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Absolutely correct, and I propose another harmful semantic controversy that should be ended.

Reader comment on item: I Give Up: There Is No Terrorism, There Are No Terrorists

Submitted by Stu Fagin (United States), Jun 13, 2015 at 10:05

Dr. Pipes, as usual, makes a valuable point. Semantic controversies, those whose focus is whether a particular term is properly applied, are fruitless and debilitating. Fruitless in that they offer no insight into how an issue can be resolved. Debilitating in that they are a diversion from what is important, and worse, hinder analysis. The great issue at hand is the assault of Islamism upon the West in all its aspects; the highly apparent violent assaults, and the less apparent political, legal, and cultural assaults. As Pipes makes clear, deliberating over whether any one of these assaults satisfies a definition of "terrorism" offers no insight into how to manage and extinguish the threat.

The idea can be extended to another significant semantic controversy in the struggle against Islamism; the use of the term "torture". The controversy has mostly focused on whether this term is properly applied to the enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) used on a few high value captives taken soon after 9-11. The attention given to the whether these EITS constitute torture has no value because the disposition of captives presents a moral, not a semantic question.

When holding captives who likely have knowledge of impending assaults we must make a judgment regarding where the moral balance lies between (a) treating those in our custody humanely, and (b) safeguarding our citizenry by extracting information about impending attacks. It can be a difficult balance, but we obtain no insight into it by declaring a particular technique, such as waterboarding, torture. If, as the CIA claims, that several impending attacks were thwarted, and hundreds of lives saved, by the information obtained from brief periods of waterboarding, would this make the practice morally warranted? The question is not resolved by determining whether waterboarding satisfies a particular definition of torture.

This semantic argument is not merely fruitless; it is quite harmful. First, it terminates discussion before the problem is thought through; usually with a phrase such as "the Untied States doesn't torture". Has the CIA settled on what methods they are prepared to undertake in the extreme case; the so-called ticking bomb scenario, where the captive has knowledge of a nuclear device in a major city? Or is it the case that, in the event, the CIA will have to improvise a protocol because the semantic argument has barred them from laying the procedural groundwork?

Moreover, the argument serves to malign the west. Regardless of how one chooses to characterize the EITs, it should be recognized that they are limited, controlled, and carried out for the purpose of thwarting impending civilian attacks on civilians. In contrast. the methods of oppressive regimes are unlimited, uncontrolled and carried out for the purpose of intimidation, extracting confessions, or as sadistic exercises. When the EITs are characterized as torture, without consideration of method, context, or motivation, we are improperly implicated as akin to oppressive regimes.

Submitting....

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