Is terrorism a criminal act or an act of war -- and what difference does it make?

by Mary Ann McGivern

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The U.S. fought a war on terrorism for about seven years, until President Obama began using other language, saying terrorism is a crime. You may argue that Mr. Obama still conducts a drone war on crime, at the very least. Nonetheless, the distinction is important.

Lots of people would like to be at war with the United States: home-grown militias, drug cartels, pirates, Al-Qaeda, ISIS. But El Chapo's escape from prison is a criminal enterprise, not a glamorous battle-ground victory. A declaration of war offers status, power and a sense of accomplishment that draws would-be troops to the fight. Soldiers get medals; criminals rot in prison.

The terrorist attacks in Paris are criminal acts, as are the attacks in Beirut, in Syria, in Guatemala, in Kenya. Anti-social gangs are determined to disrupt society because society is unjust, but perhaps also because they have acquired a taste for killing. What is their point? To instill such fear in us that we can't think straight, so we accept their rule of violence, run away as refugees, or grant them the status of soldiers.

It the Democratic debate Nov. 14, Bernie Sanders answered the question of response to the attacks in Paris by talking about predicted climate wars. Political pundits criticized this as evasive, and I agree that he wasn’t clear. (I’m trying to be clear too, but it is difficult in the face of coordinated horror designed to create shock and awe.) Nonetheless, Bernie's right that there are real wars in the offing over clean water, food and shelter. We don't have much time.

So will we spend our precious time and money declaring war on handfuls on criminals around the world, or will we let law enforcement do its job while we try to solve the real problems that threaten our life on this planet?

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