When President George W. Bush launched his global war on terror, which was quickly adopted by the media through its acronym GWOT, the American public rallied around a new Crusade to rid the world of Islamic terrorism even as the president kept reminding anyone who would listen that Islam is a religion of peace. Initially there were few dissidents brave enough to challenge Washington’s burning desire to obtain revenge on the perpetrators of 9/11, but critics eventually did emerge, noting that a war on terror was itself a contradiction in terms as terror is a tactic, not an enemy. As the focus shifted to Iraq, some noted that fighting transnational terrorists would inevitably involve American soldiers in locally inspired quarrels in faraway lands that in no way threatened the United States. The concurrent Bush Doctrine, which stated that the US would feel free to intervene military in any country or against any group that might be perceived as potentially threatening, reinforced the notion held by some critics that Washington was entering into an open ended conflict that would continue forever and from which there could not possibly be any way out.
The fundamental problem with the war on terror beyond its name is that it has in practice conflated a political objective with a national security program. It de facto identifies terrorism as a “problem” that the rest of us have in dealing with the Islamic world and, more broadly speaking, the Muslim religion. The political objective being sustained by the GWOT is to create a consensus that there is something fundamentally wrong with Islam as both the religion and culture eschew liberal democracy and have instead become breeding grounds for terrorism. That is largely a construct developed by Israel and its friends in the media and academia, including most notably Princeton Professor Bernard Lewis, and it has been used to sustain what has evolved into an unending war against the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
Empty headed pundits like Sarah Palin codeword the perception when she refers sarcastically to letting “let Allah sort it out” and it even surfaces in the comments made by some politicians who “get it” about the perils of interventionism including Senator Rand Paul, who continually cites those who “are burning our flag and shouting death to America” as part of a “war against Christianity.” It is a thinly veiled indictment of Muslims which conveniently generates an enemy “Other” while effectively exonerating Israel and the United States from any blame for what has deformed the politics of the Middle East.
The truth is that the reality of terrorism is much more complex than either former President Bush or current President Barack Obama can comfortably admit. Terrorism, often instigated by soldiers rather than individuals, has been around since the Assyrians began chopping off heads and Tamurlane built a mountain of skulls after his sack of Baghdad. In its state sponsored form it also figured in Sherman’s march through Georgia, Sheridan’s devastation of the Shenandoah Valley, and America’s pacification of the Philippines. In the modern context, it is generally seen as the actions undertaken by a non-state player to intimidate a local population and delegitimize governments so they will be susceptible to being overthrown. State sponsors of terror, as defined by the US State Department, are limited to those regimes that support those non-state players. This definition is convenient because it enables one to largely ignore the covert terrorism carried out by some governments, including the US and Israel, almost certainly because no retired high government official wants to be arrested by agents of the International Criminal Court when relaxing on the French Riviera.
As the most recent manifestations of terrorism are actually intimately connected to failed policies by the United States, of which the blowback that created al-Qaeda out of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan is only one example, American officials find a comfort zone in blaming someone else for the surge in transnational violence. In the public mind the particular cruelty often exhibited by terrorists has been reduced to an abstraction, as a product of radical Islam. And in the process they forget that terrorism itself is not inextricably linked to any particular ethnic group or nation.
As the University of Chicago’s Professor Robert Pape has demonstrated, suicide bombing, a subset of terrorism, is almost always linked to an occupation of one country by another or by one group that is being repressed by another. Indeed, going back twenty years the largest number of suicide bombers were Hindus in Sri Lanka, not Muslims in the Middle East. Going back a bit further, in the 1970s terrorism was a largely European phenomenon, with groups like Baader Meinhoff and the Red Armies, drawn largely from politically left of center European middle class students, confounding Marxists who were sitting around waiting for the workers to rise up. Palestinian terrorism, which also took root at the same time, was not in any way intrinsic to Islam as it developed as a reaction to the Israeli occupation.
There is considerable chatter about the root causes of terrorism, whether that be poverty, political disenfranchisement, or the desire to dominate a particular region or state, as if the phenomenon were some kind of plant that can be ripped from the ground. The discussion only further confuses what should be a matter of cold blooded calculation regarding the damage that terrorists actually inflict versus the cost of maintaining a terror focused national security posture which is rapidly morphing into a national security state.
Osama bin Laden once stated his intention to use the terrorism threat to bankrupt the United States and the evidence is that he may have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The cost of Homeland Security, to include the portion of defense and security budgets that are dedicated to counter-terrorism, is immense possibly approaching as much as one trillion dollars a year if state and local initiatives are included in the tally. Against that, only seventeen Americans were killed in terrorist incidents in 2011, most of which took place in war zones to include Afghanistan.
Every undeserved death is surely a tragedy, but it has been noted that an American is more likely to die from falling furniture in his own home than as a victim of terrorist violence. The overwhelming majority of victims of terrorism are Muslims, more than 80% of the total. Worldwide, as most of those described as terrorists have strictly local agendas there may not be more than a couple of hundred or so hardcore militants who have the means, ability and motivation to actually threaten the United States or Americans overseas and most of them are on the run from the security services in the countries where they shelter. And it is also true that they would not want to be coming over here at all but for the fact that we are over there, where they live, and have been interfering in their politics since 9/11.
Has the terrorism threat been both badly defined and overstated? It certainly has, to the benefit of defense contractors, senior government officials and politicians who have deliberately avoided the establishment of a sane national security policy while successfully selling the faux terrorist agenda, frequently for their own personal gain.