« The Foreign Policy Ch… | Home | The REAL Problem with… »

Using Fear for National Security

(Spoiler Alert: This post reveals plot details about Orson Scott Card’s wonderful novel "Ender’s Game". I cover “Swordfish” too, but no one saw that.)

In June 2001, the film Swordfish developed a strategy to deal with the issues that America would confront three months later. (At the time, terrorism was just another plot; three months later it would become verboten.) The film’s antagonist Gabriel explains his strategy:

“Someone must bring the war to them. They bomb a church, we bomb ten. They hijack a plane, we take out an airport. They execute American tourists, we tactically nuke an entire city. Our job is to make terrorism so horrific that it becomes unthinkable to attack Americans.”

And the hypothetical result of this strategy?

What countries will harbor terrorists when they realize the consequences of what I’ll do?”

By page six of Ender’s Game, the eponymous main character implements the above strategy in his own situation. When confronted by bullies, Ender outwits the lead bully and proceeds to viciously maul him as he lays helpless on the ground. Ender tells the other bullies as he slams his foot on the six year olds crotch, “Remember what I do to people who hurt me.” Later, Ender explains his logic, “Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too. So they’d leave me alone.” When an enemy cadet named Bonzo again forces Ender to fight, he repeats the strategy. “The only way to end things completely was to hurt Bonzo enough that his fear was greater then his hate.”

The strategy of these two characters posits that fear--overwhelming, crippling fear--can defeat an enemy. The enemy will surrender when faced with insurmountable odds, and certain death. The enemy will submit when forced.

Putting it simply, this strategy is neither effective nor morally justifiable.

Pragmatically, overwhelming force or the fear it generates, does not ensure enemies will submit. The Palestinians show the true counter to overwhelming force. In virtually every fight with Israel, they suffer innumerably more casualties. Yet they continue to launch missiles in Israel, undeterred. Certain death didn’t stop wave after wave of World War I soldiers, or Kamikaze pilots, or countless over-matched rebels. It didn’t stop the 9/11 high jackers. Pragmatically, death and fear of death will not stop terrorism.

Pragmatism aside, a disproportionate response in war is repulsive to any worthy ethical system. Using the ends to justify the means will always pervert those means.

Gabriel becomes a terrorist and Swordfish ends with a strategic strike on Osama Bin Laden’s yacht. A yacht with at least some innocents on board.  But what if that yacht were a city, filled with hundreds of innocents? What if Gabriel closed the film killing innocents as he said he would?

Perhaps the sadder example is Ender. Ender, an eternally guilt ridden protagonist, usually garners a reader’s sympathy. During my last reading of his book, though, I began to dislike him. He claims to desire peace, but he doesn’t seek it. To stop bullying, Ender kills the bully. Bullying is wrong and immoral, but does it warrant a death sentence? Is crippling or killing the bully worth it to stop the violence? Is overwhelming force justified?

The answer is no.

two comments

I had a problem here. Ender was one against many. He didn’t have superior force but superior brutality. Effectually, he was the smaller force tactically ravaging a target. A technique that is more comparable to the concept of terrorism. Savage attacks to make your opponent question their resolve. But in principle, causing your enemy to fear death isn’t enough. But what about fearing death on a scale of million to your civilization? Ask the city elders of Hiroshima how effective superior force is as a threat. Or consider if your opponent believed that you were not only corrupted in morality but devoid of it.


Hiroshima is something I thought about; there were Japanese Generals that wanted to keep fighting. What I think my argument here is that the fear of certain death is not a guaranteed deterrent as it is presented in both works.

And as far as Ender goes, I have issues with him and we’ll be posting more on him and his pacifism.