Saturday, December 1, 2012

Tipping the War on Terror

Jeh C. Johnson, General Counsel of the Defense Department, suggested this week that we may be reaching a “tipping point” in the war with Al Qaeda. 
“I do believe that on the present course, there will come a tipping point — a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of Al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that Al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.”
Some legal scholars have reacted by treating this tipping point as if it were an ending to war.   Under the conventional formulation of wartimes and their impacts, the tipping/ending would be the moment when the imagined pendulum begins to swing in a new direction – away from wartime and the prioritization of security over rights.  Peacetime, and the normal rule of law, would then return.  Echoing this idea, Johnson remarked:  "'War' must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary and unnatural state of affairs....Peace must be regarded as the norm toward which the human race continually strives."

If the tipping point is going to do this work, altering the very state of the world away from war/wartime, we should stop and think about what tipping is, or what it means.

Johnson may have in mind the definition of “tipping point” as “the prevalence of a social phenomenon sufficient to set in motion a process of rapid change; the moment when such a change begins to occur.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Prominent examples of this usage are in the American civil rights literature about “white flight,” but this usage appears across fields.  In his book Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell applies it to technology: “For the next three years, businesses slowly and steadily bought more and more faxes, until, in 1987, enough people had faxes that it made sense for everyone to get a fax. Nineteen eighty-seven was the fax machine Tipping Point.”

There are other meanings of tipping, such as bestowing gratuities, like tipping a cab driver, or giving private information, like passing on a tip at the racetrack.  To tip is also to upset something, as in tipping over a glass and spilling a drink.  And of course, having too much to drink can make you “tipsie.”  In this way tip, or tipping, or tipping point seems a conventional, even frivolous concept.  By itself, perhaps it does little work for us.

But the original meaning of “tipping,” according to the OED, is “The action of furnishing or fitting with a tip.”  The tip of a spear, as it were.  Sharpening the point of a spear involves burnishing its ending.  This makes the weapon sharper, and more precise.

This helps us to understand the War on Terror tipping in the context of the Obama Administration’s effort to develop rules for targeted killings, thereby legitimating and perpetuating the personalization of warfare.  We are not tipping from war to peace, if peace is understood as the absence of warfare.  Instead, we are sharpening the weapon.  This enables warfare to be more precise, more targeted, more secret, more isolated from public awareness and accountability.  In this way tipping the war on terror may not bring about an ending, but instead facilitate an ongoing war.

Cross-posted from Balkinization.

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