The “War on Terror”: Sense and Nonsense

For a few months now, the media has been using the term “war on terror” as though it were a neutral description of U.S. military action in Afghanistan or of U.S. threats of future attacks elsewhere. On its face, the “war on terror” — or even “war on terrorism” — is at best a misnomer. How, exactly, does one declare war on a concept, on a tactic, and how would such a war be won? Even if we assume that what Washington really means when it says “war on terror” is “war on terrorists”, the term is deeply problematic.

A terrorist, according to conventional definitions, is someone who uses terror, or threats of terror, to coerce a government or population into granting demands. Clearly, levelling the World Trade towers, thus killing several thousand people counts as terrorism, though it’s unclear what the terrorists in question were trying to coerce the U.S. to do, apart from provoking it to war. But what about bombing Afghanistan, thus killing several thousand (4,000 by the best estimates) innocent civilians over an eight week period? Which does not include the number of people maimed by the same bombs or the number of undocumented casualties; the fact that it’s customary to bury the dead before sundown in Afghanistan, coupled with the fact that the Pentagon retroactively bought up all available civilian satellite photos, which would have allowed for accurate estimates, also make it seem likely that that figure is conservative.

Before the attacks began, UN officials warned that, in addition to the 2.5 million Afghan refugees dependent on aid, an additional 1 million could starve if aid workers were forced to evacuate (again, a conservative estimate). The attack proceeded and aid workers were forced to leave. US air drops of food did little to compensate; when aid workers had been on site, 700 tons of food had been getting into the country daily; air drops managed to deliver the same amount over three weeks. Pentagon officials routinely boast of psy-ops and brag about the “shattering” psychological effect of the “daisy cutter”, a massive bomb that incinerates everything within 600 yards, producing a shockwave felt for miles.

Recently, 98 civilians were killed when the U.S. bombed a village. A Pentagon spokesperson said that “those people are dead because we wanted them dead”, ostensibly because they were Taliban supporters.

Surely such actions count as terrorism. U.S. tactics are explicitly designed to “shatter” the opponent in order to further the pursuit of political goals. What do we risk by using terrorism as a tactic to fight a war on terrorism?

Some say that states, by definition, cannot commit acts of terrorism. Even if true, and U.S. foreign policy is merely horrifying and illegal, but not terrorism per se, the term “war on terror” is incoherent. Part of this “war on terror” — a term so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to find a replacement — has been to censure, to punish, to threaten the use of force against countries which enable terrorists to operate, financially or otherwise. Yet there has been no word from Washington to end IRA fundraising in the parishes of Boston, New York, Chicago; and anti-Castro terrorists continue to operate out of Miami, with neither fear nor threat of law nor force. “Plan Colombia”, by which Washington aims to hand the Colombian government $1.5 billion and several heavily subsidized arms deals, was justified by that country’s “good human rights record”. Despite the fact that activists and candidates from the only opposition party to be formed there have been murdered and tortured by the hundreds.

Not so many years ago the U.S. supported, trained, and funded muhajideen like of Osama Bin Laden, cold war pawns whom Reagan called the moral equivalents of the founding fathers, even “freedom fighters”. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein, another potential target in the “war on terror”, not too long ago, and stood idlely by while, in the last gasps of the Gulf War, he brutally put down a rebellion of Kurds which the U.S. had prompted.

That the Bush administration has neither acknowledged nor expressed regret at these prior affiliations is certainly cause for some doubt as to the motives of this self-righteous war.

So perhaps the “war on terror” is more aptly named the “war on terrorists who attack the United States and on anyone who happens to live near the people who support those terrorists” — more verbose and more accurate. Yet that’s still not quite right. The U.S. — and the U.K. and Canada, both of which have signed on wholesale — still calls Saudi Arabia an ally in this war, despite the fact that most of bin Laden’s funding likely originates there. Maybe the “war on terrorists that can be killed without messing up any major trade deals, sources of oil, or political connections” is even more apt.

Indeed, the closer one looks, the more one sees that the “war on terror” is mostly a convenient cover for the U.S., and its junior allies in London and Riyadh and Ottawa, to pursue with abandon its global interests. While “War on Terror” does not accurately refer to any US military policy, the practices that it describes do make sense in the historical context of the use of terror to further US policies overseas. A 1995 document, “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence”, authored by the U.S. Strategic Command, exhorts thus — “That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project to all adversaries…It hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed”.

There are plenty of examples of this kind of policy being put into practice. State terrorism exists and works, which is to say that it’s effective for the U.S. to be a rogue state, but only when no concern whatever is given to justice or fairness or the truth.

Just as we say that “gold is the corpse of value”, or that words on a page are only meaningful in some interpretive context, so democracy is only democracy in a meaningful sense when citizens can communicate all of the relevant facts to each other.

When people stop telling the truth and accounting for the facts in the press, in the rooms of the powerful, and in everyday conversation, democracy stops being democracy. What is needed to keep democracy alive is clear enough; it’s following through that is difficult. Democracy is only meaningful when based on the truth. The assumption that we can ignore some actions of our governments, submit to the government’s propaganda, and still be able to act competently, fairly, justly — as a country or as individuals — is one that should always be questioned.