if you write “the terrorists have already won,” then the terrorists have already won

Seriously: is there a more worthless cliche in our well-stocked bag of worthless cliches? It’s made a non-ironic comeback with The Interview and Charlie Hebdo, and it’s such a ponderous, self-important method for achieving profundity. It’s especially egregious given that the topic of terrorism would seem to have enough intrinsic seriousness that it doesn’t require that kind of linguistic preening. If we abridge civil liberties because we’re fearful of terrorism, that’s bad enough to function as its own zinger. Don’t gild the lily. I get that “if we change our way of life in response to terrorism, then we have abandoned core democratic and social values out of fear of a statistically lesser threat than bee stings” doesn’t really have that ring to it. But it’s more accurate and has much less of an “I’m a ponderous blowhard” quality to it.

Besides, the phrase amounts to an endorsement of the stupidest way to think about foreign policy and national defense, the juvenile vision of national defense as a matter of teams and winning. It’s bad enough to speak that way when it comes to any foreign policy question, treating geopolitics like a zero sum exercise in out-toughing the other side. But it’s even worse with terrorism. Thinking of terrorism as a game to be won or lost plays into the interests of terrorism; it’s the kind of grand narrative that gives those (secretly delicate and insecure) terrorist types the jollies. Clash of civilizations rhetoric and halftime-speech language is precisely the kind of thing that convinces suburban teens to trade their Pokemon collection for airfare to Tikrit. Our approach should be to stress the utter futility of terrorism to actually secure long-term, meaningful strategic victories, to demonstrate to those who potentially could fall under the sway of extremist ideologies that these efforts are sad, almost pitiable. Instead, we get as grandiose as possible, treating every nutcase with a Kalashnikov as a vanguard unit in some glorious war for civilization. That’s so, so dumb. It gives those desperate for narrative and meaning in their lives more incentive to commit acts of terrorism. And we only keep it up to feel similarly important and bombastic ourselves.

And while I’m very rarely the kind to say “both sides do it,” this phrase seems to be embraced by people who are typically on opposite sides of the question of terrorism and attendant issues. If you think a given outcome has or will come from a terrorist attack or our response to it, whatever your stance is, you should do the work to make its importance felt yourself. If you’re a writer, use your words. Use new words. Leave “then the terrorists have already won” to an earlier era of gasbags, please.

Update: Seriously, you guys: “I have not personally witnessed” is not adequate evidence for saying that X does not exist or is not a strawman. When you make those claims, you are usually just demonstrating the limitation of your own perspective. Here and here and here, not to mention dozens and dozens of comments I’ve read. I care about opinions that exist, not merely those that people in my readership are likely to find savvy.