It is often said that the first rule of warfare is “Know your enemy.” In the Art of War, Sun Tzu advises that it is as important to know yourself as it is to know your enemy. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you are bound to fail. The name of the group reporting to be behind today’s terrorist attack, “The Secret Organisation of al-Qaeda in Europe,” whether true or not, unfortunately represents our (that is, America’s) lack of knowledge of our enemy—and of ourselves.
Seizing the moment to draw a stark contrast between the G8 and the London bombers, President Bush stated forcefully that “the contrast couldn't be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who've got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks. The war on terror goes on…” The war goes on against “those who kill,” those with “evil in their heart.”
You may well recall that this rhetoric of evil—e.g., the “axis of evil”—was Bush’s initial reaction to 9/11. But that rhetoric was jettisoned and supplanted by a warfare paradigm. In the 21 Dec. 2001 New York Times, Caleb Carr observed in his “The Art of Knowing the Enemy”: “the military, under Donald Rumsfeld’s leadership, has moved past the ‘evil people’ paradigm by recognizing that terrorism is (as its practitioners have always insisted) a form of warfare, and that terrorists themselves, whether evil or no, are a variety of soldier.” Yet despite the rhetoric that “Iraq is the central front in the war on terror,” the U.S. continues to identify the enemy as Al Qaeda (who is everywhere and nowhere), in particular, and terrorism (which is a technique), in the abstract. Both hide our ignorance of the enemy, and cast doubt on what we ourselves are engaged in—war? police action? political action? Metaphors and rhetoric matter because if we continue to speak about the war on terror in ambivalent terms, our language will continue to provide our enemy with secrecy, anonymity, and the ability to change identity at will. To wit: “The Secret Organisation of al-Qaeda in Europe” As Thomas Mann said, "the truly dreadful enemy is the unknown."