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Goodbye ‘war on terror’

Nearly four years after the “war on terror” was first declared, the US Administration has finally decided that perhaps the slogan was after all counterproductive in publicity terms. What America is engaged in now is a “Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism“. The differences between this shiny new catchphrase and the old, much-maligned one are several. First, a “war on” something sounds rather bellicose and unilateral, but a “struggle” has a sense of built-in righteousness. It does not boast of physical superiority, but of moral superiority. One struggles against illness, or misfortune, or poverty. To struggle connotes a kind of heroism. The word also has a history in the language of communism, as in the “class struggle”: Lenin wrote of “the struggle of the proletariat”; “struggle meetings” were held in revolutionary China for people to demand the removal of officials from office. The new US catchphrase might even have been designed with that sense also in mind, in a heartwarming attempt to reconcile socialists to the cause. A struggle, moreover, is not conducted only with bombs: General Richard Myers emphasized this implication of the change in language by saying that the new Global Struggle would be “more diplomatic, more economic, more political than it is military”. Better late than never, perhaps.

Thus the Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism is one in which all right-thinking people will wish to share. For “violent extremism”, moreover, is surely a bad thing. But it is also rather a vague thing. To be sure that struggling against it is a good idea, we should know more about what it is. Yet “extremism” itself is a rather slippery term of Unspeak. Let us trace its roots . . .

The base word, “extreme”, comes from the Latin extremus, the superlative form of exterus, outward (hence the English “exterior”). Thus “extreme” began its life meaning “outermost”: at the limit of something. It is in this sense that the Catholic Church uses “extreme unction”: it is the last sacrament given to a dying person. But the strictly superlative usage, to mean right at the outer limit, was not honoured for long. Shakespeare, for one, thought that something could be more or less extreme (he uses the constructions “not so extreme” and “extremest”), a usage that Samuel Johnson later mocked in his Dictionary. And so the word passed from a purely descriptive term to one expressing a form of moral disapproval. There was a spectrum of possible behaviour in any context, and acts near one end or the other would be denounced as “extreme”. Too much physical exercise was “extreme”, argued Bishop Joseph Hall in 1614, while William Cowper by 1734 was denouncing the “extreme” dress of your average avaricious parson.

The words “extremism” and “extremist” were invented only in the second half of the nineteenth century, but they carried a similar freight of rhetorical disapprobation. It works like this: first we imagine a spectrum of all possible ideas, then we say that anything near one end or the other constitutes “extremism”. But those “extreme” ideas are only near the end of the spectrum because of the way we have drawn it in the first place. Those accused of extremism may wish to draw very different spectra, with their own views in the middle. For instance, one person may consider “extremism” the views of an animal-rights activist who breaks into laboratories to free monkeys or cats and insists that everyone has a moral duty to become a vegan. The activist, for her part, would consider acceptance of the mass cruelty of animal experimentation and factory farming to be the “extreme” position: she would say that her own view was the only reasonable one to take after due moral consideration. In 2005, even people peacefully signing petitions to ban the shooting of doves in the US were labelled “anti-hunting extremists” by the National Rifle Association. An alternative view might consider the desire to fire bullets at birds to be the extreme position.

Furthermore, to call someone an “extremist” is to denounce him merely for his position on our imaginary spectrum of ideas, rather than to engage with what he is actually saying. An extremist is someone whose opinions differ markedly from ours. He will not listen to argument, and so we should not listen to him.

One of the earliest systematic campaigns that employed the new concept of “extremism” worked just in this way: it was the war of words against Indian nationalism in the first decade of the twentieth century. One faction in the Indian National Congress, represented by Aurobindo Ghose, wanted the British colonial rulers to leave immediately and let India rule itself: the ideal as he expressed it was “a free national government unhampered even in the least by foreign control”. The British press and politicians immediately dubbed his group the Extremists, an appellation that has passed into normal historical parlance, where they are contrasted with the so-called Moderates, who wished only that their British rulers might allow them a little more freedom to self-govern.

There were links between the so-called “Extremists” and the perpetrators of acts of terrorism in Bengal from 1908 onwards, but the former had already been labelled as beneath serious debate because of their views. They were “extremists” in mind, not merely in deed. For Ghosh and his fellows, any desire to be free of imperial rule was automatically categorized as extremism, and thus dismissed politically. The British could not conceive that there might be a sincere fight for national liberation going on – and so, indeed, they termed the Bengali bombings “anarchism”, quite missing the point.

To label the Indian revolutionaries “Extremists”, then, was simply to say that they had no right to ask for what they wanted. The label has a further useful function: to imply that such a person cannot possibly be thought reasonable on any matter at all. An “extremist”, it is easy to suppose, does not hold just one opinion with which we disagree, but is habitually, essentially extreme: impossible to talk to, impossible to welcome into civilization. In that respect the appellation “extremist” works much like “terrorist”, conflating many kinds of motivation and action under one all-purpose bogey-word. Vladimir Putin’s violent suppression of Chechen rebellion became “partnership” in the “war on terror”; it will equally easily become part of the struggle against violent extremism. Just like the “war on terror”, the new struggle is defined so as to outflank and outlive any mere fight with al-Qaeda.

The interdependency of terms in this phrase “violent extremism” is quite complex. It would seem that violent extremism is considered the natural kind of extremism. To speak of “peaceful extremism” would sound plain weird. The metaphorical violence done to respectable thinking implied by the holding of an “extreme” view always has the potential, in the view of those denouncing the extremists, to transmute into physical violence: it is only a matter of time before an extremist bombs or kills. In this way, the name “extremist” works deliberately to blur the distinction between opinion and behaviour. And the potential violence, concomitantly, is rendered all the more horrible because it is extremist – there is an associative sense of “extreme violence” as compared to other kinds. After all, it would not do to argue that perhaps all violence constitutes an “extreme” approach to a situation, even if one supposes that, in extremis, it may be justified. Indeed, if there is such a thing as “violent extremism” to be struggled against, then there could also be such a thing as “violent moderation”: a phenomenon perhaps exemplified by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, against which no one had a right to struggle.

Yet another sense of “struggle”, by the way, is that it better conveys the sense of indefinite, even permanent conflict that Donald Rumsfeld had to twist himself into crazy locutions to justify in the previous linguistic context of a “war”. Struggle does not imply certain victory. Thus the sense of a never-ending crusade is reassuringly intact. A Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism is, then, a righteous, permanent, planetary fight against, in principle, anyone whose views differ greatly from ours.

And there’s one more thing. As noticed by Fred Kaplan, the new catchphrase has an attractive acronym. Can it be coincidence that Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism telescopes into the snappy G-SAVE? G for God, or GI, or G-Man, the implacable FBI agent of national-security lore. And SAVE for, well, save. Save the world. Save civilization. Who could not feel inspired to sign up to that? The slogans may change, but Unspeak doesn’t go away; it just puts on a different hat, adjusts it to a jaunty angle, and carries on as normal.

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