The 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.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.