The Pentagon calls itself shameless.

The Pentagon calls itself shameless.

The Pentagon calls itself shameless.

Military analysis.
Dec. 21 2001 2:27 PM

Who You Calling Despicable, Buddy?

Not everything a terrorist does is terrorism.

A couple of days ago, 40 al-Qaida prisoners grabbed weapons from their Pakistani guards and escaped after a shootout that left 13 people dead. Thursday's Los Angeles Times said that the breakout "reinforced the reputation for ruthlessness and violence on the part of the fighters for the terrorist network." Elsewhere in the same edition, the paper quotes Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz complaining that captured al-Qaida fighters "lie shamelessly." The LAT and U.S. government seem to agree: Refusing to go quietly once captured and lying to interrogators—that just shows you how despicable these people are.

I think I've found a document that explains this inhuman and inhumane fanaticism. It states in part:

I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist. If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. … I will give no information nor take part in any action which may be harmful to my fellow comrades. … When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give my name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will avoid answering further questions to the utmost of my ability.

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Oh, wait a second, that's not the al-Qaida creed; it's ours.

The above quotes come from the "American Fighting Man's (shouldn't that be 'Person's' by now?) Code of Conduct" and are the essential tenets of POW conduct taught to all U.S. military people in basic training and the service academies, and at a further level of intensity to commandos and other high-risk personnel in special Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape schools. Maybe the LAT never knew and Wolfowitz forgot that the Defense Department spends a lot of time and money teaching people to resist and escape, but I haven't—I'm a graduate of one such school.

The point is that in thinking about this war, we need to keep our brush properly narrow. Terrorists are indeed despicable, and if we can legally prove a person is one, I won't mourn his/her fate. But let's try to remember that in a dirt-poor part of the world, some people might just have gotten caught up in soldiering for a terrorist without themselves actually becoming one. And that even the "ruthlessness and violence" of a genuine terrorist might not be "terrorism." It might even be the kind of thing we do ourselves.

Scott Shuger is a Slate senior writer who spent five years in the U.S. Navy and served overseas as an intelligence officer.