Thursday, March 06, 2008


"We don't negotiate with terrorists" they say. And once they say it the subject is closed to further discussion. There is an implicit obligation for the public to accept it, and quite often it is accepted. But considering the rather hair raising implications of refusing to talk to any supposed enemy for any reason and not on any terms, it's disappointing to me that there is a general, unquestioning acceptance of this policy.

It's all in the delivery. This is one of those slogans that falls into the hoorah category. Other hoorah category messages that have the ability to evoke a hoorah response are things like, Never say Die! We're number one! All for one and one for all! You're with us or you're against us!

The response to slogans like these are always, well, hoorah. Yay! Woohoo! But what the hell are they talking about? Nobody seems to care, and nobody ever raises a hand to ask; they're too busy cheering.

"We don't negotiate with terrorists!" Our leaders say it with such self-righteous insistence. They state it as if it were perfectly reasonable and justified. It's a no-brainer obvious fact that you'd have to be stupid not to agree with. It's a slogan whose message is missed which is really a shame because it's a very contentious, disturbing perspective.

It's one thing to have a value system and stick to it, really live it, but this isn't a value. This isn't a moral vision, it's a political strategy. That takes it off the shelf in terms of being held up to scrutiny. It's not an expression of right vs. wrong or good vs. evil, it's a political viewpoint, an opinion, and opinions are not facts. That means it's up for debate.

We've all heard the standard argument whenever somebody questions this political strategy of refusing to engage in dialogue with terrorists. The argument is, if we bow down to terrorists and give them what they want then we'll have terrorists running wild all over the place jerking us around. Negotiating would only encourage them.

That response seems to do the trick in terms of getting people to shut up on the spot, but it's one of those things that sounds reasonable but is not a fact. If it was a fact they could show us the evidence that terrorists are invariably encouraged by successfully carried out negotiations, but evidence is never offered along with that claim. Because of the policy itself we have little evidence to gather about what really happens when genuine attempts to negotiate are made.

I found some facts that support just the opposite. Genuine negotiations carried out in a respectful, courteous way can completely disengage further violence and procure the total release of dozens of hostages, all unharmed. That sounds like success to me. Where's the problem then?

There is a type of personality that equates negotiating with weakness. They would see any form of cooperation as being submissive and allowing the bad guys to win. But if no one is harmed and the crisis is ended with diplomatic negotiations, everyone wins. It seems to me this policy is more about an institutionalized ego that needs to dominate others than a desire for a good outcome.

Negotiating doesn't mean we're bowing down to anyone. Using that phrase suggests there's something deeper and a bit messed up at play in their perspective. Apparently to them, negotiating and working out a compromise, even if the compromise is really quite fair and no real problem to us, means we are 'bowing down'.

That's strange because it doesn't have anything to do with bowing down to anyone. Just the opposite, it means standing face to face. It means very bravely getting eye to eye with an opponent, shaking hands, sitting down, and having a nice long chat. There's nothing submissive about that. It takes serious courage and it takes brains. If being brave and incredibly smart makes you a lesser person in their eyes, then I don't think I can cuddle up to their value system. It's messed up.

To me, being weak is when you're too weak to talk about anything and can only make demands backed up by brute force. That's weak to me. It says you're too afraid to meet them halfway. It says you're desperate and unwilling to find out they might be right about something and you might be wrong. It also says you don't care about anyone but yourself. I don't see what's truly strong about any of those things.

It's more complicated than that obviously. There are times when putting a genuine effort into working things out backfires because the people you're dealing with are too stagnant in their own ways and never had any intention of working to find acceptable solutions. Sometimes all they want is a blood bath. I never said there's no risk involved. But I am saying that applying the same policy to every situation doesn't make sense. It's not always an impossible situation and it doesn't always have to end in a blood bath.

The point is that there definitely are more ways to see things than just theirs. Our officials take on things is not a given. Theirs is only one perspective out of many.

Maybe our leaders think it's an open and shut case, but if this is a democracy then it's not up to them alone. There are obvious questions we'd probably be asking if we could get a word in edgewise, what with all that yahooing and cheering drowning out the thinkers among us.

Look, I've got no problem with cheering, but I'll cheer when I feel like it, not on cue. I'll cheer after I think about it and decide that it's something to cheer about. I may not think it is. That's my call to make. It's my job. In this case I would not cheer. I'd have some questions about why they take that position.

Why do we not negotiate with terrorists? What if negotiation would lead to the best possible results? What is lost by engaging in talks with an opposing interest? What can be gained by talking and what can be lost by talking?

If the terrorists are expressing an interest in holding discussions, if they are open to not doing any more terror and will talk instead, then why wouldn't we be interested in getting those talks going? If this is a way to immediately stop terror, then why wouldn't we want that? That is after all the entire reason we're here, we want terror to stop. Here's a way to stop it. Why wouldn't we take it?

If we have a non-negotiable policy that we will never talk to terrorists but will only shoot them, does that make us better? Does it mean that we are right? Are we always right? Are we perfect? If this is our irrevocable policy does it still allow us to lay out all of our options and choose the best one? Doesn't taking this off the table mean only one thing? Violence? And if we think violence is the answer, then what are we criticizing them for? They think violence is the answer too, what's the difference?

And who decides who is a terrorist? What are the criteria required to categorize someone or some organization as 'terrorist'? And what about this simple reality: It all depends on which end you're looking at things from?

Our entire position on this is clear. We're better than they are because we say so. That they would disagree doesn't matter. That they may have a legitimate gripe doesn't matter either I guess, and I'm not proud of our generally self-superior way of seeing things. I really feel better acting on reason and justice, but maybe that's the real problem. Maybe what we want isn't reasonable or just and maybe we just don't care. In order to negotiate you have to have something real to bring to the table, and that means it can stand on it's own. It's fact, it's opinion, it's reality. Maybe we don't have that and know it.

Our American attitude of superiority is well known all over the world. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people in this world who don't recognize us as superior to them or to anybody else for that matter. In fact it's seen as American arrogance pretty much everywhere and it's also seen as things much less flattering than that, like ignorance, brashness, rudeness and hypocrisy. We're in love with the idea that we're number one, (hooray!), but if you stop to think about it, does that actually mean something? What does it mean?

I think it means "We're better than you are", which is the same message in "We don't negotiate with terrorists". The assertion is that we are just right and they are just wrong so we are better than they are. Isn't this the same juvenile sentiment behind saying "My dad's better than your dad"?

Did that ever happen to you when you were a kid? Some neighborhood kid comes up to you and says, "My dad is better than your dad!" Strangely, it may not seem like it at first glance but there's a connection here that's quite pertinent to the subject. I'll tell you a quick and true story from my own life.

I went through a "My dad is better than your dad" thing with some little twink down the street who spotted me playing outside one day and approached me. He started bragging about how great he had it, and he told me some real whoppers. In spite of myself, the challenge immediately got to me and I took him on, telling some whoppers of my own. The whopper exchange escalated and I was totally winning when he finally got frustrated and called me on one of them, saying, "Oh yeah? Prove it!"

He marched me back to my house in order to locate my dad, who much to my chagrin, was home and working hard by the side of the house, hard enough to be sweating profusely, and he was obviously very busy. This was not a good time for childish games and it suddenly became the worst moment of my life. In the heat of the argument I'd convinced myself that my dad would stand up to this mini thug too, but now that I faced him I knew beyond all doubt that he'd never do it anyway, much less now.

My defeat was imminent and it would be brutal. Total humiliation. They'd both be laughing at me. Because what I had to ask my dad in front of my little twink pal and get my dad to back me up on was whether or not we really had a baby elephant in the back yard.

I felt demoralized and doomed as I stood behind my dad and said, "We have a baby elephant in the back yard, huh dad?"

My dad straightened up and slowly turned around. He looked at me and then he looked at the boy and then he looked back at me. "Yup", he said. "We sure do have a baby elephant in the back yard. Raised it from a baby bottle and it eats hay. A lot of hay." Then he turned and in a very dignified way, walked away. I'm not sure who was more surprised, me or that kid. But I can tell you I thought my dad was the coolest thing on earth right at that moment. I didn't feel good about winning with a lie but I did feel good about my dad helping me save face. He never did anything like that again and I'll never know why he didn't just let me eat dirt and die, it was all I had coming.

But it begs the question, what is this desire to aggressively challenge others and then escalate things to ridiculous heights and then to win no matter what it takes? Honestly, I don't see the big political twinks playing their games at a much different level than any other childish games that people play. The stakes are higher and lives will be lost, but how much legitimacy is there, really, behind the power plays and provocative insults our leaders tend to hurl at other leaders for no other seeming reason than to get them involved in a fight? That was after all the only reason that kid approached me. And he was older than me too, and bigger, and poised to win. Why bother me? Who's dad is better is a stupid question anyway because it's all relative. His dad couldn't be better than mine because he'll never be my dad to prove it. So what's the point? Is this an inherent need for aggression? Do we simply desire a fight for no reason?

I don't think so. I think there's more to it than that. Normal people don't want to fight. Something isn't right about forcing someone into a fight that doesn't need to be fought. Something else is going on.

And therein lies the nugget of truth I'm trying to dig out as I ponder these things. The way our leadership goes about these things leaves no other alternative than waging war against whoever it is they're calling names and making vague accusations about. Simply asserting that some other country is evil is pretty weak at best. Why can't they be more specific? Why do we never hear what the other guy has to say, in his own words, in a fair way? Why are we never given both sides of any story once the "evil" word is being flung around? Why is there no interest and no possibility of using diplomacy first, assuming there really is a problem and we really want to solve it and avoid war?

If the way they handle perceived problems leaves no other alternative than war, then they're not trying to avoid war. They're ensuring that there will be war.

Maybe we don't want to avoid war at all. Maybe this is all a clever game with slogans to make us say, "Hoorah!" and get us to go fight wars for them because lets face it, there are some people getting filthy, dirty rich today from all of this war. It's honestly obscene.

I know it's not your overriding drive to obtain hundreds of billions of dollars in personal wealth so it might be hard to relate to anyone wanting that. But there very definitely are people who want that. They want it above all else. It's the only thing they care about. And they are raking in millions hand over fist today, and they've been raking it in since before we even started shooting.

The ones making the hundreds of billions from war profiteering are also the ones with tremendous power and influence over our government. They have far more power than we do because they have direct access to lawmakers and they have a lot of money to throw around. You and I don't have those things.

They're also the ones who own and control the media and the ones who build the weapons and the tanks and the guns and the airplanes and who supply the troops with everything from food to night vision goggles. The enormous large scale construction companies really rake it in both before and after hostilities when they first build the military bases and structures and roads etc., needed to wage the war and then again afterwards when rebuilding what we knocked down comes due. And let's not forget the army of private mercenaries that are not bound by any laws, here or there, and their staggeringly high pay rate and the no bid contracts that keep them growing.

There is a hell of a lot of borrowed money being spent that's going on our bill for payback at breath taking interest rates and it looks like it will surpass two trillion dollars. Some estimates say it will go as high as five trillion. And for what exactly? Two trillion dollars that will never come back to us. Two trillion dollars that will line the pockets of a few rich men who don't ever have to risk their own lives at any point in the process. Two trillion dollars is a lot of money that some men wouldn't think twice about fucking us over to get their hands on.

It's a very ugly idea but that doesn't prevent it from being true. It's not a new idea either. It's about as old as war itself and war has always been about plunder and power, about destroying the competition and dominating as much of the world as possible. If you've never read "War is a racket" by General Smedley Butler you really should. You can find a pertinent excerpt of it here.

Who does it really serve when our leaders say they will not negotiate with terrorists?
Who does it really serve when those they accuse time and again try to start talks but are ignored outright?
Who does it really serve when we cannot hear both sides of every story?
Who does it really serve when we have nothing to go on but what we are told by our leaders? When we are being manipulated with hoorah slogans and hoorah mass media?
Who does it really serve when we make no effort to avoid war and will consider no other strategy for dealing with problems than waging a violent, expensive war?

Who is better off now after five years of war and who is not better off?
Who is paying and who is benefiting?
Are we better off as a nation?
No way.
Are corporations better off?
Beyond their wildest dreams.


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