Signifying Nothing, and Missing the Point
Pointy-headed intellectual concepts too often become excuses to float above practical reality. Consider:
There is a technical term for this phenomenon. The GWOT acted as what, in the language of semiotics, is called a “floating signifier,” able to be attached at will to a wide range of actions and policies. The Bush administration organized the al-Qaida 9/11 perpetrators and Saddam Hussein into seamless chapters in the same account. The GWOT narrative led directly to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, to justifying torture and to disregard treaty obligations under the laws of war. …
… what is needed is an attack on the central fallacy at the heart of the current narrative, namely that a fantastically complex world can be reduced to a single storyline. The war in Iraq was justified on the basis of a baleful conflation of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Today, a similar mistake threatens in Afghanistan, where – – contrary to the underlying facts — a tacit conflation of the Taliban and al-Qaida justifies the expansion of the U.S. civil and military presence in the country. Seen through the GWOT lens, this makes sense. By any other measure, it is a gross distortion. Although General Petraeus recently acknowledged that al-Qaida no longer has a presence in Afghanistan, a shadowy presumption that it does, or might, continues to cast the indigenous Afghan insurgent movement as an existential threat to the United States — thus turning what is in essence a local problem into a global challenge.
While excesses such as torture (or, to widen the historical lens, internment) are a continual danger requiring of vigilance and correction, the fact that an overarching idea has been applied to the global “narrative” does not mean that all conclusions within its fold are manufactured. What Amy Zalman and Jonathan Clarke, who penned the above quotation, have done is to lash the War on Terror with a too-specific target (al-Qaeda) and thereby exclude the setting in which al-Qaeda came to exist and to operate.
The Taliban is the perfect example: Given the structure of terrorist groups, if we are to avoid stomping on the source of motivation (i.e., Islam), we must modify the environment that permits its radicalization. The Taliban and al-Qaeda needn’t be conflated in order to acknowledge that the former facilitated the latter. Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda needn’t have been partners with a binding contract in order for the former’s behavior to be intolerable.
Given fronts in the campaign to prevent terrorist attacks that could kill Americans by the millions may be justifiable or not, on their merits, but it would be a grave mistake to follow the lead of those who prefer to attack abstract principles. The unique problem of Islamofascism and terrorism on a massive scale is that the orderly rules by which we’ve striven to interact as nation-states do not apply. What we are dealing with — if a mere blogger might coin a technical term — is an army of “floating zealots” whose activities signify death on a horrifying scale.