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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.