Know Your Tropes for the Political Exploitation of Terrorism

On Sunday, President Obama gave us another dull, rote speech on terrorism in which he promised to stay the course on whatever it is he thinks he’s doing about ISIS. And then lectured us about our intolerance.

It was notable for only one thing: the presidential adoption of the Exactly What ISIS Wants trope.

You know the one. If someone doesn’t like any particular response to the latest terrorist attack, he’ll tell you that this response is “exactly what ISIS wants.” It has been dreadfully popular since last month’s attacks in Paris, and it is threatening to become 2015’s answer to 2001’s trope, “Or the Terrorists Win.”

You remember that one, right? In case you don’t, here’s a handy guide to help you know your tropes for the political exploitation of terrorism.

Or The Terrorists Win

This is the claim that people should engage in some utterly ordinary activity–shopping, watching television, eating bacon, etc.–as an act of defiance against terrorism. Because if they don’t do it, “then the terrorists win.”

This trope originated with exhortations from President Bush just after 9/11 for people to keep going about their normal lives in spite of the fear al-Qaeda wanted to instill in them. Which is reasonable enough, I suppose, but then it got out of hand. It was summed up by Ellen DeGeneres at the 2001 Emmy awards about two months after 9/11: “We’re told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?”

Note that in its pure form, Or the Terrorists Win is not about the need to pursue some actual foreign policy that might disrupt or defeat terrorists. It’s about asking us to “go on living our lives as usual”–which means that there is no activity so trivial or mundane that it cannot be recast as an act of defiance against terrorism.

Or the Terrorists Win is no longer a trope, strictly speaking, because it has become a running joke. No one uses it non-ironically any more.

But they are still oh-so-serious about knowing Exactly What ISIS Wants.

Exactly What ISIS Wants

The bodies were barely cool in the Paris shootings when we were treated to lectures that “The West Is Giving ISIS Exactly What It Wants,” usually accompanied by very dubious projections of what ISIS wants, which just so happen to correspond to any policy proposed by someone on the American right.

Exactly What ISIS Wants may seem as if it is the opposite of Or the Terrorists Win. Or the Terrorists Win urges action to defy terrorism–albeit trivial and ineffectual action–while Exactly What ISIS Wants demands inaction. But both effectively say the same thing: act as if the situation is normal, go on with our lives as if nothing happened. Or the Terrorists Win tells us to go shopping or hold awards ceremonies or whatever else we were already doing–even though many young men, thankfully, did disrupt their lives by volunteering to join the armed forces. Exactly What ISIS Wants tells us to change nothing about our policies toward terrorism, toward ISIS, toward Syria, toward refugees, or anything else–even if such changes might be warranted.

The purest, most absurd use of Exactly What ISIS Wants is to declare, “If we go to war, we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.” Get that? Don’t destroy ISIS. Don’t bomb them, shoot them, or hunt them down like dogs. That’s exactly what they want!

As absurd as it may sound, this is the specific form Obama used in his appeal to Exactly What ISIS Wants: “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria. That’s what groups like ISIL want.” To which he then adds: “They know they can’t defeat us on the battlefield.” Strange, then, that they would want to draw us into a war they know they can’t win, isn’t it? It reminds me of the famous Patton quote: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” If terrorists are eager to die for their cause, why not accommodate them?

Surely it is possible that ISIS may not be the best judge of what is in its own interests, just as Japan was not the best judge of its interests when it bombed Pearl Harbor. Surely it is possible that talking heads who only sporadically discuss foreign policy are not the world’s foremost experts on exactly what ISIS does, in fact, want. And maybe we should decide our response to terrorism based on our own judgment of our interests, without worrying too much about what ISIS has to say on the matter.

But Exactly What ISIS Wants is the black hole of arguments. It pulls any proposed action against terrorism into its gravitation field and sucks all motion and energy out of it. Which is interesting, because I’m pretty sure that dithering and inaction on our part is exactly what ISIS wants. It has certainly served their interests so far.

But we have not exhausted the tropes for the political exploitation of terrorism, not by a long shot. Exactly What ISIS Wants, for example, is merely an inverted version of Vicarious Terrorism.

Vicarious Terrorism

Vicarious Terrorism is when you advocate responding to terrorism by taking away the grievances that motivate it–which means, in effect, granting the terrorists’ demands.

The person who makes this argument is not a supporter or sympathizer of the terrorist group in question and would never dream of committing an act of terrorism himself. It’s just that the terrorists’ supposed grievances happen to correspond in some way to his pre-existing agenda, and he just can’t help using the attack to promote that agenda.

Some of the most garish examples of Vicarious Terrorism come not from the left but from the right (sort of). In his 2007 book “The Enemy at Home,” for example, Dinesh D’Souza declared, “The cultural left in this country…is responsible for causing 9/11” because it is “the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world.” It is our decadent, godless, secular lifestyle that enrages Muslim fanatics, and gosh, they really have a point.

Note that D’Souza, whatever else you might think of him, is not the sort of person who would go on a shooting spree or plan a bombing campaign against those liberal heathens. He would never be a terrorist himself. But he does advocate the suppression of leftist secularism–a goal that just happens to coincide with his own ideological prejudices–as an answer to terrorism.

Or consider Ron Paul, who has developed the unfortunate habit of quoting Osama bin Laden as an authority on US foreign policy. In 2007, he told the Des Moines Register:

Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there. We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We’ve been in the Middle East…. I’m suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us, and the reason they did it and they are delighted that we’re over there, because Osama bin Laden has said, “I am glad you’re over on our sand, because we can target you so much easier.”

Before going to war in Syria was Exactly What ISIS Wants, fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was exactly what Bin Laden wanted.

In both of these examples, the proposals obviously amount to appeasement: assuage the enemy’s anger by meeting his demands, either for the persecution of infidels or for American disengagement from the Middle East. But what makes them examples of Vicarious Terrorism is that the appeasement is repackaged as a way of undermining terrorism rather than giving in to it.

One of the common threads among these tropes–the thing that makes them tropes–is the fact that they are always used to justify a pre-existing agenda. They are less a response to terrorism than an attempt to exploit terrorism to promote or defend an existing political program. In one variant of this trope, that becomes even clearer.

When Ron Paul used the same argument in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January, I noted an important difference. He asserted that the cause of the attack was Muslims’ anger at French intervention in the Middle East and West Africa. But this motive was Paul’s own invention. The attackers themselves shouted that they were targeting the French magazine because of its blasphemous depictions of their prophet. As I put it, “Ron Paul wants to overrule the Islamists’ own statement of their motives,” substituting invented motives that correspond better to his own agenda.

That makes this a whole new trope, and one that has also been taken up by Obama in his response to ISIS. I call it Bin Laden Syndrome by Proxy.

Bin Laden Syndrome By Proxy

In Bin Laden Syndrome by Proxy, you take someone else’s terrorist attack, fantasize what you think its causes and motives ought to be according to your world view, then advocate a response intended to address this pretended cause.

In Vicarious Terrorism, the terrorists’ real motives and agenda have some overlap with your own, and you succumb to the temptation to exaggerate the connection and use the attacks to promote your agenda. But in Bin Laden Syndrome by Proxy, the overlap is entirely a product of your own imagination, spurred by naked opportunism.

Probably the best example I have ever seen of Bin Laden Syndrome by Proxy is giving a speech after an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in which you tell the American people that gun control is now “a matter of national security”–which is exactly what Obama just did. Obviously, he did not start wanting to ban “assault weapons” because a couple of terrorists used them last week. He’s been advocating it all along as his standard response to domestic shootings by crazy people with no ideological motive at all. But these shootings haven’t mobilized the public to support gun control, so he repackaged his argument to connect it to an issue on which people do seem to want strong action.

Then again, maybe that’s not the very best example, because it’s hard to top “climate change caused the Paris attacks.”

What unites Exactly What ISIS Wants and Bin Laden Syndrome by Proxy is that they both help the user avoid addressing the essential cause behind the current terrorism threat: the religion of Islam. This avoidance has spawned a whole constellation of tropes, starting with the assertion that the Islamic State and Islamic terrorism have Nothing to Do with Islam.

Nothing To Do With Islam

“This has nothing to do with Islam” is a standard description for anything bad done by a Muslim in the name of Islam, based on arguments offered by Islamic imams citing quotations from Islamic scripture.

Hence Hillary’s Clinton’s assurance that “Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism”–in response to attacks in Paris by Muslims who were not peaceful or tolerant and had something to do with terrorism.

This is a variant of The Religion of Peace.

The Religion Of Peace

The Religion of Peace is the religion that did not motivate the San Bernardino shootings, the Paris attacks, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Fort Hood shootings, beheading of hostages in Syria, mass execution of policemen and soldiers in Iraq, shooting schoolgirls in the head, and so on and on. It definitely didn’t motivate the 9/11 attacks, and that is why it is not even supposed to be mentioned at the Ground Zero museum.

Must be some other faith. Try the Presbyterians.

The purest examples of either trope are when non-Muslims–who endow themselves with the authority to speak on behalf of somebody else’s religion–offer assurances about the essentially peaceful and tolerant nature of Islam. This culminates in No True Muslim.

No True Muslim

This is a variant on the No True Scotsman trope. In its original inspiration, this is a type of circular reasoning used by a Scotsman to endow his countrymen with some particular, virtuous quality. When confronted with the counter-example of a Scot who fails to possess this virtue, he merely declares that the miscreant must be “no true Scotsman.”

In this case, the trope is used by a non-Muslim to disavow the association of Muslims with any negative qualities–particularly religiously motivated violence–by asserting that anyone who commits such violence must be No True Muslim.

Thus, when a British Muslim began stabbing people the London subway and declared, “This is for Syria,” an onlooker was recorded telling the attacker, in impeccable London slang, “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv!”

The person who said this has not been identified, so he may himself be Muslim, which is not a perfect example of the trope. What is a perfect example of the trope is British Prime Minister David Cameron taking up the slogan and responding, “Some of us have dedicated speeches and media appearances and sound bites and everything on this subject, but ‘You ain’t no Muslim, bruv,’ said it all much better than I ever could.” Amazing, isn’t it, that a white British Christian’s assertions about the peaceful nature of Islam don’t seem to have had much effect?

But as Hillary Clinton explained above, describing Islamic terrorists as Muslims would “play into their hands.” It is Exactly What ISIS Wants.

You see how it all fits together. If we can’t admit to the real motive of Islamic terrorists or address their actual strategic goals, we need to invent new motives and goals and use these polite fictions to dictate what actions are acceptable and unacceptable as a response. And if we’re going to do that, we might as well invent motives and responses that allow us to remain comfortably in the rut of our established domestic political routine.

In declaring that No True Muslim is inspired by the Religion of Peace to engage in terrorism, which has Nothing to Do with Islam, we invite ourselves to engage in Bin Laden Syndrome by Proxy, because otherwise we might be tempted to do Exactly What ISIS Wants. We had better continue along undisturbed in our pre-existing routine, Or the Terrorists Win.

In literature and drama, it may be the case that Tropes Are Not Bad, but in politics, they usually are. They are tools of mental laziness and evasion, intended to help us to stick to our prejudices in the face of inconvenient facts. Which makes it all the more important to know your tropes.

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