Den Beste on Fallujah

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Steven Den Beste makes some good points (and one with which I will take issue below) in this essay on what happened in Fallujah and what our response should be.

Now, in Falluja, we have seen another operation consistent with the doctrine of terrorism, only this time the US was the target. Four American civilians driving through that city were killed, and their bodies were desecrated by an exultant crowd. Foreign cameramen captured it all.

The Baathist insurgency thought that ongoing attacks would cause American demoralization and retreat. That didn’t work, because they monumentally misjudged the American character. But the goal of this attack is to inspire American fury. What they hope is that the Americans will be blinded by hatred and will do something extremely stupid: to punish the Sunnis collectively for the actions of the terrorist group.

Remember, that’s the basic theory behind terrorism; that’s the core of the doctrine of terrorism as a form of violent warfare. It is not the terrorist act itself which helps advance the political goals of the terrorist group; it is rather the reprisal. Terrorism is a form of jiu-jitsu, a way of using an enemy’s strength against himself. (In jiu-jitsu, you don’t throw an opponent. You aid him in throwing himself.)

If there are broad reprisals against the uncommitted friendly population because of the acts of the terrorists, that population will become motivated and polarized in favor of the position held by the terrorists. If the American response is viewed by the Sunnis as being directed broadly at all Sunnis, rather than being targeted specifically at those responsible for this outrage, then there’s every likelihood that the Sunnis will begin to wonder whether the US is actually genuine in its attempts to include the Sunnis as equal partners in the new government of Iraq. That would be a major victory for al Qaeda.

This terrorist attack was an application of violence intended to derail the American effort to set up a liberal democracy in Iraq, by attempting to provoke an American reprisal which would lead to Sunni suspicion and reduce Sunni participation in that democracy.

However, I think he’s incorrect when he says the attack was planned to inspire American fury. I think this horrible incident began as many others have; the mujahideen saw a chance to attack an easy, unprotected target, and they took it. They may or may not have been tipped off about the security people’s travel plans.

But what happened afterward was something different. In the video of the event, you can see quite clearly that this was a psychotically enraged mob. No one planned for those poor people to be torn apart like that. It was an expression of inhuman savagery, that broke loose not by design but by sheer opportunity; a perfect example of the tribal honor-shame dynamic at work, where any act, no matter how evil or debased, is allowed if it serves to restore honor.

So while I do accept Steven’s point that the response must be measured (and lethal), I can’t agree that the purpose of the attack and desecration was some sort of special provocation.

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