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'Good Guys’ and 'Bad Guys’ in the War on Terror

The 'bad guy vs. good guy’ frame precludes an objective assessment of America’s own conduct in the war on terror.

December 9, 2013

Crossposted on Al Jazeera America

In numerous meetings and panel discussions over the past several years, I have observed U.S. government officials involved in the detention or targeting of suspected members of foreign terrorist groups refer to these individuals as “the bad guys.” The corollary, usually unstated, is that we — the people doing the detaining or targeting — are the “good guys.” 

The first time I heard a government official use the term, I cringed. “Bad guy” is the term parents use to describe criminals to their four year olds, on the premise that young children lack the capacity for any more nuanced understanding. The official’s use of the label “bad guys” infantilized his audience, which happened to be a room full of experienced attorneys. I found it patronizing, but more than that, I was embarrassed by his use of a term that children use when playing games on the playground, which seemed so unsophisticated and unprofessional.

Yet he was simply adopting the prevailing jargon. As I heard officials utter these words in meetings and in statement after statement, I was increasingly disturbed by them. The bad versus good guys narrative reflects certain aspects of the U.S. government’s approach to counterterrorism that are both counterproductive and deeply troubling.

First, the term is symptomatic of the attitude that Americans should not ask, or seek to understand, the motivations of those who wish to attack us. To be sure, some politicians throw out facile statements positing reasons for terrorists’ actions. In 2001, former president George W. Bush famously proclaimed, “they hate our freedoms.” Earlier this year, during a radio talk show, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee suggested that Islam is inherently violent. Such two-dimensional explanations, however, do not count as serious efforts to understand the enemy. They are simply another way of saying “bad guys.”

It seems far more likely that people join Al Qaeda or similar groups for a variety of reasons. Some may indeed interpret Islam as requiring violent jihad against perceived enemies of the religion. Others could be impressionable young men pressed into membership by friends, relatives or mentors. Still others may simply be attracted to war, an affinity that has plagued mankind throughout history. And undoubtedly, some join terrorist networks to oppose what they consider U.S. interference in the Arab world, such as the war in Iraq — or simply to seek revenge for loved ones killed in U.S. attacks.

However, the notion that terrorists could be motivated by a complex range of thoughts, emotions, and external realities — rather than by pure evil — is anathema in American public discourse. It is almost never reflected in the public pronouncements of national security officials.

If terrorists are “bad guys,” further inquiry is unnecessary. Indeed, it is effectively stifled. Americans who seek a better understanding of why we are under threat of attack cannot freely search online for the speeches or writings that reportedly inspire our enemy. U.S.-based websites like YouTube remove such materials from their public server. Moreover, anyone surfing the web for these items risks being placed on a government watchlist.

To be sure, the U.S. government since 9/11 has devoted significant time and money to researching strategies for countering violent extremism. This research, however, has focused more on identifying visible signs of radicalization and crafting interventions than understanding why it happens. The emphasis on outward indicators – things like growing a beard, wearing conservative religious dress, or changing one’s mosque attendance patterns – itself betrays an oversimplified perspective. Empirical studies suggest that there is no consistent, linear path to terrorism, and no reliable indicators that someone is on this path other than the subject’s criminal preparations.

There is a cost to the nation’s security in this approach. Fighting a loosely defined, stateless collection of terrorist groups is not like a conventional war between nation states. It cannot be won with military force alone — a fact that U.S. officials acknowledge when they say the so-called war on terror is, in large part, a struggle for hearts and minds. A more nuanced understanding of the enemy’s motivation, rather than a simplistic recitation of “they’re the bad guys,” is critical to that endeavor.

The “bad guy vs. good guy” frame is also problematic because it precludes an objective assessment of America’s own conduct in the war on terror. Before it became public that the U.S. had tortured detainees, most Americans believed that only “bad guys” tortured people. Our popular culture reflected this understanding: in the movies, it was the villains who engaged in torture — an unambiguous symbol of their villainy. Public perception shifted quickly after the CIA’s waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” came to light in 2004. Today, a majority of Americans considers torture to be acceptable under some circumstances. The shift is evident in the American pop culture. The face of the torturer is now Jack Bauer, a counterterrorism agent and heroic protagonist from the television show “24.”

Why the switch? Americans have a tendency to judge what we do by who we are, rather than judging who we are by what we do. We are the “good guys”; ergo, if we torture people, torture must not be entirely bad. The truth is harder to swallow: The waterboarding of Guantánamo detainees like Abu Zubaydah — who was water-boarded 83 times in the span of a month — and the torture of an unknown number of other detainees was a fundamental violation of human rights, and therefore we, as a country, have unclean hands.

No country should be judged solely by its worst conduct. Moreover, the United States can still take steps to make partial amends for its actions. Specifically, the U.S. government can allow the truth to come out by declassifying the Senate intelligence committee’s 6,000-page report on the CIA’s interrogation program, and by allowing detainees to testify about their experiences. The U.S. can renounce torture by codifying specific limits on the techniques used by intelligence agencies to obtain information from suspected detainees. And the U.S. can hold those who violated the law after 9/11 responsible. But if we have already decided that we’re the “good guys,” even when engaged in acts of torture, there is little incentive to hold ourselves accountable for actions that otherwise might seem — for lack of a better word — bad.

There is no doubt that the deliberate taking of innocent life — a terrorist’s standard mode of operation — is a reprehensible act. But the caricature of “bad guy” versus “good guy” does our country a great disservice. It prevents us from understanding our enemies — a necessity in this unconventional war of ideologies. And it gives us false license to act against America’s own stated values in the struggle.