Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Sharp Turn in the War on Terror

As the President eulogizes those who fought past and present wars, he also reminds us that a few days ago “I outlined the future of our fight against terrorism--the threats we face, and the way in which we will meet them.”

Amid Memorial Day parades, speeches and war movies on TV, Barack Obama declares that Americans’ post-9/11 mindset has to change: “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.”

But how?  “Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.”

True, but how do we define evil acts? At what point does lethal madness become terror? If the Newtown killer had left behind any political babble, would he now be ranked with the brothers who perpetrated the Boston bombings? Where do we draw the lines?

The Obama speech, says one national security scholar, “delegitimizes the terrorists. They want to think of themselves as warriors. We want the world...not to think of them as terrorists defending Islam, but as people who are psychos. They are criminals."

In the New Yorker Jane Meyer underscores “the contrast between Bush’s swagger and Obama’s anguish over the difficult trade-offs that perpetual war poses to a free society...While Bush frequently seemed to take action without considering the underlying questions, Obama appears somewhat unsure of exactly what actions to take. That is not a bad thing: at least he is asking the right questions. In fact, by suggesting that, after a decade and seven thousand American and countless foreign lives lost, and a trillion dollars spent, it might be time to start downsizing the ‘war on terror,’ he is leading the national debate beyond where even most Democrats have dared to go.”

After the President consoles Oklahoma tornado survivors on a weekend of American remembrance of those who lose their lives to human violence, he will return to a Washington of man-made turmoil. Not the least of his challenges will be to make good on the effort to refocus homeland security away from total preoccupation with the Middle East.

There will and should be serious debate on relations with new governments there as well as use of drone strikes and the closing of Guantanamo. But it would be helpful to start focusing the war against terror on organized groups plotting violence and leave the tracking down and prevention where possible of acts by the criminally insane to those trained to deal with them.

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