October 28, 2007

A Complication Of Imprecision

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter -- and the State Department finally has discovered this truth. In a long-overdue act, State has forgiven the "terrorism" of the Hmong and Montagnards who fought so bravely beside us in Southeast Asia, allowing them to enter the country and allowing those already here to become legal residents. Not for the first time, imprecise language in war and government created unintended consequences:

One of the trickier battles in the war on terror has been the legal identification of friends and enemies. Under current U.S. law, people who provide "material support" to terrorists are deemed terrorists themselves -- even if the groups they're helping are freedom fighters, agitating for causes that the U.S. government supports.

This has caused hardships among two worthy peoples to whom the U.S. owes a debt of gratitude: Hmong refugees from Laos and Montagnards from Vietnam. The Hmong and the Montagnards fought honorably alongside GIs in Vietnam. After Americans pulled out, many were accepted as refugees in the U.S.; others fled back to the hills, where they are still persecuted. Then September 11 happened, U.S. law changed, and they were suddenly dubbed "terrorists."

This week, after years of lobbying by Republicans and Democrats, the State Department waived the terrorist label for Hmong and Montagnards who had provided "material support." That lets them apply for asylum, or if they're already in the U.S., for permanent residency. Similar waivers have been issued to members of Burma's Chin, Karen and Karenni ethnic groups -- and others, like Cuba's Alzados -- who provided "material support" to fighters trying to topple repressive governments.

This springs from the central conceit in the current war we face. We have used "war on terror" as a label because it allows us to avoid the more accurate -- and more provocative -- descriptor of a war against radical Islamist terrorists. Using that phrase clearly identifies our enemies, but we have avoided it to keep those enemies from twisting it into a war on Islam for their own propaganda purposes.

Unfortunately, this declaration of war against a tactic leads to a lot of conclusions, many of them self-defeating. It calls into question what terrorism means, how it's defined, and under what circumstances it becomes terrorism. Sometimes the broader definition works, as it did against ETA and the IRA, among others. However, the application of the definition caught some of our allies in the same net, as the Wall Street Journal notes, and now we have put ourselves in the position where we need to issue variances to the "terrorists" we like.

We could avoid all of this by simply talking straight with the world. Radical Islamists declared war on us through several terrorist acts over the last 30 years, culminating in the death of 3,000 Americans on 9/11. Instead of pretending to be the global supercop representing everyone's interests in ending terrorism as a tactic, why don't we just explain that we're at war with radical Islamist terrorists because they started the fight -- and why it's in everyone's interest to join in beating them?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Please note that unverified Disqus users will have comments held in moderation. Please visit Disqus to register and verify your account. Comments from verified users will appear immediately.