It’s time to stop calling the post 9/11 struggle against terrorism a “war.” Iraq is a (disastrous) war; Afghanistan was a brief one. But the struggle against stateless terrorists is not the same thing. And framing it as a war, as columnist Matt Miller argued earlier this year, “was a conscious decision made by Bush and Karl Rove and others in the first days after 9/11.”
Rove understood that if the indefinite struggle against terror was generally framed as a “war,” it would become the master narrative of American politics giving the GOP the chance to achieve “a structural advantage, perhaps in perpetuity” over Democrats.
The “war” metaphor, as retired American ambassador Ronald Spiers wrote in a provocative piece last March in the Vermont Rutland Herald, “is neither accurate nor innocuous, implying as it does that there is an end point of either victory or defeat…. 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…. The President has found this ‘war’ useful as an all-purpose justification for almost anything he wants or doesn’t want to do; fuzziness serves the administration politically. It brings to mind Big Brother’s vague and never-ending war in Orwell’s 1984. A war on terrorism is a permanent engagement against an always-available tool.”
It’s easy to see how this Administration has used the “war” as justification for almost anything. Just last week, Amnesty International’s annual report exposed how the US has been flouting international human rights standards, “resulting in thousands of women and men suffering unlawful detention, unfair trial and torture–often solely because of their ethnic or religious background”–and all in the name of the “war on terrorism.”
Labor rights have also been rolled back on behalf of the “war.” Remember that Orwellian statement by the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Security in announcing that the Administration had denied 60,000 airport security screeners their collective bargaining rights. “Mandatory collective bargaining,” retired Admiral James Loy said, “is not compatible with the flexibility required to wage the war on terrorism.”
As I watched the celebration of Washington’s WWII memorial this Memorial Day weekend, I was reminded of how, during the despair of World War II, a greater threat to the existence of our country than what we face today, President Roosevelt gave America a vision of hope and told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Yes, we all live in the shadow of September 11–a crime of monumental magnitude. But terrorism is not an enemy that threatens the existence of our nation; our response should not undermine the very values that define America for ourselves and the rest of the world.
This Administration has shamelessly exploited America’s fear of terrorism for political purposes. ( It is as if, to paraphrase Roosevelt, this team has nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.) But a hyper-militarized war without end will do more to weaken our democracy, and foster a new national security state, than seriously address the threats ahead.
Yet few political leaders have the courage to say that what we face is not a “war” on terrorism, or that this President, as Ambassador Spiers said, “has found this ‘war’ an all-purpose justification for almost anything he wants or doesn’t want to do.” But by failing to challenge the “war” framing, we allow it to seep into the national psyche and let Rove and Co. get away with couching virtually all foreign policy discourse in terms of terrorism. The media also plays a role: “War” is the term used routinely not only by Fox “news” anchors and pundits but also in our top print outlets. It’s then amplified in sensationalized TV wall-to-wall graphics.
It’s a hopeful sign that John Kerry not so long ago questioned whether the “war” on terror is actually a war at all. “I don’t want to use that terminology,” he said. In his view, what we are engaged in is “not primarily a military operation. It’s an intelligence-gathering operation, law enforcement, public diplomacy effort.” Kerry is right. It is time to end this political hijacking of our language and concentrate on the real struggle ahead.
As Shirin Ebadi, a champion of women and children’s rights, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and someone who has stood up to the fundamentalists in her native land of Iran, said the other day: “Governments don’t just repress people with false interpretations of religion; sometimes they do it with false cant about national security.”
See “Clarification” in the “Editors’ Cut” for June 8.