This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality website on May 14, 2007.
Last week the FBI uncovered a plot involving a handful of roofers and pizza deliverers from suburban Philadelphia who, according to the allegations, were planning an attack on the United States Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
If the government’s case against the would-be militants sticks, it will be a fine example of what actually keeps Americans safe in the post-nine eleven world. It was not the invasion and occupation of Iraq but the sleuthing of gumshoes in the Garden State which thwarted the evil machinations of this small, violent anti-American cell. Score one for the good guys.
I’m glad to see anyone planning a credible attack on the United States behind bars, but in the days since the arrest, I’ve been troubled by the lack of verbal precision in the American discourse around what happened and who was arrested.
For example, just about every voice in the media is talking about the group of men arrested in the plot as if they were terrorists, but if terrorism is defined as attacks upon civilian targets—and terrorism invariably is so defined—then an attack on a military target cannot be considered terrorism and the thwarted attackers cannot be terrorists. They are delusional, foolhardy militants who thought they might ambush the United States Army and get away with it, but they are not terrorists.
This is an important distinction, because policy makers in Washington have sought to garner support for the war in Iraq by casting the enemy as terrorists. There is a lot of terrorism in Iraq these days, and some terrorists also may join in resisting the American military presence in Iraq, but the American Armed Forces in Iraq are not civilian targets. When Americans in uniform are attacked it is warfare and not terrorism. Consequently, we are not “fighting the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” We are fighting militants most of whom wouldn’t dare follow us home.
What’s more troubling about the way folks are talking about the would-be attack upon Fort Dix is how meaningless words are being used to talk about Islam, the religion common to all of the suspects in the case. In the media, I have yet to encounter a description of the cell members that didn’t use words like “extremist” and “fanatic” to describe the men’s religious convictions.
But what does it mean to be a religious extremist? Was not Mother Theresa extremely religious? I once knew a guy who thought being an Evangelical Protestant wasn’t hard core enough, so he changed his name from Brad to Josiah, he grew a beard and became an Eastern Orthodox priest. He was a fanatic but in a gentle way.
This is not a mere word game. Many of the leading candidates for next year’s Presidential primaries use words like “Jihadist” and “Islamist” in policy statements about National Security. They promise to defend America from the kind of “extremists” and “fanatics” implicated in the plot to ambush Fort Dix. These are words without firm definitions and without proper application within Islam itself. It is worrisome to consider the possibility that American policies might rest on such flimsy vocabulary.
Nearly twenty years ago, in the dewy-eyed innocence of my Evangelical youth, I went to visit a friend of mine who greeted me at the door of his apartment with a Bible in one hand and a dictionary in the other. We were students together at a Christian college in Southern California, and our plan was to spend the evening together illicitly drinking beer, but before we could get down to the serious business of adding lime to Corona, my friend, who was an English and philosophy double-major had an observation: “in order for this to be inspired and infallible,” he said, holding up his well-worn NIV, “this dictionary also must be inspired and infallible.”
I won’t say that I drank fewer beers that night, but the comment started me thinking, and even from the sober distance of mature adulthood, I’m convinced that he was correct. When words lose their meaning nothing is sacred, and nothing is safe.