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Terror, Semantic Constructs, and the Middle East

Guest Column Husham S. Shafiri

Terrorists scare the hell out of me. I am especially scared of Burmese terrorists. Spanish is the number one language of terrorists in the world, but I hardly care. I have never been terrified in the face of a Spanish speaker. I have, however, felt terror at the hands of three Burmese.

They were three kids, actually, who some years ago hijacked a plane I was on in Southeast Asia. They demanded democracy in Burma (Myanmar), in direct protest to the military coup and election annulment that had just occurred there, and they created a truly terrible time for the lot of airplane passengers to prove it. They had some guns and claimed to have had some bombs - the usual fare for democracy terrorists, I suppose.

After a few hours of redirection in the air, we all came down safe and sound in India. The kids were taken away I know not where. Nonetheless, I am still terrified of Burmese terrorists. Of course, I have the vocabulary to articulate my fear. I experienced Burmese democracy terrorism; it has meaning to me; therefore, it is real.

Can you say the same? Most people do not experience the terror of Peruvian rebels confining an embassy; or of potato-eating Idaho mountain, para-military rednecks, threatening to overthrow any institution that dares be institutional; or of Branch Davidian Christian cult types, torching the minds of their children with the terror of this world, then torching their bodies with actual flames; or of society's lunatic fringe in Nairobi, or Oklahoma, or Belfast, or Tokyo, or India.

In other words, people, being people, need words to guide and explain the terror they feel. Without direct experience, they take their words from others. Such is the arithmetic of political semantics.

For example, the Middle East is an "area of strategic importance" to the United States. This phrase, area of strategic importance, is a semantic construct. It acts as an epitome for a composite of underlying notions - like the importance of oil, the importance of countering Russia, the importance of promoting secular democracy, and so on. The validity of the underlying notions thus measures the utility of the phrase "area of strategic importance." I leave an analysis to the reader to decide whether these particular underlying notions are valid.

The neat aspect about semantic packages is that they contain many goodies inside. They are smartly wrapped, easily swallowed, tiny, mental piatas - fun to play with, with hidden surprises. When properly made, semantic constructs encourage elevated thought and action. When born out of handicapped knowledge, they abort meaningful thought and dangerously still encourage action. Given America's most recent tango with Iraq, perhaps we can analyze the semantics that guide this aspect of our foreign policy.

We as Americans seek "compliance" from those recalcitrant Iraqis. Of course, paternal condescension aside, this semantic construct assumes a smooth connection between the 30 million people of Iraq and the regime that controls Iraq. Actually, there is no connection, other than fear. One hates the other. The government only hurts the people, in myriad ways, and the people only want to stop being hurt. Strictly speaking, the Iraqi people have yielded full compliance to the United Nations in that they no longer have clean water, clean food, or basic medicine. Specifically, they have none of these as long as they comply with the embargo. And the overwhelming majority cannot help but do so. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein lives as opulently as he did before the Gulf War.

We seek to eliminate "weapons of mass destruction." That is our next semantic construct. But if we have not found and already destroyed them with a precise instrument like the U.N. Special Commission (the weapons inspectors), how do we propose to do so with blunt instruments like bombs, troops and the terror that is borne by war? We should have destroyed what we had found. That was our mission. And we cannot destroy what we have not found. What then shall we destroy next?

We seek to "weaken or contain Saddam." So far we have only emboldened him, strengthened his internal position, caused a massive brain-drain (leaving no talented opposition in the country), humiliated ourselves in the process, and spent billions and billions of tax dollars doing it.

We wish to protect the "credibility of the U.N. Security Council." Credibility is important. I just hope that this credibility is more important than the 1,500,000 Iraqis the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports as having died as a result of the embargo.

Usually, we let certain people die in order to save certain other people. What exactly do we save here? And the list goes on. Whatever one's opinion of the problem, one must admit that the American policy on Iraq is bankrupt. Like Frankenstein and his monster, we bolstered and empowered a regime in the 1980's that controls our every policy decision towards it in the 1990's. Mystifyingly, we even seem proud that the decision to deploy our military is in Saddam's hands.

Things could not get worse for Saddam's country. So why should he comply? He has no hope of seeing sanctions lifted. Why not kick out nosy foreigners, who might anyway be - according to our ally Britain - Israeli spies? His people already die of disease. Why not let them die of bombs? A U.S. military strike will leave him unscathed as a man. Why not emerge bold and defiant as a President? Or why not build up and back down again and again?

In short, we no longer control our destiny. Saddam does. Worse, we have blithely eased into this bottomless quagmire by actually believing the empty, erroneous and sometimes just plain silly verbal constructs made to compensate for hard thought and real understanding. The Middle East is not a simple place to comprehend. And until we are willing to consider these people as more than little, brown derelicts, we will continue to waste our time, our money, our energy, our words, and the lives of human beings - both Iraqi civilians and American troops. Come to think of it, the terrific likelihood of yet another round in this cyclic dance terrifies me even more than Burmese democracy terrorism.

Husham S. Shafiri is a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program.