald is right and you have knotted your undies into a bunch IN PUBLIC! How embarrassing for you.

    Ben, you can do better than bully and pick on the smart kid for giving the correct answer.

    • Lady Willpower

      How the fuck is that “bullying?”
      Jesus. Talk about a word that’s lost all meaning. One political writer criticizing another political writer, that’s not bullying. Did you think Ben was “bullying” Sullivan, too, or are you only here to White Knight for Greenwald?

      • dbtheonly


        Greenwald is right with mathematical certainty yet Ben is bullying & I’m the cultist.

        Don’t know weather to laugh or cry.

        • Lady Willpower

          The irony of a Greenwald acolyte describing someone else as a “cultist” is pretty delicious.

          • ronbo

            So is dbtheonly the “cultist” or are you just confused and swinging at anything that moves? Dbtheonly coined the term “cultist” on this thread.

      • ronbo

        Bullying is intentional aggressive behavior to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to think or do what one wants. The article is peppered with statements including just that. I know it’s not the kind of bullying you might indulge in; but, definitions are important.

        Why use “fuck” and “Jesus” so close? It shows both your lack of respect and incivility. As dbtheonly recently said, “LW adds any number of insightful comments to our discussions. She deserves your respect.” Yeah, “fuck” “Jesus” – that’s deserving of respect. /snark

        • Lady Willpower

          Clutch those pearls a little tighter, Ronnie. The world is bullying the fuck out of you.

          • ronbo

            Groupthink is never a valid path or solution to a problem.

            “There are more things in heaven and earth, Lady Willpower, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    • kfreed

      Glenzilla isn’t smart. Primed is the word you’re looking for.

  • dbtheonly


    Aside from “Benghazi-gate”-esque “scandal” is there any advantage or disadvantage to labeling the London murders as “terrorism”? Is Fox suggesting that we bomb Nigeria? Is there some “rising tide of Color” argument I’ve been lucky enough to miss?

    The “Blame America First” crowd has been around for a long time & the fact that they’d react in their typical way to these murders is no surprise.

    I personally think your definition of terrorism goes too far. Terrorism is performed by non-governmental Organizations or persons. Governmental actions are aggression. When you define terrorism as broadly as you do; everything is terrorism. The word loses it’s value/punch/ (sorry, searching for word here) when it’s overused.

    • ronbo

      “Blame America First crowd”? I can’t help but see tea-bags dangling in your face.

      • Lady Willpower

        Shows how much you know.

        • ronbo

          The lady like the teabags.

          • dbtheonly


            There are more than two states of existence; Greenwald Acolyte & “tea bagger”.

            LW adds any number of insightful comments to our discussions. She deserves your respect.

            You may wish to consider how both you & the “tea party” see the world similarly. You both see yourselves as a minority trying to bring America back to its “true roots”. You both feel marginalized by the MSM. You both see opposition or total commitment as the only options.

            On the other hand it’s easier to dismiss me as a “tea bagger”.

          • ronbo

            Your state of existence seems to believe that you can read minds. Dear God, you are an idiot who thinks you are a mind reader. Really? You could be projecting your own insecurities. Or just stupid to the core. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.
            1 + 1 = 2. Always has, and always will.

            “Blame America first crowd” = tea-bagger rhetoric. Always has, and always will.

          • Lady Willpower

            So… you’re 12 years old? 13?

          • ronbo

            Another mindless mind-reading experimentor?
            LW, use tea-bagger language and get called a tea-bagger. “Blame America first crowd” = tea-bagger rhetoric.


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