When, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the United States was "at war" with terrorism, he made a very natural but terrible and irrevocable error. Administration leaders have been trying to put it right ever since.
What Powell said made sense if one uses the term "war against terrorism" in the sense of a war against crime or against drug trafficking: that is, the mobilization of all available resources against a dangerous, antisocial activity, one that can never be entirely eliminated but can be reduced to, and kept at, a level that does not threaten social stability.
The British in their time have fought many such "wars" -- in Palestine, in Ireland, in Cyprus, and in Malaya (modern-day Malaysia), to mention only a few. But they never called them wars; they called them "emergencies." This terminology meant that the police and intelligence services were provided with exceptional powers and were reinforced where necessary by the armed forces, but they continued to operate within a peacetime framework of civilian authority. If force had to be used, it was at a minimal level and so far as possible did not interrupt the normal tenor of civil life. The objectives were to isolate the terrorists from the rest of the community and to cut them off from external sources of supply. The terrorists were not dignified with the status of belligerents: they were criminals, to be regarded as such by the general public and treated as such by the authorities.
To declare war on terrorists or, even more illiterately, on terrorism is at once to accord terrorists a status and dignity that they seek and that they do not deserve. It confers on them a kind of legitimacy. Do they qualify as belligerents? If so, should they not receive the protection of the laws of war? This protection was something that Irish terrorists always demanded, and it
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