Playing the “what did they know, and when did they know it?” game over the attack in Benghazi continues to fuel the fires of conspiracy theorists and self-promoting politicians alike.
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National Security expert Peter Bergen says the Republican effort to find something dark and insidious behind the events “doesn’t make sense.” It was an attack in a “chaotic” place that was unrelated to anything else and nearly impossible to predict with any accuracy or to prevent. Bergen also describes the facility as more a CIA “listening station than a consulate.” The deaths of four Americans was a “tragedy” but not the genesis of a Machiavellian “cover-up,” he suggests.
I’ve been skeptical about the issue since well before the Benghazi tragedy. My skepticism is based on the concept of “terrorism.” What is, and what is not terrorism? Different definitions are used by different agencies and entities but they all have elements in common: Violence, fear and intimidation in pursuit of political, religious or social goals. Most of the definitions refer to an “audience” as separate from the “victims.” The audience is the government, society or religious power whose policies are opposed by those who commit the violent act and in whom they wish to engender fear and an ongoing sense of intimidation.
If the “consulate” had simply been attacked and partially destroyed, but nobody was hurt, would we demand that the administration publicly call it an act of terror carried out by terrorists? Who has been terrorized by the attack in Benghazi?
The goal of terrorism is to terrorize. The attacks on 9/11 had that effect for lots of people for some period of time. But America did not continue to be terrorized or intimidated after the first few days. We realized we were vulnerable and took immediate steps to protect ourselves more comprehensively than we had ever thought necessary. We’ve been disrupted for sure, but we didn’t collapse, and another such outrage won’t bring us down either.
The subway bombings in London and train bombings in Madrid should rightly be called acts of terror. Their goal was to kill as many people as possible in very public places and in as violent a manner as could be imagined. It disrupted those cities for some time, but it ultimately didn’t shut them down or put them out of business or scare away significant numbers of visitors. It influenced Spain’s eventual troop withdrawal from Iraq, so in a sense it was successful from the terrorists’ perspective, I suppose.
By comparison, the Benghazi incident shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same breath. It was part of a larger story, one battle in a much broader war. The target was (to the perpetrators) a foreign government’s installation that was fairly isolated and poorly protected. Whoever the attackers were, and it’s still unclear, they are believed to represent a small constituency of very conservative Islamists who want Libya to become a state governed by Sharia law.
They only formed after the revolution began in Libya and they have no known international connection from what I can find out. If they had blown up hundreds of their own people in the town square and immediately crowed about it from the rooftops, they could legitimately be called terrorists — pursuing their agenda of bringing down those who currently control their country.
If their goal was to scare Americans away from Libya, it probably wasn’t really necessary. Who in their right mind would want to go to Libya these days?
The Benghazi issue had some political urgency before the election and was used by Republicans to discredit the administration’s claims that al-Qaeda (and by extension a terrorism threat of worldwide proportions) had nearly been eradicated. And the even juicier accusation of a major Obama cover-up had pretty short legs leading up to election day. A majority of Americans didn’t buy that canard then and still don’t.
I would like to see the term “terrorism” and all its linguistic manifestations re-calibrated and downsized to match its specific and traditional concept.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.