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Rethink the war on terror

Observer Viewpoint | Sunday, October 10, 2004

Listening to this Presidential election season’s speeches and debates, one could not be blamed for believing that America is on the daily verge of annihilation at the hands of terrorists, or that our neighbors are secretly planning to set a mushroom cloud over the local high school swimming pool. The threat of terrorism – and discernment of an appropriate American response – has dominated the airwaves. In short, fear abounds. Jokes of duct tape and terror-alert color schemes aside, the prominence in election discourse of the war on terror and the tenuously-connected war in Iraq is misguided. Further, the assumptions guiding America’s war on terror are flimsy and must change if there is to be hope for ending terrorism.

What is it exactly about terrorism that makes it such a political fascination? It certainly has not been its toll on human life. In 2001, terrorist attacks took the lives of approximately 3,000 U.S. citizens. Heart disease, linked to obesity, took the lives of over 700,000. According to these figures, it could be argued that our military would be more effective at protecting us if it were to build outposts in front of every McDonald’s in America in order to scare away customers than it is while attempting to take over small Middle Eastern nation-states (who, ironically, pose only minimal threat to our security).

In an even broader context, the violent death toll of Sept. 11 is happening every two days in the genocide of Western Sudan right now, and the global AIDS pandemic continues to grow rapidly, claiming almost a third of the citizens in some sub-Saharan African nations. In our own country, poverty is on the rise, health care on the fall and communities are breaking down. These issues are being placed on the back burner, to the detriment of people everywhere, while the so-called war on terror is unleashed around the world.

Clearly, terrorism’s prominence has not been due to its death toll. Underlying the fear of this phenomenon in America is a more horrified realization that our security, or perhaps more accurately the façade of our security for, was shattered on Sept. 11.

How, then, can we regain this sense of security? Fighting the phenomenon of terrorism should not merely consist of hunting down individuals who espouse violent anti-American sentiment. This approach is ultimately ineffective. Certainly, individuals who resort to acts of violence, especially against innocent life, should be held accountable, and force may be necessary to accomplish this. But until we destroy the incentives for individuals to resort to terrorism, we will never be secure. The consequences of the war in Iraq, namely a resurgence of global terrorist activity and anti-American sentiment, are enough proof of this.

The first questions we should have asked on Sept. 12, 2001 are not about who did it and how quickly we can destroy their lives, but are instead about why they did it and how we can combat the conditions – conditions that survive beyond individuals – that beget terrorist action. Many Islamic societies have legitimate grievances against the United States that are not being addressed, such as American policy in Israel, U.S. military bases in the Middle East and the war in Iraq.

More importantly, however, the deeper reality of a grossly unequal global order guarantees a perpetual state of violence against the oppressive power of America. This reality shows that our sense of security has always been a facade, based on our ability to take our wars to foreign soil, and to ensure that the reactions to our unjust policies never reach us here at home. Perpetuating injustice by the barrel of a gun can never produce sustainable security for Americans, or for that matter any human being. In the midst of election discourse. Neither candidate dares to challenge the injustice of America’s hegemonic and often violent global dominance.

The “war” on terrorism should be undertaken by pursuing a world order based on the rule of law and a more equitable distribution of the world’s goods instead of on great power politics and the violent enforcement of U.S. interests. We should learn the common sense lesson of history that until all are secure, none are truly secure.

Meanwhile, instead of allowing a fear of terrorism to be the factor that links America as a nation, let us rally around our ideals and focus election season discourse on what really matters. Our cherished values of peace, tolerance, liberty and equality have suffered greatly during the past three years. We must practice a politics of hope, not fear. As citizens, it is in our interest to demand change, for continuing on our current path will only take us further from the day when true peace and security are possible.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major. Contact him at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.