Since 9/11, the “War on Terror” has defined most security policies in the U.S. What does this “war” add to practical counter-terrorism? With no end in sight after so many years, it is all the more important to assess its effective purpose.
The Geneva Conventions1 state that war should be waged for purely defensive aims and exclusively target military personnel and resources, not civilian populations. In other words, the act of war has to be justified in its intent as well as in its methods to avoid the risk of becoming a criminal adventure, bound to indefinite destruction and suffering.
From a military standpoint, that makes sense. The basis of the art of war is to strategically use the resources at hand. Whether you consider war a legitimate option or not, civilian populations should remain immune as much as possible from its consequences.
Even though these practical and moral requirements might never be met by any war, they at least form the principles by which citizens can question, today, the “War on Terror” waged in their name. The phrase itself, as everyone remembers, was coined by President G.W. Bush’s administration in the aftermath of 9/11. Many years later and at the time of this writing, the “War on Terror” is officially involving the U.S. in six different battlefields (Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan) as well as in numerous unofficial operations in several parts of the world. Not only is there no end in sight to this war effort but the vast majority of U.S. lawmakers are adamant it should continue to expand.
Aren’t they missing something?
Most of the hundreds of billions of dollars dedicated each year for military purposes are officially spent against the threat of terrorism. Given the magnitude of this war effort, it would seem that the number of battlefronts should eventually decrease, not increase. Arguing that it is because of the way terrorists operate only implies that they have been calling the shots all along. Simply put, a war that drags on for years and requires ever more resources is not a war that you are winning. In that respect and in regard to the financial bottomless pit it fell into since its inception, the “War on Terror” is an absolute record failure in military history.
But this is just the money part. Beyond the fact that this money is missing for more constructive and much-needed purposes at home, one can only wonder about the millions of people abroad whose lives have been dramatically impacted by the “War on Terror” to this day. Were they all terrorists? And how to ensure a stable future for them, and consequently for us, when the “War on Terror” has toppled down their governments and institutions in its wake?Is the “War on Terror” a means proportionate to its end? How does the public come to accept or even endorse the incoherence of a seemingly never-ending war? What goal does this sustained incoherence effectively fulfill? Click To Tweet
On both counts of money and humanity, it is then fair to say that the so-called “War on Terror” comes at a very high price. The question is why. Three complementary aspects have to be addressed in order to answer it: Is the “War on Terror” a means proportionate to its end? How does the public come to accept or even endorse the incoherence of a seemingly never-ending war? What goal does this sustained incoherence effectively fulfill?
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According to the National Institute of Justice—the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice—“Terrorists are those who support or commit ideologically motivated violence to further political, social, or religious goals.”2 This, of course, immediately calls into question the predominance of a military approach in fighting terrorism. In the perpetual game of hide-and-seek played by small units of fiercely determined individuals, the involvement of regular troops can only be ill-suited. Fighting terrorism has to be based on intelligence work and, most of the time, be dealt with on an individual basis.
Additionally, by its very nature terrorism does not intend to defeat armies but to provoke mayhem in civil societies. Terrorists see themselves as the fighting units of an ideological cause. They hope that it will eventually prevail thanks to a growing number of sympathizers, who will also see violence as the most effective way to convey their exclusive view of the world. To people in such a state of mind, violence is a purifying act against what they see as the world’s infections. There is no genuine rationale toward a positive goal on their part, but an absolute stance cutting them off from the rest of humanity in a purely nihilistic attitude.
If and when this attitude translates in the seizing of actual territories and the persecution of populations, the case for military intervention can possibly be made with all due care. But dropping bombs and sending troops will never address the psychological twist through which acts of terrorism appear as a sacred duty to those who commit them.
In respect of both tactical and psychological relevancy, one is entitled to take a hard look at the deployment of dozens of thousands of troops by the U.S. the world over and/or the constant bombing of so many areas. What kind of ghost armies are they chasing? Isn’t there any other way to deal with potential or actual critical situations related to terrorism? Does this show of brute force help to uproot any of its social and cultural conditions and, eventually, to defeat it for good?
Another important consideration to keep in mind is that the paradox of war is that it is won when it does not take place. Even if properly conducted, a military war can only be a temporary segment of a broader solution toward lasting peace. War, in other words, is nothing else by itself than an act of destruction aimed at incapacitating an enemy; the real plan is its cessation. Consequently, as with any other war the “War on Terror” can at best only address the visible part of the problem, not its root causes. It cannot be an end in and by itself.As any other war the so-called “War on Terror” can at best only address the visible part of the problem, not its root causes. It cannot be an end in and by itself. Click To Tweet
All people with some degree of intellectual honesty would recognize that conventional warfare is not an adequate answer to the threat of terrorism and that waging war cannot be a substitute for building peace, namely with the numerous people of goodwill in the countries we bomb and invade, and who long for a peaceful and secure life. Given the huge cost of a broad military action in financial, human, and political terms, war is an option that has to be pondered with the utmost desire to avoid it. That is supposed to be our responsible attitude as human beings.
Quite strikingly, though, the “War on Terror” seems allowed to break away from these basic requirements of intellectual honesty and moral integrity. As presented by almost every elected representative and media pundit, its motto could be “As long as there are terrorists, we will be out there fighting them!” Terrorism is thus equated to a pest that simply needs to be eliminated. Quite logically, then, questions regarding the deeper and broader genesis of terrorist organizations are not likely to be addressed. But holding a self-satisfying moral indignation instead of trying to understand why such organizations came into existence is not part of a sound strategy against them.
Most importantly, this empty-headed stance against terrorism bears two very worrying consequences. Intellectually speaking, the scope of action is implicitly broadened to everything and anything that might evince even the slightest suspicion of terrorism. It is an all-out war that deserves all possible means to be used in all directions. Morally speaking, war is not only being seen as a solution—how dubious that might be in regard to addressing the real causes of terrorism—but as the absolute and definitive answer against an absolute evil. The “War on Terror” is a crusade as much as it is an effort to defeat an enemy.
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To the question of knowing if spending billions of dollars3 in military apparatus against terrorism is effective, the obvious answer after decades of so-called “War on Terror” is No. From a strategic standpoint, addressing the ideological nature of terrorism with bombs and troops can hardly make sense. At a deeper level, keeping pouring resources into such a flawed strategy shows that the real perspective of war is not seriously taken into account. Instead of being part of a broader plan aimed at fostering the conditions for lasting peace, the “War on Terror” is its own end, as if the age-old fantasy that fire and fury are the only possible answer to evil in the world might make more sense today.
Indeed, where conventional conflicts always end up with the realization that building peace is far more effective and far less costly for populations to be secure, the “War on Terror” deliberately takes the reverse course, breaking free from both reason and rationality. The less it works as a military answer, the more we are supposed to go at it. In other words, the very reason why this strategy should be questioned is masqueraded as proof that we haven’t done enough of the same yet. All with little or no consideration of human and financial costs.
By leaving the relative ground of sound tactics and strategies validated by their results, the “War on Terror” primarily defines itself as an absolute endeavor. Which postulates that its enemy is also an absolute entity. Beyond ISIS or any other particular organization, the “War on Terror” is fighting against the forces of evil themselves that they incarnate. This is why it can have no accountability. But does such a bold metaphysical claim hold any legitimacy? Doesn’t it contradict, moreover, the actual principle of counter-terrorism?
Many wars have depicted the other side as evil; it is the oldest trick in the book of warfare. Killing people is not a natural thing to do; dehumanizing them is for that reason almost unavoidable and is most conveniently done by referring to them as the “enemy”. As a category, the enemy is an indistinct and diffuse mass where no individual can shine as a person with a name, a life, a family, or projects. They all deserve to be eliminated—the sanitized expression for killed—if that’s what it takes to get rid of their threat.
The “War on Terror” adds a twist to this already flawed depiction of humanity. In its narrative, we are confronted by individuals whose mindset is to kill us for the sole purpose of doing so, not for any political or territorial gain in particular. Though correct to some extent, this assertion is nevertheless superficial and can only reinforce the mental depiction of the enemy as intrinsically bad. For most people indeed, the very fact that this enemy resorts to terror by deliberately killing innocent citizens without warning says it all. There is nothing more to understand.
The problem with this view is that it leads the “War on Terror” to fight against an abstraction. As die-hard and crazy as they can be, terrorists do not suddenly grow out of nowhere like mushrooms. All of them belong to a singular context of life that, at one point or another, opened them to eventually be prepared to commit the unthinkable. And we all perfectly know that we can leave it to human madness as such, not exclusively to so-called terrorists, to commit the unthinkable. Opposing the forces of good against the forces of evil in an abstract and absolute way may be relevant in fantasy movies; in the real world, it is an insult to human intelligence. But so goes the contemporary narrative by which the “War on Terror” justifies itself, the implicit message to the public being that the purpose is not to go from war to peace with actual people but to indefinitely fight against the forces of darkness.
Yet, with such an abstract and self-righteous policy the “War on Terror” can only end up at the exact opposite of what it pretends to be. Chasing an abstraction is something very different than achieving well-defined and legitimate goals. As a matter of fact, the “War on Terror”’s irrelevance in regard to its own proclaimed purpose can be verified both on the ground and in the official definition of terrorism itself.The “War on Terror”'s irrelevance in regard to its own proclaimed purpose can be verified both on the ground and in the official definition of terrorism itself. Click To Tweet
On the ground, its battlefields have by and large nothing to do with preventing terrorist attacks. To take just three major examples, very few Afghans can make sense of the U.S. military presence on their soil for so many years and the bombing of so many villages. No Yemeni has ever been part of a terrorist plot abroad; nevertheless, they collectively suffer the wrath of the “War on Terror” in unimaginable ways. If most Iraqis do not regret Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, they certainly do that they once had a country functioning at the highest modern standards in all other aspects. The “War on Terror” doesn’t care. For a very long time now, it has proven to be above any strategic accountability, as well as above right and wrong as ordinary people understand it.
Ironically, the metaphysical deception of supposedly fighting terrorism as a war against some “Axis of Evil”, as Bush senior and junior would have said, contradicts the very definition of terrorism given by the National Institute of Justice itself. Stating as it does that “Terrorists are those who support or commit ideologically motivated violence to further political, social, or religious goals” specifically leaves open the terrorists’ ideological background. Practically speaking—since this is exclusively how acts of terrorism should be looked at—what unhinged individuals believe in is not the issue; that they resort to violence to further their cause is.
As opposed to this practical approach, using “Axis of Evil” and other PR concocted abstractions to seek its justification defines the “War on Terror” as an ideological endeavor. On the ground, this gives it leeway to proclaiming as it goes who to strike next. Anyone, or any country for that matter, can end up on the terrorist list for no other reason than they are a convenient target.
Ideology doesn’t care about reality. As George Orwell masterfully described the process in his book 1984, once a power indulges in an abstract view of the world it can fabricate its reasons and change the course of its once-revered policies on a whim. All that counts is that the new proclaimed truths are always received as absolute ones; both devoid of an actual context and fully authoritative. It is of course indispensable, on that creative path, to re-write the dictionary by giving words a different meaning or inventing new ones such as “embedded journalists” or “enemy combatants”. Contrary to the defensive goal of preventing the blind violence of terrorist attacks, which counter-terrorism is about, the “War on Terror” is an ideological banner that makes us the lunatics.
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Sure enough, when some people are as far gone as to think that the symbolic act of taking lives for a cause is the best way to further it, there is an obvious emergency to prevent the realization of their plans. Beyond this immediate necessity, however, the real issue is to address the psychological, economic, or political conditions giving ground to their views. The “War on Terror” proponents are in denial of this issue. To them, the enemy is an absolute one who belongs to no particular conditions of life—let alone conditions that would worsen anyone’s human frailties.
But going after terrorists as some kind of pest to annihilate does not make a strategy. It is just a bad excuse for casually bombing entire innocent populations on the pretext that it is worth the cost. Sadly, this murderous streak should come as a surprise to no one. Because they need an ill-defined enemy, ideological wars cannot have focus. They thrive on the opposition of good against bad, not on being an adequate, self-restrained, and temporary answer to an ill.
The effective answer to terrorism, on the other hand, is necessarily two-fold. One aspect is counter-terrorism itself, led in a professional way toward precisely and legitimately defined targets. The other relates to the conditions that breed or help terrorism. The first aspect is no more subject to questioning than police work in our streets to keep everyone safe. The second, because it concerns the specific strategy adopted to defeat terrorism for good, definitely is. As any soldier knows, you can win a battle with brute force, but to win the war you need a strategy. How does the “War on Terror” do in regard to the true requirements of a definite victory?As any soldier knows, you can win a battle with brute force, but to win the war you need a strategy. How does the “War on Terror” do in regard to the true requirements of a definite victory? Click To Tweet
As previously mentioned, one would expect that after many years of such extraordinary effort against terrorists, there would be less of them, not more—as it is inconsequently proclaimed by almost all lawmakers in the U.S, France, or the U.K. Strategically speaking, this paradoxical outcome can only make sense if your goal is to fight “terror” as the absolute evil you brand it to be. From this standpoint, you can allow yourself to have as many interpretations as you want about who should be put under the reach of the “terror” emotional trigger and never be short of enemies to find.
Most importantly, fighting terrorism as an absolute and ill-defined entity renders the idea itself of a genuine strategy to end the “War on Terror” irrelevant. Its endeavor becomes counterproductive by design, the exact same way that all warmongers in history have systematically used the “enemy” narrative to sabotage any real chance for peace.
To reach this aim of perpetual auto-justification, the “War on Terror” has the immense advantage that its narrative is not about facing an established power, delimited politically and geographically, but an unlimited ominous threat that can be nowhere and everywhere. The enemy, in other words, is a nebula that transcends any boundaries against which the “War on Terror” could otherwise be taken to account. This is a warmonger’s dream come true. Not only are we potentially creating new “terrorists” by relentlessly killing their friends, children, and parents, but our terrorist enemies are distant ones with no face and no legitimate political power of their own that we could rely upon for peace. In a terrible feat of irony and cynicism, we more or less discover together, us and them, that they are terrorists the day we bomb them.
It could be said that, in its own twisted way, the “War on Terror” wins by making sure that enough people will be tempted to retaliate because of their accumulated resentment and desperation. And where to turn, other than toward those who are already organized and have a doctrine giving credence to the idea that we are the evil ones? The “War on Terror” victory is not one for peace but it is a victory indeed. One for the fake legitimization of the trillion of dollars spent in its name.
Instead of letting the military-industrial complex gobbling up ever more taxpayer money for generations to come, the “War on Terror” could have a valid strategy.
First, you would not pretend to stop actual terrorists by bombing the whole neighborhood where they are supposed to be hiding. The intelligence work has to go all the way in individually determining who, where, how, and when. Yet, when considering the dozens of people killed and maimed almost daily4, it seems that the “War on Terror” decision process in choosing a target lies more often than not on a “just in case” or “you never know” basis. The indiscriminate spying of American citizens by their own government proceeds from that same logic of casting a broad net of suspicion instead of following leads. It’s likely that the bad guys will escape such a broad net for a long time.
You would find expedient, secondly, to dry up terrorists’ finances as much possible. It has long been established that 9/11 had entirely been paid for by officials and members of the royal family in Saudi Arabia5. As a matter of fact, their strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam has led these affluent individuals to support terrorist groups for decades, all over Africa and the Middle East as well as in other parts of the world. Still, for some reason that makes sense only to people in power, Saudi Arabia is held as our primary ally. That not only adds insult to injury for the families who directly suffered 9/11; it also keeps money flowing in for various terrorist groups. By this measure alone the “War on Terror” is a sad joke.
Third, local populations plagued by the presence of extremist groups in their midst would be helped by encouraging the democratic evolution of public life in their country. Rather than bombing them or toppling down their government, diplomatic action could work wonders by favoring international connections with actors of good faith. If they saw us as allies against a common threat—which, by the way, takes a much higher toll in these populations than it does in western countries—such collaboration would certainly deprive would-be terrorists of the passive resignation they locally benefit from. This would require, of course, that we believe ourselves in the universality of democratic values.
Finally—though this is far from a complete list—you would tackle terrorism at its root. For the trillions of dollars that the “War on Terror” has cost by now, how many schools have been built? If we truly thought that terrorism can and must be defeated, why do we not start where everything begins: Education? Sending girls to school is surprisingly inexpensive in all countries where we are waging the “War on Terror” in such a formidable way. If we had started to help to do so a generation ago, there is no question that the conversation about the threat of terrorism could be very different today. But as it might have become clear by now, this not what the “War on Terror” is for.
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To summarize, the “War on Terror” is not a means to its alleged end. Invading and bombing countries can hardly prevent the planning of terrorist attacks by a loose web of highly motivated individuals, let alone address the psychological, historical, and political roots of their motivation. The official justification of chasing evil, moreover, can only allow for all and any war crime on the pretense that your cause is right. It also prevents the framing of an effective strategy at the broader scale required to effectively uproot terrorism.
Another important part of this auto-justification process is the implicit message that we ought to be scared. Since we are facing “evil” and that “evil” is not by itself a precisely defined military target, the more forces we put out there the more we can make ourselves believe that we do what has to be done for our security. That’s how ostriches reason, too.
Indeed, after so many years of “War on Terror” and the perpetual promise of more of it, the reason why we keep buying its nonsense has little to do with actual reasoning and a lot to do with fear, ignorance, and propaganda. As supposedly responsible citizens able to make their own judgments, we have to respectively confront each of these psychological aspects of the art of warfare.After so many years of “War on Terror” and the perpetual promise of more of it, the reason why we keep buying its nonsense has little to do with actual reasoning and a lot to do with fear, ignorance, and propaganda. Click To Tweet
In 2006, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young set off on their Freedom of Speech Tour in support of Living with War, a Young solo album written in response to the Iraq War. That they got a mixed reaction from some of their audiences is an understatement. When exiting concert halls, many people were seen yelling their disgust and contempt at what these talented and otherwise beloved musicians had dared to do against the sacred cause of the “War on Terror”. “Our country is in grave danger!” was the common rallying cry of that anger, expressed on the background of the 9/11 collective trauma. That Iraq had no connection whatsoever with what had happened on this day was obviously irrelevant to the upset public.
Many people can fall in this kind of mental trap simply because certitude is a feeling. The less an idea is questioned, the more, paradoxically, it can gain emotional strength and appear as a valid one. By opposition, a healthy state of mind is to question what we believe, aware that the mental images and their emotional connections our brain provides us might just be that—images and conditioned feelings. If we do not educate and train ourselves to do better than just following the easy trend of reactions most familiar to us, all hell can break loose. Let’s just ponder, here, that no crime is ever being committed without its perpetrator thinking he is justified to commit it. This delusional state of mind is, unfortunately, the norm rather than the exception in the human psyche. It takes time and dedication to learn how to pay attention to the very making of our mental storytelling and its emotional roller-coaster.
As previously said, behind the proclaimed justification to confront evil as such lies the necessary assumption that there is an absolute reality of evil. This is an emotional stance, not a rational one. We rely on the statement that bad is bad as being self-evident, which implies that bad, or evil, is its own principle. But ignoring the effective and complex conditioning of bad actions in real life, as opposed to the simplistic narrative of inherently good people against inherently bad ones, is not only morally questionable; it is plain stupid. What shape, form or identity “bad” as an absolute reality can have? If you honestly ask yourself this question, you will soon realize that the answer is none. By the sole virtue of willful ignorance, we end up making the word an actual thing in our mind. As we daydream it, bad exists in and by itself simply because we can spell the word.
This is no small matter. This is all the difference between sanity and insanity. Indulging in the demonization of others is all we need to eventually feel that it is ok to wipe them out of the face of the earth. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn wrote to that effect in The Gulag Archipelago “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Sanity requires making ourselves available to our own humanity, and this sometimes amounts to a feat of genuine heroism. Insanity, even though miserable, is easy.
Solzhenitsyn’s direct rebuke of the logic at play with the “War on Terror” comes from a man who suffered long years of imprisonment in Siberia and witnessed the mass deportations and absurd deprivation of freedom imposed by the communist regime on the Russian people. When he secretly wrote these lines, he was physically and morally enduring what the Soviet apparatus was designed for, from Stalin’s callousness to the daily brutality of the guards in the detention camp. He saw this madness for what it is: a call to deepen our understanding of its roots in all human hearts. By giving space to humanity, his own as well as that of all actors in the command chain of the Soviet dictatorship, he set himself free from the suffering caused by the sterile contemplation of evil. Nelson Mandela, also, took this deep and vital spiritual path. This was happening at a time when, ironically, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were considering him to be a terrorist.6
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Fear blinds us. It is a potent emotional drive that becomes toxic if not acknowledged and surmounted. Abdicating our critical judgment and letting ourselves be convinced of absolute truths that don’t exist, we may easily come to believe in the evil nature of all Jews, or Muslims, or whoever we don’t like. But letting our fear speak for us and condemn others has only one net result: making us the criminals. Even if we do not personally commit war crimes or condone them, we will be prone to passively accept that they are being committed in our name. Solzhenitsyn and many others have shown the way out of this mental trap, which is to reflect on the fact that we all share the same human nature. As opposed to indefinitely convincing ourselves with fearful generalizations that hurt us, opening up to intellectual knowledge and moral compassion—which are both at the exact opposite of excusing actual crimes—is the only way to sanity.
This points to the fact that it is not just the reactive strength of our emotions which is at stake but also the framing of our thinking process. Words count and their choice is never neutral or innocent, especially with slogans. In that sense, the “War on Terror” is also the weaponization of ignorance. Let’s see more specifically how.Words count and their choice is never neutral or innocent, especially with slogans. In that sense, the "War on Terror" is also the weaponization of ignorance. Click To Tweet
When a “War” is declared on human scourges (war on drugs, war on poverty, etc.), the primary intent is to have a self-satisfactory and broad catchphrase under which everybody can rally. Yet, on its own, the reference to war does not hold anything aside from a martial stance. It carries the image of a wiped-out field but says nothing about what should come next, why, and how. As a consequence, using this image in a slogan is deliberately distracting from the real nature and context of the issue to be dealt with, as well as from its effective means of remediation.
Most of the time the purpose of slogans is simply to mobilize people’s attention, and they might prove useful or even necessary in that regard. But when falling for the “war” seductiveness, they subvert their own cause. There is a difference, in that sense, between a slogan that invites to consider a specific issue in a specific way—such as, for instance, “Divest from fossil fuels” about climate change—and a “war” slogan. The former leaves open the question of the relevant actions to be taken in order to achieve its declared aim; the latter buries the specifics under the empty notion of “war” as being itself the solution.
Unfortunately, a “war” slogan is not just ineffective; it has also dire consequences when it comes to actual weaponized endeavors. Operating in denial of the specific causes and conditions that created the issue in the first place, the reference to “war” used so lightly can only serve one purpose: giving us comfort in the idea that it is ok to wipe out the field where the problem stands. If that includes wiping out actual people who happen to be on that field, well, they had it coming.
But how, exactly, can “war” slogans entice this type of moral and intellectual abdication? First, what is at stake is to allow emotions to auto-justify themselves and run wild. The reference to war is used to mean the entire rejection of something unacceptable and virtually dangerous. After all, why would you ever try to give the issue of drugs or terrorism a context and to understand how they came to be? Isn’t it good enough to know that they cannot be tolerated?… With such mindless logic, obviously, the more you denounce the “bad guys” without having a clue of what you are talking about, the more you feel entitled to join the crusade against them.
Second, even though running high on emotions, a “war” slogan has no real target. What is “terrorism”? If it is about terror and blind violence for political purposes, the U.S and its allies are the terrorists in chief. Almost 10 million (!!!) people facing starvation in Yemen7 remind us of this fact every day, or so they should. The word “terrorism” is so vastly expansive that the Nazis were not shy of using it as one of their main propaganda tools. Thrown in the air independently of any valid context, it is meaningless. The same deception is at play with the “War on Drugs”. Pharmaceutical companies have knowingly caused a heroin usage epidemic in the U.S, subsequently to the forceful lobbying for pain killers. Shouldn’t they be prosecuted at least as harshly as pot dealers? Where is the so-called “War on Drugs” in that instance when, by now, millions of people need help and reparations from a criminal industry?
Third and as a consequence, a “war” slogan necessarily serves as an excuse to round-up a broad category of people seen as the necessary culprits. Discriminating without any other specifics than “terror” or “drugs”, such a “war” flags its enemy based on highly visible but loosely relevant criteria. This is how all Muslims end up being potential terrorists in the public’s mind, or black and brown people drug dealers.
The lesson behind so righteously declared “wars” is, therefore, that they are meant to function in the exact opposite way than the one sold to the public. Their ill-defined targeting open a window for established powers to do on the side the precise thing that is so emphatically condemned—be it inflicting terror on people or turning them into drug addicts, while fostering bigotry and prejudice only perpetuates the deeply flawed perception of the issue at stake that these established powers need for carrying on with business as usual.
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As long as we are so lazy or complacent as to concede our own judgment to someone else through the embracing of a slogan, there is no wonder that we end up being their dupe. Ignorance is slavery. No one can make us free but ourselves, by painstakingly committing our time and effort to a critical approach of the truth.
This might sound a little patronizing but in 2006, at the time when Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young went on their Freedom of Speech Tour, 43% of Americans8 still believed that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. It is a stunning result for a blatant lie that had been immediately contradicted by each and every armaments expert outside the Bush administration.
Beyond the fear and ignorance that we are all ultimately responsible for at an individual level, this sad outcome also speaks volumes about the utter disregard of professional journalistic standards in mainstream media. Propaganda is, therefore, the third topic of interest when examining the psychological aspects of the “War on Terror”.
Far from pointing at them as “Fake News”, according to the usual slogan used to delegitimize journalism as such, we need to constantly assert the necessity of the media’s investigative work and their duty to speak truth to power. The point, precisely, is that either journalism works this way or it becomes, even if only by default, the propaganda tool of powers in place.
Propaganda could be defined as consistently delivering a narrative in line with political or economic interests. An echo chamber is being created, through which facts and data are either distorted, ignored, or downright invented. Well-known historical examples are, for instance, Nazi Germany and communist regimes, either from the past or at present with China and Nort Korea. Yet, contrary to the spontaneous confidence of daily cable news viewers today, living under a dictatorship is not necessitated for your preferred channel to obey powerful interests or to echo outrageous cultural prejudices. Let’s look at this blind-sided view of things when it comes to the “War on Terror”.
The majority of victims of terrorist attacks worldwide are Muslim.9 And although most of these attacks occur in Muslim-majority countries, there has also been in recent years an increase in attacks targeting Muslims in Europe, in the United States, and in other countries.
Aside from terrorist attacks, Muslims endure a steady onslaught of hate crimes in many parts of the world. The fate of Rohingyas in Myanmar made headlines in 2017 because it amounted to a genocide attempt. But who knows that in Germany more than 3,500 (!) aggressions on refugees, largely Syrians, and refugee hostels were perpetrated in 2016 alone?10 When it comes specifically to terrorist attacks, journalists are much less likely to dedicate coverage to those not committed by Muslim perpetrators. As illustrated by a study published online in January 2019, researchers at Georgia State University and the University of Alabama found that attacks committed by Muslims get 357 percent more media coverage than attacks committed by other groups.11
And still… The Jewish organization ADL, among others, reminds us that “over the last decade, a total of 73.3 percent of all extremist-related fatalities can be linked to domestic right-wing extremists, while 23.4 percent can be attributed to Islamic extremists [in the U.S]. The remaining 3.2 percent were carried out by extremists who did not fall into either category.” adding that in 2018 “right-wing extremists have been linked to at least 50 extremist-related murders in the United States”.12 For their part, Islamic extremists scored 0 fatalities in the U.S. that same year, fortunately. The Hate Map put together by the Southern Poverty and Law Center organization illustrates these numbers in a very direct and simple way.
These facts should not in any way exempt from closely monitoring organizations such as ISIS, but they as clearly offer another perspective on the fight against terrorism than the one commonly given by mainstream media. So, don’t blame yourself if you are somewhat surprised by these ratios; you are probably not someone in charge of broadcasting the news. At a deeper level, and like all other military aggressions in history, the “War on Terror” needs to be justified to posterity. It is no wonder, then, that more or less subtle arrangements with the truth about terrorism will take place.Roughly speaking, the mental boundaries of the “War on Terror” narrative are that: – The “War on Terror” is the most important conflict since WWII; – Its target can only be is Islamic extremism; – Domestic terrorism is not a thing. Click To Tweet
Roughly speaking, the mental boundaries of the “War on Terror” narrative are that: – The “War on Terror” is the most important conflict since WWII; – Its target can only be is Islamic extremism; – Domestic terrorism is not a thing. Any propaganda effort seeks to prop your warring party and to avoid acknowledging the whole truth about the nature of the crisis at hand. As of today and given the dire consequences of the “War on Terror” for so many people, pushing its narrative requires a high level of cynicism as well as a genuine indifference to human suffering on the part of law-makers, journalists, and armament industrialists who do so.
True cynics are rare, though. Not only do they confront the natural moral leaning most of us refer to, however hypocritical we may be, but when they act criminally they do not shy from their deliberate responsibility in the demise of others. This is why great criminals like to consider themselves as a special kind of heroes, namely as those who dare to tell the truth that nobody else has the courage to accept. They do us a great favor this way, provoking the rest of us—and especially those in charge of being a public voice—to see this very same truth behind our own excuses in resorting to violence. To illustrate the point, let’s ask a cynic who was not afraid of his cynicism. This is the confession that Gustave Gilbert, the prison psychologist during the Nuremberg trials, received from Goering, Hitler’s Reich Marshall:
– “Why, of course, the people don’t want war,” Goering shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”
– “There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”
– “Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
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“That is easy”. Hitler’s Reich Marshall put warfare in its crude true light: all what warmongers have to do is to regularly tap into the human propensity to be fearful and willfully blinded. A formal democracy will mask the obscenity of war the exact same way any brutal dictatorship would: by convincing people they ought to be afraid and that those questioning the war propaganda are the ones stepping out of the norm of acceptable behavior. How could you not, on earth, support the troops? From his cell and a few days before his suicide, Goering has given the world the one lesson in political sciences that the world does not want to learn: war is a lie.
One could argue, of course, that war is morally justified when defending the integrity of your country. The problem with this statement is that it is the exact same one Hitler and all other warmongers in history have systematically used. The country in danger is in most instances an empty rhetorical claim aimed at herding people to the bidding of their leaders. If honestly consulted when tension arises at an international level, we would all choose to do whatever it takes in favor of a just and peaceful settlement. There is a very simple reason for this: we assume that ordinary people on the other side of the staged political drama feel the same way and want the same thing that we want—peace. In the heart and mind of all sane people, there is always a way for it.
War, in that sense, has never been the thing of the people who go to war but always the thing of those who decide for them to go. It has always been a power game. And this power game seems to have doubled down when looking at the inanity of the whole “War on Terror” enterprise. Strategically counterproductive, obscenely expensive, shockingly indifferent to the amount of chaos and destruction created for millions of lives over the years, blind to the lack of trust and diminishing influence it bears for the U.S. and its allies on the international stage, the “War on Terror” is the definite creation of powers with no accountability toward the common good. Stepping away from Gustave Gilbert’s naiveté when confronting Goering, we consequently have to ask: What makes this power game possible in formal democracies? To whose benefit? And who is it truly played against?War has never been the thing of the people who go to war but always the thing of those who decide for them to go. It has always been a power game. Click To Tweet
For the Founding Fathers in the U.S. and the French revolutionaries a few years later, power had to be stripped down from any undue authority. Their idea was that political power cannot justify itself by itself or under the guise of a natural order expressing God’s unfathomable wisdom. Freedom was key and directly implied equality of rights for all individuals. In other words, the justification of power could not come from some superior authority anymore but from the citizenry and for its own benefit. Under that principle, Reason became the formal guide of political decisions through regular debates among elected representatives of the people.
This faith in both the necessity and the possibility of using reason makes democracy the strongest and, at the same time, the weakest form of government one can imagine. On one hand, based on the idea that human dignity is an unquestionable principle that has to be defended in all practical aspects of social, political, and economic life, democracy is strong by its own virtue: there is nothing more legitimate than the will of the people. On the other hand, this requires ordinary citizens to recognize that freedom does not come for cheap and that the work of reason implies effort as well as intellectual honesty.
It is always tempting to give up on thinking honestly and critically and let your emotions take the best part of you. The immediate result is to unconsciously go back to the ancien régime arbitrary barriers between people who are worthy of voicing their needs and wants and those who are not. Counting yourself, of course, into the first category. While you fall for the seduction of slogans and obsess over the external landmarks of a superficial identity (language, territory, religion…), your country ceases to be a political project—which was the Founding Fathers and the French revolutionaries formal intent—to become the den of your scared and reactive siblings. By yelling your opposition to others’ rights, you have thrown the foundation of your own freedom—which only resides in being a human—to the wind. No one can rescue you from being, literally, an idiot (someone who fantasizes identity by wanting things to remain “same”, according to the Greek etymology of the word). And your literal idiocy is a godsend for the powerful ones who couldn’t care less about justifying themselves to the people. There is nothing to explain to fearful mobs; what is left to do is just to manipulate them.There is nothing to explain to mobs who feel they know it all already; what is left to do is just to manipulate them. Click To Tweet
For real patriots, on the other hand, the challenge of being intellectually honest is absolutely worth it. Even though not every citizen has to be interested or let alone involved in politics, we still remain the primary respondents of what is being done in our name. In that regard, the least we can do at a personal level is to avoid being superficial in our judgment. Lazily indulging in the thought that all politicians are only interested by their own career, or naively buying into the fairy tale that democracy, once declared, magically stands by itself, only means that we are actually letting the country down. Democracy—etymologically the “rule of the people”—is at its core about our own concern and education.
That it is strictly up to individuals to form their political judgment and be, at least in that sense, active citizens, sums up the beauty and the risk of political freedom. War, on the contrary, is all about execution. In the process of waging it, there is no questioning anymore about ends and means or values. It is in that respect a model of absolute power. This is why war has always been a privileged tool for authoritarian governments; it is their language. It mirrors their own war against freedom and provides them with a convenient vehicle to distract and unite the masses.
But democracies go to war too. What are the legitimate boundaries within which this can take place? The historical unfolding of democracy in the country at the forefront, today, of the “War on Terror” is probably the best answer to this question. If anything, the American Revolution told us that democracy is not a given. The original U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights provided nothing in the way of women participation to political life; black people were bound to slavery; natives were to be ignored or exterminated; and if you were white and male but poor, your voice couldn’t be heard either since the right of property had preeminence over the rights of the individual (which is why you could own slaves in the first place). As a matter of fact, almost every founding father was dead-against the idea of democracy itself. To their mind, political power had to be exercised by able people only, which meant “civilized” people—i.e. of European ascendancy—who had proven themselves by owning property. What we can genuinely be grateful for, however, is that these same prejudiced Founding Fathers devised a working form of government among peers, all equal in front of the law they framed in reason. This paved the way to the ideal of a full democracy.
Being keenly aware, moreover, that political power will always run its course no matter what, the Founding Fathers formally endorsed the call to the people as the ultimate principle upon which a just government can be established. In politics as in nature, there is no static or neutral state of things; power has to be exercised one way or another, and its pull is either toward freedom and justice for all or toward the benefit of a few. This is why “We, the people” eventually appeared as a necessary reference, giving, so to speak, its name to the Constitution. You never know in what shape or form tyranny may rise up again.
The wake-up call for an active citizenry was renewed by Abraham Lincoln when he said in his Gettysburg address that “a government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”. By doing so he was referring to these mutually exclusive polarities between an arbitrary or a just form of political power. In his mind, the purpose of the Civil War was not primarily to free slaves—he effectively compromised a lot on that—but, first and foremost, to definitively establish the Republic on American soil. He saw that if the principle of democracy was not to prevail, not only would the country be unable to find the foundations of its unity, but, regardless of one’s personal origins, all Americans would be bound to some form of slavery under the old rule of the arbitrary power of a few.
There is, consequently, a clear difference between a civil war fought for the political construct of the country—and, ultimately, for the defense of human rights—and a war using the empty rhetoric regarding an alien enemy force. There are no aliens for democracy, whether at home or afar; only human beings. This is why the U.S. civil war was justified, at least in its principle, as a fight for humanistic ideals. It had no foes to battle, other than those who had themselves resorted to military war against the edification of a free society for all. Abraham Lincoln became one of America’s greatest historical figures precisely because he thought and acted beyond the petty dialectic of friends and foes; he had an open society to build.Abraham Lincoln became one of America’s greatest historical figures precisely because he thought and acted beyond the petty dialectic of friends and foes; he had an open society to build. Click To Tweet
The logic of war, on the contrary, is based on the idea that human beings can irremediably be alienated to each other. It achieves, therefore, the rare feat of being altogether rationally inept, morally unconscionable, and psychologically insane. Rationally inept by implying that we could be defined by something else than our common human nature; morally unconscionable by allowing the organized massacre of scores of people who don’t even know each other; and psychologically insane by substituting to the practical necessity of deep listening and understanding the indefinite inner echoing of the “enemy” fantasy. This logic is consequently totally at odds with the humanistic and rational principles of democracy.
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[To be continued]
- A clear introduction to the Geneva Conventions can be found at: https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/geneva-convention
- Link: https://www.nij.gov/topics/crime/terrorism/pages/welcome.aspx
- For an overview of the war on terror financial cost, year by year: https://www.thebalance.com/war-on-terror-facts-costs-timeline-3306300
- Excellent overall information source on the human cost of the war on terror: https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/
- Intelligence Matters – The CIA, The FBI, Saudi Arabia, And The Failure Of America’s War On Terror, by Bob Graham and Jeff Nussbaum. See also: Read the long-classified ’28 pages’ on alleged Saudi ties to 9/11
- Why Nelson Mandela Was Viewed as a ‘Terrorist’ by the U.S. Until 2008. https://www.biography.com/news/nelson-mandela-terrorist-reagan-thatcher
- More than 80,000 Yemeni children may have died from hunger, aid group says
- Poll: Iraq war could wound GOP at polls: http://www.cnn.com/2006/POLITICS/09/06/iraq.poll/index.html
- Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/236983/terrorist-attacks-by-country/
- More than 3,500 attacks on refugees in Germany in 2016: report. https://www.dw.com/en/more-than-3500-attacks-on-refugees-in-germany-in-2016-report/a-37719365-0
- Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others? https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07418825.2018.1524507
- Right-Wing Extremism Linked to Every 2018 Extremist Murder in the U.S., ADL Finds. https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/right-wing-extremism-linked-to-every-2018-extremist-murder-in-the-us-adl-finds