When President Bush called Americans to enlist in his “war on terror,” very few citizens could have grasped the all-encompassing consequences of the proposition. The terrifying events of 9/11 were like a blinding flash, benumbing the country with a sudden knowledge of unimagined dangers. Strong action was recommended, skeptics were silenced and a shallow sense of unity emerged from the shared vulnerabilities. Nearly three years later, the enormity of Bush’s summons to open-ended “war” is more obvious. It overwhelmed the country, in fact deranged society’s normal processes and purposes with a brilliantly seductive political message: Terror pre-empts everything else.
What this President effectively accomplished was to restart the cold war, albeit under a new rubric. The justifying facts are different and smaller, but the ideological dynamics are remarkably similar–a total commitment of the nation’s energies to confront a vast, unseen and malignant adversary. Fanatical Muslims replaced Soviet Communists and, like the reds, these enemies could be anywhere, including in our midst (they may not even be Muslims, but kindred agents who likewise “hate” us and oppose our values). Like the cold war’s, the logic of this new organizing framework can be awesomely compelling to the popular imagination because it runs on fear–the public’s expanding fear of potential dangers. The political commodity of fear has no practical limits. The government has the ability to manufacture more.
Nor is there any obvious ceiling on what the nation must devote–in JFK’s famous phrase–“to pay any price, bear any burden” in defense of liberty and homeland. Long after the Soviet Union was recognized as a failed economic system, US intelligence agencies continued to warn that it was surpassing America’s arsenal of defense and so new, much larger weapons must be built. The year before the Berlin wall fell, CIA analysts reported that Communist East Germany’s economy was larger than West Germany’s. People believed them. In much the same way, the worldwide network of supposed or potential allies of Osama bin Laden has been steadily expanded by government alerts since 9/11. These fanatical terrorists are not just in the Middle East; the same type has been spotted in East Asia and Africa, even South America. National security experts urge counterterror actions, just in case. Who can say the “intelligence” is wrong? How can citizens even weigh the “facts” when government keeps most of them secret?
“War on terror” is useful for the President, but irrational for the nation. Terrorism is not an enemy; it is a method of using violence to gain political objectives. Its tactics are usually employed by weaker, irregular groups against governments that possess organized armies and the modern means for waging war formally and more destructively (both methods of violence may target and destroy the lives of innocents). Terror campaigns are cruel by nature but in some instances are regarded as righteous, when the violence is used to liberate oppressed peoples from colonial rule, as in Vietnam or Ireland, the creation of Israel or even the United States.
Ronald Spiers, a retired diplomat who served as US ambassador to Turkey and Pakistan and as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence, explained these distinctions in an incisive essay published in Vermont’s Rutland Herald. “How do you win a ‘war’ against a tool that, like war itself, is a method of carrying on politics by other means?” Spiers asked. “A ‘war on terrorism’ is a war without an end in sight, without an exit strategy, with enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics. Relying principally on military means is like trying to eliminate a cloud of mosquitoes with a machine gun…. It brings to mind Big Brother’s…war in Orwell’s 1984. A war on terrorism is a permanent engagement against an always-available tool.”