On terror – (This entry was begun on the No. 3 line of the Seoul subway, continued on the Bundang extension line, completed on my notebook computer, and revised over the course of several days here in my study. It is a departure from the usual fare here, and it took a lot longer to write than I expected. I began it on Wednesday and am just finishing it now, on Saturday.)
I usually don’t write about current events, especially political current events. Liminality is not the sort of site you come to for the latest breaking news—it generally takes me about two days to write and polish my entries, and that generally after at least a day or so of thinking, sometimes more. As for the political part, I’ve never really been much for political discussions, and I would rather stay out of such discussions if possible.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t think about current events, and that I don’t think about politics. It’s just that I very rarely stay motivated about or interested in a current event long enough to write an entry about it. Every time I consider writing about a current event, I feel like a passenger running down the subway stairs just in time to see the train disappear into the tunnel (that image is fresh in my mind because I happen to be on the subway right now, and at every single transfer point today I have just missed my trains).
The great thing about the subway is that there is always another train (unless of course you just missed the last train for the day, in which case you’re screwed, but we’ll ignore that minor detail for the sake of my analogy). So what I am going to do today is forget the fact that I missed the first train (or first few trains) on this particular current event and take the next one.
Late Tuesday night (KST), the body of Kim Seon Il was found in Iraq. He was a 33-year-old Korean translator who was kidnapped by Iraqi terrorists on 17 June and then beheaded as an expression of disapproval of Korea’s decision to dispatch troops to Iraq. The news hit all the media outlets here on Wednesday morning, and I saw it on the news at the health club. I was saddened and angered, but I was not surprised.
Let’s get one thing out of the way before we continue. You’ll notice that I referred to Kim Seon Il’s killers as “terrorists.” You may have heard them referred to as “militants,” but here at Liminality we call things like they really are.
I usually hit the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary for quick definitions, and they define terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Well, that certainly is terrorism, but I don’t think it is a comprehensive definition. According to this definition, the current terror alert system in use in the United States could be considered a form of terrorism, depending on how you look at it. I don’t think I’m ready to make that declaration, though—shock and awe, maybe, but not terrorism.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers a more detailed definition: “The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.” This definition, I think, will suit our purposes.
I don’t think you can argue that the tactics employed by these “militants” do not fall under the heading of terrorism. Thus, they are terrorists. If this is still not clear, hopefully it will be by the end of this entry.
Before we continue, I’d like you to read something over at Oranckay’s place. It’s an appeal on behalf of Kim Seon Il issued by the People's Action Against the Dispatch of Korean Combat Troops to Iraq. I’m referring you to Oranckay because he was responsible for translating it into English (although, as a fellow translator who knows all too well what he went through, I do not hold him responsible for the final wording).
My initial reaction to this statement was mixed. The anti-American rhetoric didn’t phase me—I’ve read North Korean propaganda, and that makes this stuff look like high praise for the United States. What struck me, though, was the basic flaw in the logic of the appeal. I understand why they did it—they couldn’t just sit there and say nothing, and it was the perfect opportunity to voice their opinions. Perhaps it was a political ploy, or maybe they were just doing everything they could to help Kim Seon Il, regardless of their chances of success. If they really believed that the appeal would be effective, though, then it shows an astonishing failure to understand the terrorists’ motivation and mentality.
The logic of the appeal is summarized in the final sentence: “Please make your claims known through dialogue and release KIM Seon Il to his family as he is of no relation to government policy.” There was also an attempt to reason with the terrorists by saying, in essence, “violence is not the answer.” The problem is that this logic fails to understand the terrorists’ mentality, and thus there was no way this appeal could have succeeded. In fact, no appeal, no matter how it might have been worded, could have succeeded here.
The appeal assumes that the terrorists care whether or not Kim Seon Il had anything to do with the decision to dispatch Korean troops to Iraq. It also assumes that Kim Seon Il is a hostage, and that his release can be negotiated. We must understand this: Kim Seon Il was not a hostage, because the terrorists never had any intention of bargaining for anything. They were not making a conditional statement—if you do not rescind your decision to send troops to Iraq, then we will kill Kim Seon Il, else we will release him alive. That may have been basically what they said, but that is not what they meant. They knew that they had little chance of swaying Korean national policy with one hostage. As harsh as it may be, the truth is that Kim Seon Il’s life ended the moment he was captured.
What the terrorists hoped to accomplish was terrorism. They were sending a message: we have no problem with killing your civilians now, so just imagine what we’ll do when you dispatch troops to Iraq. This message was not aimed at the Korean government. The Korean government certainly got the message, but that was incidental. The message was really aimed at the Korean people, because the terrorists know that they might be able to indirectly influence Korean policy if they can sway public opinion enough. The anti-dispatch movement in Korea was strong before this incident (as evidenced by the existence of a “people’s action” group), and this has just motivated them even more. I can’t give a source for this next quote, as I read it in the newspaper of a guy sitting next to me on the subway, but a university student had this to say: “I believe that the government needs to put the lives of its citizens before national interests.” So says the man (or, in this case, the woman) on the street.
So no matter how saddened and outraged the Korean people may be at the death of Kim Seon Il, the terrorists achieved their goal: they influenced Korean public opinion in the direction they desired. So what do we do in this situation? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I do know that this tragedy has gotten me thinking about terrorism in general, so if you’ll bear with me I’d like to talk a bit about it.
The word “terrorism” traces back to the French terrorisme, a term applied to the Reign of Terror, a period of state-sponsored terrorism during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. Terrorism is not a modern phenomenon—it has been practiced for millennia—but modern technology and weaponry has made mass terrorism far easier to carry out. No matter what the era or what weaponry is used, it has always been very difficult to defend against.
The United States is currently engaged in a “war on terror.” I must admit it disturbs me that our response to major problems is often to declare war on them. The very idea of waging war is embedded in our language—whether or not we are actually fighting a war, “to declare war” on something means that we are now serious about solving the problem. The war on terror, though, is not just a metaphor, and it dismays me that our leaders believe terrorism is a problem that can be solved through armed conflict.
I know this is common knowledge, but it bears repeating: terrorist groups are not nations, and thus they cannot be treated like nations. You can make war on a nation, and you can defeat a nation in war without wiping out every last citizen of that nation. Certain conventions and rules apply to interactions between nations, even war, and when the dust clears individuals can be held responsible for violations of these rules. Granted, the losers are generally the only ones who have to answer for their actions, but there is still some measure of accountability.
Terrorist groups, though, are different from nations in a few very significant ways. It goes without saying, of course, that most nations are far larger than terrorist groups, and thus terrorist groups are harder to locate. Politically, a nation is defined by its borders, so it can’t just go into hiding if it feels threatened. Terrorist groups, though, have no borders and can move around or spread themselves out at will, making them very difficult to find. Nations are collections of people who vary in such factors as ethnicity and religion. Even so-called “Christian nations” or “Muslim nations” are at the very least divided by sect, and usually have citizens of different religions entirely. Terrorist groups, on the other hand, are united by a single religious or political ideology, and are thus practically impossible to divide or demoralize. Finally, while most nations devote only a small fraction of their population to their armed forces, there are no non-combatants in terrorist groups—every single member is a combatant willing to die for his or her cause.
Unlike nations, you cannot expect to stop a terrorist group through warfare. Granted, the United States government is not ignorant of this fact, and the current war on terrorism is targeted against nations that harbor terrorist groups as much as (if not more than) against the terrorist groups themselves. Still, there will always be a haven for terrorists, especially since war is more effective at making enemies than friends.
So how do we defeat terrorism? I cannot offer you a step-by-step, foolproof plan, but there has to be a better way than this. Wars are fought for many reasons, but ultimately they are fought because of a failure to resolve a disagreement between at least two sides. They are fought because of intolerance. And that is also why terrorism exists and will most likely continue to exist. The real answer to the question is not to declare war on terrorism, but to declare war on intolerance. Only when we learn to love our fellow man will we defeat terrorism.
Is that an idealistic answer? It certainly is. Is it an unrealistic answer? Most likely. But I’ve learned lately that even the longest of journeys needs to start with a single step, and the mammoth task of changing the world needs to start somewhere, so why not start with me? It’s hard enough as it is for me to love my neighbor, even those who may think like me and believe what I believe. If I can do that—if I, with God’s help, can learn to love my neighbor—then I figure I can start worrying about how to change the world.
Time to bring this entry to a close by going back to the beginning: Kim Seon Il. I don’t think that there is anything that could have been done to save this poor man. But I do think that we can work toward a world where things like this do not happen. I know it’s easier said than done, but this is the best I can do right now. Lives are taken every day because of hate and intolerance, and Kim Seon Il—as close to home as his death may have hit for many in Korea—was not the first and he will not be the last. How much longer will we let this go on?