America's "Global War On Terrorism"
M. Shahid Alam unpacks the rhetoric of the post 9-11 world and doesn't like what he sees
Photo: Amirul Rajiv
One day Mulla Nasruddin went to his neighbour, known to be a mean fellow. "Sir," he explained, "your ox has gored my cow and killed her after she refused his amorous advances." His neighbour shot back: "So what has that got to do with me? Should a man be held responsible for what an animal does." The Mulla answered cheekily: "Thank you, sir. It was my ox that gored your cow."
The United States declared a "global war on terrorism" within days of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Instantly, terrorism was elevated by the US establishment and the media into the greatest, most ominous threat that the "civilized world" had faced since the collapse of communism.
Why did the United States choose to frame its imperialist posture after 9-11 as "a global war on terrorism?" Not a few have been puzzled by this way of justifying the new projection of American power. Terrorism is a tactic, not a country; it is a tool, not an ideology or an end. How does one wage war against a tactic or a tool?
Nevertheless, the frame was cleverly chosen. It was, and remains, a most effective tool for mobilizing the American public behind the neo-conservative project of using wars -- multiple and endless, if necessary -- to deepen Americas global dominance and make it irreversible.
On September 11, 2001, nineteen terrorists tragically brought death to Americans on their own soil. Barring the attacks on Pearl Harbor, this was unprecedented in American history. The terrorists had demonstrated that Americans were vulnerable to attacks within their own shores. It now appeared that the fallout from US policies in the Middle East could reach across the Atlantic to hit the US itself. To say the least, this was disconcerting.
American policy-makers chose to magnify this new vulnerability to advance their imperialist goals. By constantly harping on terrorism and hyping up the threat of terrorist attacks, they could get fearful Americans to endorse curbs on liberties at home and endless wars abroad -- anything that would prevent "Islamic" terrorists from crossing American shores. The "global war against terrorism" looked like the perfect tool for producing these twin results.
The rhetoric of terrorism had other uses too. Terrorists operate without a return address, are ready to strike anywhere, and sometimes die with their victims. Instead of tracking them down through surveillance and police work, the United States has used the elusiveness of terrorists to justify pre-emptive strikes and wars. In addition, since terrorists may be hiding anywhere, the war against terrorism must be global.
Just as importantly, the United States has used its rhetoric of terrorism to de-legitimize all forms of resistance. This occurs in two stages. First, US agencies employ a definition of terrorism that covers all groups that use violence as a means to achieve political ends, even legitimate political ends. Thus, Hamas and Hizbullah are "terrorists." Next, individuals or groups who provide material assistance to terrorists are also terrorists. The United States has stretched this logic to de-legitimize all resistance movements that it views as contrary to US interests.
Although the United States has almost exclusively targeted Muslims in recent years, it continues to insist that Muslims per se are not the enemy. They only target those who are terrorists and those who support terrorists. It is a clever distinction that empowers the "good" Muslims who are on our side -- mostly corrupt and despotic rulers -- to fight the "bad" Muslims, who are terrorists. In other words, the global war against terrorism is a powerful rhetorical device that mobilized overwhelming domestic support -- at least, before the Iraq war became a quagmire -- behind America's imperialist posture that depended on endless, pre-emptive and illegal wars.
It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that terrorism -- as the new cover for a more invasive imperialism -- has quickly come to dominate the global public discourse.
A Google search for "terrorism" turned up 72 million hits, not too far behind the 97 million hits for "democracy." Taken together, the related terms "terror," "terrorism," and "terrorists" generated 236 million hits, which exceed the 210 million hits for "freedom."
A Google search also reveals that the global war on terrorism is directed primarily at Muslims. A search for exact phrases that combined "Islamic," "Muslim," "Moslem," and "Islam and," with "terrorism," "terrorists," and "terror" yielded a total of 3.3 million hits. On the other hand, exact phrases that combined "Tamil" with "terrorism," "terrorists," and "terror" turned up only 26,000 hits. Substituting "Jewish" for "Tamil" produced 211,000 hits.
Why is the talk of terrorism directed overwhelmingly at Muslims? Despite the rhetoric of a global war on terrorism, by now we know all too well that this war is aimed at Muslims, mainly at Muslims in the Middle East. This is a war of "colonial pacification" of Islamic lands: the Muslims must be "pacified" to secure "our" oil wells in the Persian Gulf, and to entrench Israeli hegemony over the Middle East. This is also a religious war for the radical core of American evangelicals; it fits into their theology of end times. We ignore this only at our peril.
M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University.