In a dramatic, yet sober, Sunday night address to the American people, President Obama announced the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. He reminded us of the horror, the grief, the tragedy and senseless slaughter of September 11, 2001. He reminded us of how, in those grim days, “we reaffirmed our unity as one American family…and our resolve to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice.”
The president spoke of how the capture and killing of bin Laden was the “most significant effort to date in our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda. “ And he reaffirmed that this country will never wage a war against Islam. For that reason, Obama said, bin Laden’s “demise should be welcomed by all those who welcome peace and human dignity.”
His call to Americans to remember what unifies us, to remember that “justice has been done,” is a defining opening to seize. It is time to end the “global war on terror” we have lived with for this last decade. It is time to stop defining the post 9/11 struggle against stateless terrorists a “war.” And it is time to bring an end to the senseless war in Afghanistan that has cost this nation so much in lives and money.
Framing the fight against terror as a war was a conscious decision made by Bush and Karl Rove and others in those first days after 9/11—a decision that destroyed the unity President Obama spoke of tonight.
Rove understood that if the indefinite struggle against terror was generally framed as a “war,” it would become the master narrative of American politics-bringing with it the collateral damage we have witnessed in these last ten years.
The “war” metaphor—as retired American Ambassador Ronald Spiers wrote in a provocative piece in March 2004 in Vermont’s 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.”
The Bush administration and, sadly, too often the Obama administration, used the “war” as justification for undermining the best of America’s principles. We have witnessed the abuse of international human rights standards, the unlawful detention of thousands of women and men, and the condoning of torture.
I remember watching the celebration of Washington’s WWII memorial just two years after 9/11, and how 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—not fear. Just a decade earlier, during the Great Depression, another grave threat to the country’s spirit and unity, Roosevelt told a fearful nation that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. In President Bush and his team we saw people working overtime to convince the American people—through a barrage of historically inaccurate analogies—that there is nothing to fear but the end of fear itself. Today, President Obama and his team have a chance to reset our fight against terrorism.