Terrorized by 'War on Terror'
How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined
By Zbigniew Brzezinski
March 25, 2007
The "war on terror" has created
a culture of fear in America. The Bush administration's elevation
of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific
events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy,
on America's psyche and on U.S. standing in the world. Using this
phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront
the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism
The damage these three words have done
-- a classic self-inflicted wound -- is infinitely greater than
any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the
9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan
caves. The phrase itself is meaningless. It defines neither a
geographic context nor our presumed enemies. Terrorism is not
an enemy but a technique of warfare -- political intimidation
through the killing of unarmed non-combatants.
But the little secret here may be that
the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively)
calculated by its sponsors. Constant reference to a "war
on terror" did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated
the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies
emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize
the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue. The
war of choice in Iraq could never have gained the congressional
support it got without the psychological linkage between the shock
of 9/11 and the postulated existence of Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction. Support for President Bush in the 2004 elections
was also mobilized in part by the notion that "a nation at
war" does not change its commander in chief in midstream.
The sense of a pervasive but otherwise imprecise danger was thus
channeled in a politically expedient direction by the mobilizing
appeal of being "at war."
To justify the "war on terror,"
the administration has lately crafted a false historical narrative
that could even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By claiming
that its war is similar to earlier U.S. struggles against Nazism
and then Stalinism (while ignoring the fact that both Nazi Germany
and Soviet Russia were first-rate military powers, a status al-Qaeda
neither has nor can achieve), the administration could be preparing
the case for war with Iran. Such war would then plunge America
into a protracted conflict spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and
perhaps also Pakistan.
The culture of fear is like a genie that
has been let out of its bottle. It acquires a life of its own
-- and can become demoralizing. America today is not the self-confident
and determined nation that responded to Pearl Harbor; nor is it
the America that heard from its leader, at another moment of crisis,
the powerful words "the only thing we have to fear is fear
itself"; nor is it the calm America that waged the Cold War
with quiet persistence despite the knowledge that a real war could
be initiated abruptly within minutes and prompt the death of 100
million Americans within just a few hours. We are now divided,
uncertain and potentially very susceptible to panic in the event
of another terrorist act in the United States itself.
That is the result of five years of almost
continuous national brainwashing on the subject of terror, quite
unlike the more muted reactions of several other nations (Britain,
Spain, Italy, Germany, Japan, to mention just a few) that also
have suffered painful terrorist acts. In his latest justification
for his war in Iraq, President Bush even claims absurdly that
he has to continue waging it lest al-Qaeda cross the Atlantic
to launch a war of terror here in the United States.
Such fear-mongering, reinforced by security
entrepreneurs, the mass media and the entertainment industry,
generates its own momentum. The terror entrepreneurs, usually
described as experts on terrorism, are necessarily engaged in
competition to justify their existence. Hence their task is to
convince the public that it faces new threats. That puts a premium
on the presentation of credible scenarios of ever-more-horrifying
acts of violence, sometimes even with blueprints for their implementation.
That America has become insecure and more
paranoid is hardly debatable. A recent study reported that in
2003, Congress identified 160 sites as potentially important national
targets for would-be terrorists. With lobbyists weighing in, by
the end of that year the list had grown to 1,849; by the end of
2004, to 28,360; by 2005, to 77,769. The national database of
possible targets now has some 300,000 items in it, including the
Sears Tower in Chicago and an Illinois Apple and Pork Festival.
Just last week, here in Washington, on
my way to visit a journalistic office, I had to pass through one
of the absurd "security checks" that have proliferated
in almost all the privately owned office buildings in this capital
-- and in New York City. A uniformed guard required me to fill
out a form, show an I.D. and in this case explain in writing the
purpose of my visit. Would a visiting terrorist indicate in writing
that the purpose is "to blow up the building"? Would
the guard be able to arrest such a self-confessing, would-be suicide
bomber? To make matters more absurd, large department stores,
with their crowds of shoppers, do not have any comparable procedures.
Nor do concert halls or movie theaters. Yet such "security"
procedures have become routine, wasting hundreds of millions of
dollars and further contributing to a siege mentality.
Government at every level has stimulated
the paranoia. Consider, for example, the electronic billboards
over interstate highways urging motorists to "Report Suspicious
Activity" (drivers in turbans?). Some mass media have made
their own contribution. The cable channels and some print media
have found that horror scenarios attract audiences, while terror
"experts" as "consultants" provide authenticity
for the apocalyptic visions fed to the American public. Hence
the proliferation of programs with bearded "terrorists"
as the central villains. Their general effect is to reinforce
the sense of the unknown but lurking danger that is said to increasingly
threaten the lives of all Americans.
The entertainment industry has also jumped
into the act. Hence the TV serials and films in which the evil
characters have recognizable Arab features, sometimes highlighted
by religious gestures, that exploit public anxiety and stimulate
Islamophobia. Arab facial stereotypes, particularly in newspaper
cartoons, have at times been rendered in a manner sadly reminiscent
of the Nazi anti-Semitic campaigns. Lately, even some college
student organizations have become involved in such propagation,
apparently oblivious to the menacing connection between the stimulation
of racial and religious hatreds and the unleashing of the unprecedented
crimes of the Holocaust.
The atmosphere generated by the "war
on terror" has encouraged legal and political harassment
of Arab Americans (generally loyal Americans) for conduct that
has not been unique to them. A case in point is the reported harassment
of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for its attempts
to emulate, not very successfully, the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Some House Republicans recently described
CAIR members as "terrorist apologists" who should not
be allowed to use a Capitol meeting room for a panel discussion.
Social discrimination, for example toward
Muslim air travelers, has also been its unintended byproduct.
Not surprisingly, animus toward the United States even among Muslims
otherwise not particularly concerned with the Middle East has
intensified, while America's reputation as a leader in fostering
constructive interracial and interreligious relations has suffered
The record is even more troubling in the
general area of civil rights. The culture of fear has bred intolerance,
suspicion of foreigners and the adoption of legal procedures that
undermine fundamental notions of justice. Innocent until proven
guilty has been diluted if not undone, with some -- even U.S.
citizens -- incarcerated for lengthy periods of time without effective
and prompt access to due process. There is no known, hard evidence
that such excess has prevented significant acts of terrorism,
and convictions for would-be terrorists of any kind have been
few and far between. Someday Americans will be as ashamed of this
record as they now have become of the earlier instances in U.S.
history of panic by the many prompting intolerance against the
In the meantime, the "war on terror"
has gravely damaged the United States internationally. For Muslims,
the similarity between the rough treatment of Iraqi civilians
by the U.S. military and of the Palestinians by the Israelis has
prompted a widespread sense of hostility toward the United States
in general. It's not the "war on terror" that angers
Muslims watching the news on television, it's the victimization
of Arab civilians. And the resentment is not limited to Muslims.
A recent BBC poll of 28,000 people in 27 countries that sought
respondents' assessments of the role of states in international
affairs resulted in Israel, Iran and the United States being rated
(in that order) as the states with "the most negative influence
on the world." Alas, for some that is the new axis of evil!
The events of 9/11 could have resulted
in a truly global solidarity against extremism and terrorism.
A global alliance of moderates, including Muslim ones, engaged
in a deliberate campaign both to extirpate the specific terrorist
networks and to terminate the political conflicts that spawn terrorism
would have been more productive than a demagogically proclaimed
and largely solitary U.S. "war on terror" against "Islamo-fascism."
Only a confidently determined and reasonable America can promote
genuine international security which then leaves no political
space for terrorism.
Where is the U.S. leader ready to say,
"Enough of this hysteria, stop this paranoia"? Even
in the face of future terrorist attacks, the likelihood of which
cannot be denied, let us show some sense. Let us be true to our
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security
adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is the author most recently
of "Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American
Superpower" (Basic Books).
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