Perhaps the difficulties associated with fighting the “war on terror” stem from the fact that we are not really fighting a war at all, in the traditional sense, and the notion of war, if it is to include terrorism or not, needs to be reconceptualized, reconfigured, redefined, and perhaps renamed. Globalization both diminishes and emphasizes cultural, political, and economic boundaries and such diminishment and emphasis necessarily involves a different approach to resolving conflict, different than that which was used in feudal Europe, for example. We have to think about what we mean when we use the word “war” and the word “terrorism.”

The “war on terror,” more precisely, is a battle of ideologies and/or interests, conducted without boundaries, without a fixed theater, and without rules of engagement. Insofar as terrorists can be called combatants, they are generally civilian combatants victimizing other civilians. The combatants have dispersed armies and commanders, and their command structure is often lateral rather than hierarchical; independent agents, sometimes answering to other independent agents within “cells,” conduct independent acts, sometimes bound together only by a loose affiliation to a group, leader, cause, or ideology. Shia and Sunni insurgents perform terrorist acts for different reasons, as do Hamas militants, Chechin rebels, and Al-Qaeda operatives. Many Iraqis, Palestinians, and others throughout the world view US soldiers and intelligence agents as organized terrorists, and rightly so, given the atrocities that some of them have committed, including the rape, torture, abuse, and murder of civilians.

Conflating all of the above into “terrorists” or “soldiers” is a misrepresentation. What we call terrorists are individuals, sometimes within armies or within loose organizational structures, committing crimes against (other) civilians, sometimes on a mass scale. They are criminals and should be treated as such. Timothy Mcveigh was tried as a criminal and convicted for murder. He was not the prisoner of an internal war between the United States government and anti-government extremists. If it is is not acceptable to treat terrorists as criminals, then we need to redefine “war,” or redefine war to include terrorism and tactics needed to combat terrorism because soldiers, “as we know,” don’t commit criminal acts.

Treating terrorists (or worse, suspected terrorists) as prisoners of war in an endless war justifies locking them up indefinitely and denying them due process. (US soldiers, however, who commit terrorist acts are granted due process and humane treatment.) Treating terrorists, instead, as loosely affiliated groups of individuals conducting crimes undermines and deconstructs the binding principles that hold terrorists together because it punishes them as individuals responsible for individual acts, rather than as soldiers. Their adherence to a cause is not officially recognized, as long as they cannot justly and humanely support that cause.

As long as we define acts of terrorism as acts of war, as it is traditionally conceived, we will be fighting a hydra-headed monster. As soon as one Zarqawi is killed, another will replace him. When you destroy one terrorist cell, another will spring up somewhere else. Efforts to combat terrorism using traditional methods of force and efforts to combat it using terrorism in return (torture and dehumanization) will, in the long-run fail. Force was necessary to rout the Al-Qaeda sympathizing and brutal, oppressive Taliban from Afghanistan, but force was not sufficient to confront the social and cultural influences that make them, as individuals, terrorists and oppressors. Consequently, they are back.

The hydra-headed nature of terrorism ultimately stems from a lack of understanding about the primary motives and justifications for terrorism and the interests that are being served. It stems from unwillingness and inability to act in accordance with such understanding on a policy level, a cultural level, an economic level, and a social level. It stems from American cultural superiority, racism, and indiscriminate use of force. It stems from America’s inability to use adequately its vast resources to combat the world’s social problems, rather than to combat Arabs in a pre-emptive war. It stems from America’s inability to learn from history the failures of colonialism and unbridled hegemonic power.