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Battling a ‘Bunch of Thugs’

In addressing troops in Colorado on his way to his ranch in Texas, President Bush declared that he would not be intimidated by a “bunch of thugs.” He was referring, of course, to those plaguing our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president’s use of the term “thugs” may shed light on why these many months after the war was won we seem to be continuing a war that may stretch far into the future. It assumes that our foes are just plain street criminals out for a buck and that they have no ideals — no matter how mistaken — for which they are prepared to give their lives. Yet daily, one or more of these “thugs” is a suicide bomber who gladly gives up his, or sometimes her, life to protest the American presence.

When our own Nathan Hale said, “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country,” we hailed him as an exemplary hero. But when Iraqi suicide bombers give their lives for their cause, we give them the tag of “thugs.”

The history of the term “thug” is intriguing. It comes from ancient India, where it referred to a group of professional robbers and murderers. The nearest thing we have to it in the United States might be the Mafia. But surely there is a profound difference between the modern Mafia and, let’s say, our own colonial “minutemen” who grabbed their flintlocks to avenge the outrages of their British masters. The British troops, like our present American troops in Iraq, were well-organized in typical military fashion. At Lexington and Concord and in subsequent conflicts, the “minutemen” fired from rocks and trees at the glistening targets of Brits in their bright-red coats. Were these colonial guerrillas “thugs”? Or were they highly motivated rebels trying to rid themselves of an oppressive yoke?

All this is more than a semantic debate about how to tag certain violent acts. If it is merely “thugs” with which we have to deal, then all we need are more cops. But if we are dealing with people who think of themselves as “freedom fighters,” which is how they see themselves, we need more than a fistful of force.

Consider the recent warning from the European Union that thousands of young men in Europe, primarily of Islamic origin, are arming themselves and taking off to Iraq to risk their lives to back the effort to rid that nation of the American forces of occupation. Are such young men, however misled they may be, nothing more than “thugs”?

Are all the other armed groups looking for independence — like the Basques in Spain, the Chechens in Russia, the Irish Republican Army in North Ireland — nothing more than “thugs” when they conduct their guerrilla wars against those whom they consider to be their oppressors?

Bush’s father had a much clearer notion of what to do in Iraq. He stated his theory in a book he wrote with Brent Scowcroft in which he explained, seven years after the Gulf War, that if we had ousted Saddam Hussein we would, for many years thereafter, have to run the Iraqi government and deal with “a hostile people.” He saw it right. He knew the perils of imperialism, especially when exerted against the oldest civilization on earth.

He had understanding. Apparently, such understanding is not genetically handed down from father to son.

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