Terrorized by "War on Terror"
by Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Washington
www.truthout.org/, March 25, 2007
How a three-word mantra has undermined
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 against us.
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 few.
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 traditions.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security
adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
on Terrorism page