Message to the NYT: They're not "insurgents."

A wartime lexicon.
May 16 2005 1:09 PM

History and Mystery

Why does the New York Times insist on calling jihadists "insurgents"?

U.S. soldier frisks an Iraqi man 
Click image to expand.
U.S. soldier frisks an Iraqi man

When the New York Times scratches its head, get ready for total baldness as you tear out your hair. A doozy classic led the "Week in Review" section on Sunday. Portentously headed "The Mystery of the Insurgency," the article rubbed its eyes at the sheer lunacy and sadism of the Iraqi car bombers and random murderers. At a time when new mass graves are being filled, and old ones are still being dug up, writer James Bennet practically pleaded with the authors of both to come up with an intelligible (or defensible?) reason for his paper to go on calling them "insurgents."

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

I don't think the New York Times ever referred to those who devastated its hometown's downtown as "insurgents." But it does employ this title every day for the gang headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. With pedantic exactitude, and unless anyone should miss the point, this man has named his organization "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia" and sought (and apparently received) Osama Bin Laden's permission for the franchise. Did al-Qaida show "interest in winning hearts and minds … in building international legitimacy … in articulating a governing program or even a unified ideology," or any of the other things plaintively mentioned as lacking by Mr. Bennet?

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The answer, if we remember our ABC, is yes and no, with yes at least to the third part of the question. The Bin Ladenists did have a sort of "governing program," expressed in part by their Taliban allies and patrons. This in turn reflected a "unified ideology." It can be quite easily summarized: the return of the Ottoman Empire under a caliphate and a return to the desert religious purity of the seventh century (not quite the same things, but that's not our fault). In the meantime, anyway, war to the end against Jews, Hindus, Christians, unbelievers, and Shiites. None of the "experts" quoted in the article appeared to have remembered these essentials of the al-Qaida program, but had they done so, they might not be so astounded at the promiscuous way in which the Iraqi gangsters pump out toxic anti-Semitism, slaughter Nepalese and other Asian guest-workers on video and gloat over the death of Hindus, burn out and blow up the Iraqi Christian minority, kidnap any Westerner who catches their eye, and regularly inflict massacres and bombings on Shiite mosques, funerals, and assemblies.

A letter from Zarqawi to Bin Laden more than a year ago, intercepted by Kurdish intelligence and since then well-authenticated, spoke of Shiism as a repulsive heresy and the ignition of a Sunni-Shiite civil war as the best and easiest way to thwart the Crusader-Zionist coalition. The actions since then have precisely followed the design, but the design has been forgotten by the journal of record. The Bin Laden and Zarqawi organizations, and their co-thinkers in other countries, have gone to great pains to announce, on several occasions, that they will win because they love death, while their enemies are so soft and degenerate that they prefer life. Are we supposed to think that they were just boasting when they said this? Their actions demonstrate it every day, and there are burned-out school buses and clinics and hospitals to prove it, as well as mosques (the incineration of which one might think to be a better subject for Islamic protest than a possibly desecrated Quran, in a prison where every inmate is automatically issued with one.)

Then we might find a little space for the small question of democracy. The Baath Party's opinion of this can be easily gauged, not just from its record in power but from the rancid prose of its founding fascist fathers. As for the Bin Ladenists, they have taken extraordinary pains to say, through the direct statements of Osama and of Zarqawi, that democracy is a vile heresy, a Greek fabrication, and a source of profanity. For the last several weeks, however, the Times has been opining every day that the latest hysterical murder campaign is a result of the time it has taken the newly elected Iraqi Assembly to come up with a representative government. The corollary of this mush-headed coverage must be that, if a more representative government were available in these terrible conditions (conditions supplied by the gangsters themselves), the homicide and sabotage would thereby decline. Is there a serious person in the known world who can be brought to believe such self-evident rubbish?

On many occasions, the jihadists in Iraq have been very specific as well as very general. When they murdered Sergio Vieira de Mello, the brilliant and brave U.N. representative assigned to Baghdad by Kofi Annan, the terrorists' communiqué hailed the death of the man who had so criminally helped Christian East Timor to become independent of Muslim Indonesia. (This was also among the "reasons" given for the bombing of the bar in Bali.) I think I begin to sense the "frustration" of the "insurgents." They keep telling us what they are like and what they want. But do we ever listen? Nah. For them, it must be like talking to the wall. Bennet even complains that it's difficult for reporters to get close to the "insurgents": He forgets that his own paper has published a conversation with one of them, in which the man praises the invasion of Kuwait, supports the cleansing of the Kurds, and says that "we cannot accept to live with infidels."

Ah, but why would the "secular" former Baathists join in such theocratic mayhem? Let me see if I can guess. Leaving aside the formation of another well-named group—the Fedayeen Saddam—to perform state-sponsored jihad before the intervention, how did the Baath Party actually rule? Yes, it's coming back to me. By putting every Iraqi citizen in daily fear of his or her life, by random and capricious torture and murder, and by cynical divide-and-rule among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Does this remind you of anything?

That's not to say that the paper doesn't have a long memory. Having once read in high school that violence is produced by underlying social conditions, the author of this appalling article refers in lenient terms to "the goal of ridding Iraq of an American presence, a goal that may find sympathy among Iraqis angry about poor electricity and water service and high unemployment." Bet you hadn't thought of that: The water and power are intermittent, so let's go and blow up the generating stations and the oil pipelines. No job? Shoot up the people waiting to register for employment. To the insult of flattering the psychopaths, Bennet adds his condescension to the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, who are murdered every day while trying to keep essential services running. (Baathism, by the way, comes in very handy in crippling these, because the secret police of the old regime know how things operate, as well as where everybody lives. Or perhaps you think that the attacks are so "deadly" because the bombers get lucky seven days a week?)

This campaign of horror began before Baghdad fell, with the execution and mutilation of those who dared to greet American and British troops. It continued with the looting of the Baghdad museum and other sites, long before there could have been any complaint about the failure to restore power or security. It is an attempt to put Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, many of them still traumatized by decades of well-founded fear, back under the heel of the Baath Party or under a home-grown Taliban, or the combination of both that would also have been the Odai/Qusai final solution. Half-conceding the usefulness of chaos and misery in bringing this about, Bennet in his closing paragraph compares jihadism to 19th-century anarchism, which shows that he hasn't read Proudhon or Bakunin or Kropotkin either.

In my ears, "insurgent" is a bit like "rebel" or even "revolutionary." There's nothing axiomatically pejorative about it, and some passages of history have made it a term of honor. At a minimum, though, it must mean "rising up." These fascists and hirelings are not rising up, they are stamping back down. It's time for respectable outlets to drop the word, to call things by their right names (Baathist or Bin Ladenist or jihadist would all do in this case), and to stop inventing mysteries where none exist.

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