In the wake of 9/11, almost anything the US government did was accepted uncritically by the public. The Patriot Act was quickly passed, abridging the freedoms that Americans had enjoyed for more than two hundred years with barely a whimper from Congress and the media. George W. Bush declared war on the world, defining his security doctrine as the right of the United States to act preemptively anywhere and at any time against any nation that the White House perceived to be a threat. Bush also declared his global war on terror, committing his administration to intervene using military and intelligence resources wherever his definition of terrorists was to be found. It was a devil’s bargain, reassuring the American people that the government was doing something to make them more secure while at the same time stripping them of many fundamental rights and turning topsy-turvy the international order where acts of war had hitherto been condemned as the gravest of crimes.
Right from the beginning, some voices even in Congress and the mainstream media urged calm, but they were overwhelmed by those who were crying out for revenge. Revenge soon morphed into a number of ill-advised policies leading to the disastrous invasion of Iraq. Looking back on those years from the perspective of 2010 it is possible to see that it was fear that drove the nation at that time. Fear enabled the process that turned America down a dark path and was itself fed by the shapeless threat of terrorism, which was regularly invoked by those in the government.
Unfortunately little has changed since 9/11 and it would be easy to close one’s eyes in Barack Obama’s America and imagine that it is 2001 and that George Bush is still president. American soldiers are ensconced in Iraq, surging in Afghanistan, and poised to intervene in places like Yemen and Somalia. Hellfire missiles fired from pilotless drones rain down on Pakistani tribesmen more frequently now than under George W. Bush. Guantánamo Prison is still open and Bagram Prison promises to become the new Abu Ghraib. And there is still fearmongering to drive the entire process, solemn words from the White House warning the American people about the continuing global terrorist threat.
From the start many Americans were skeptical of George Bush’s global war on terror, recognizing it for the sloganeering that it was, security policy by bumper sticker. Terror is not a nation nor is it a group. It is a tactic. It has existed since men first picked up rocks to strike each other but in its modern form it was developed in Palestine in the 1940s when the Haganah and Stern Gangs struck against civilian targets like the King David Hotel to drive the British out. It was then used by the nascent state of Israel against Palestinian Arabs to force them to leave their homes. Terrorism consists of attacking civilian targets to demoralize the local population and weaken its ability to resist.
So a terrorist must be someone who uses terror, right? Well, by some definitions yes, but not really and the word terrorist is ultimately no more enlightening than references to terror. It is much more useful to regard the groups that employ terror as political entities, using the tactic in support of what is almost invariably a broader agenda. Recognizing that reality, it has become cliché that today’s terrorist can become tomorrow’s statesman as the political winds shift. One might profitably look at some examples from groups currently or at one time considered to be "terrorist" by the world community, like Hezbollah. Hezbollah became prominent because it resisted the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. To be sure, it used the terror tactic to attack Israeli civilians in the settlements in the northern part of the country, but its principal objective was to drive out the Israeli occupiers. It finally did so in 2006, using conventional military tactics, not terror, while burnishing its reputation by providing goods and services to many of the poor in the area where it holds sway. It has become a partner in government in Lebanon, morphing into a largely conventional political party. It still skirmishes with Israel along the border between the two countries but its ability to threaten the rest of the world and, more particularly the United States, is zero.
And then there were the Viet Cong in Vietnam. Did they use terror? Certainly. But they did so to establish political control over a large part of the countryside and also to spread fear in Vietnam’s cities. When they felt themselves strong enough they also engaged in stand up fights with US forces and the South Vietnamese Army. And they were overwhelmingly a political group with a political objective, i.e to replace the US puppet Vietnamese government. Did the Viet Cong ever threaten the United States through its ability to employ the terror tactic? Not in the least.
Finally there is the example of the Taliban. The Taliban is referred to by the US government as a terrorist organization and it has indeed killed civilians to establish control over parts of Afghanistan. But it also fights against US and NATO forces in a conventional fashion, has worked to defeat the warlords and root out corrupt government officials, and has promised equal justice under Islamic Sharia law for the Afghan people. In many areas it is more popular than the government of President Hamid Karzai. When it previously ruled Afghanistan, it introduced strict religious rule but also eliminated drug production and warlordism. So calling it a terrorist group and indicating that you will not deal with it, except by imprisoning or killing its adherents, means that you are missing something. The group is essentially political and sees itself as a potential party of government only using terrorism as a tactic when it considers it to be necessary.
The US government has essentially adopted an Israeli paradigm in refusing to deal with political opponents who employ terror. Its dismissal of groups like the Taliban as terrorists means that opportunities to engage them in terms of their true interests are being wasted. And it also makes for convenient political shorthand, rendering it unnecessary to consider the possibility that the groups involved have either legitimate grievances or positive motives. And it shapes the entire argument so as to avoid conclusions that might be considered unpleasant. It is frequently argued that the US is fighting in Afghanistan because it is better to fight "them" over there than over here. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Taliban has absolutely no interest in the United States except insofar as the US is occupying Afghanistan. As Ron Paul puts it, correctly, when there is a terrorist incident they are only over here because we are over there. When we leave "there" the "they" will not be coming over here because they have no reason to do so.
So the problem is that the language we use shapes how we think about an issue. Once you get rid of the buzz words terror and terrorist, meant to create fear and uncertainty, it is possible to come to grips with a reality that is quite different. The groups that the White House and State Department calls terrorist are really political organizations that seek change that will favor their own assumption of power. There have always been such groups and always will be. Most want US forces to leave their countries, many want Washington to stop supporting corrupt and autocratic Arab governments, and nearly all want the US-tolerated Israeli humiliation of the Palestinians to cease. Looking at them in that light, it is not difficult to discern what their motives are in opposing the United States. And it is also possible to see the various groups as individual cases that have to be dealt with selectively, not as part of a nonexistent worldwide conspiracy.
The truth is that the US government prefers to have an enemy that can be defined simply, in Manichean terms. It seeks to create fear among the American people by presenting terrorism as some sort of monolith while it is in reality little more than a hodge podge of diverse political groupings that have varying motivations and objectives. The only thing that they have in common is that they sometimes use terror as a tactic. And the terror tactic is itself losing appeal. The only reason that groups that espouse terror appear to be increasing in numbers is because the countries the US is occupying or attacking are also growing in number, but nevertheless the numbers are unimpressive. There are certainly fewer than a couple of thousand adherents to groups that use terror worldwide. Young Muslim men are increasingly reluctant to be drawn into the fray and there are signs that the allure of jihad as a religious duty has waned. And those who use terrorism are themselves becoming more marginal and amateurish, as was evident in the Nigerian underwear bomber, a plot that could hardly succeed even with the best of luck. If there had not been errors made in the security process and exchange of information, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would have been detained before boarding the plane in Amsterdam.
Americans should no longer talk of terrorism or fear it because it is largely an empty threat. One is more likely to be eaten by a shark than killed in a terrorist attack. The effectiveness of the US government in sustaining fear through its combating of terror guarantees continuous war, makes for big government, and blinds America’s policymakers to reality. There are many groups out in the world vying for power. Some are unscrupulous in how they would achieve control, including willingness to employ terror. But most could care less about Washington as long as the United States leaves them alone. Leaving them alone might well be the best foreign and security policy that the United States could embrace.