A man who taught in China told me yesterday that he used to call on his former students from time to time. First, though, he had to let them know he was coming. If he didn’t, they risked being unprepared and losing face, and that was a very serious matter for them. It sounds odd at first but there’s a bit of it in all of us. We like to be in control, ready for the future, not caught on the hop, because when that happens it can cause a lot of pain.
So as many US citizens gather in public places and chant “USA! USA!” today, it’s in part about having caused al Qaeda the ultimate loss of face – the sudden death of their leader. Now that organisation has been put on the back foot, just as the US was put on the back foot with the destruction and death of 9/11.
A few points about the war on terror.
1. Terrorism is a strategy, not a philosophy. George Washington was a terrorist of sorts, Michael Collins certainly was and the ANC in South Africa indisputably were. So it’s the cause for which people are engaging in terrorism that makes it good or bad. (Stupid word anyway, terrorism. All armed conflict by definition inspires and aims to inspire terror. Remember Shock and Awe?)
2. Since we can act but can’t always control the consequences of our actions, we must be ready for some possible loss of face. The killing of Osama bin Laden could demoralise al Qaeda, wound it fatally; alternatively, it could give him martyr status and bring a surge in support for his cause. Remember 1916?
3. If al Qaeda is at war with the US, Britain and other countries, it must be one of the most unsuccessful campaigns ever fought. Granted 9/11 resulted in some 3,000 US dead, but over a ten-year period, how many casualties have al Qaeda inflicted? It can’t be more than 5,000. In the same period in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong killed over 50,000 Americans (and some 2,000,000 Vietnamese were killed). It’s sickening even to think, but success in war has to do with how many of the other side you’ve managed to kill. Using this yardstick, al Qaeda would need several centuries to have any hope of victory.
4. Finally and the question that often gets buried: what is al Quaeda fighting for? I honestly don’t know so I’d welcome answers. But don’t say “Because they hate us” - that’s a cop-out.