Why the War On Terror won't work

The Roots Of Anti Terror

Xenophobic undercurrents have been present in North American culture forever, but they have taken on an entirely new bent in the past decade. The events that transpired at the World Trade Center towers irrevocably altered our cultural landscape, and the downstream effects are felt to this day. What began as a reactionary response to the flight of two commercial airliners into a pair of office towers has evolved into the omnipresent “War On Terror.”

“The notion of a war on terror, as Bruce Ackerman put it … is absurd,” states Maxwell A. Cameron, a professor in comparative politics at the University of British Columbia, “It frames the issue in a way that does not allow us to understand it.” This sentiment has been echoed by intellectuals and analysts worldwide, yet this has done little to prevent it from becoming a pervasive element of our discussions of geopolitics. In order to understand why this is so, we must first look at how it came to be.

In the weeks and months following the fall of the towers, the notion of the terrorist threat began to take shape, with then President George Bush famously decreeing, “either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Once it was revealed that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qa’ida were behind the attacks, the newswires lit up with chatter about the Eastern fundamentalists who ostensibly posed an imminent threat to our very way of life.

Soon came the notion that governments must be vested with greater authority than ever, so as to counteract this threat. The cogs began to turn, and legislation was churned out in record time that removed some of the last checks on Governmental control of the civilian populace. With the passing of the American Patriot Act and its Canadian equivalent, the Anti-Terrorism Act, our leaders were granted near dictatorial abilities to control and persecute members of the populace who fell within hazily defined categorizations.

So thorough was the emphasis on the essential nature of the ATA, so great the militant fervor that engulfed the times, there was little to no resistance to the stripping away of civil liberties at the outset. This, despite the fact that Paul Martin’s Liberal caucus granted itself the ability to detain citizens for up to 72 hours without charges, to tap wantonly into phone lines and data transfers, and to deport anyone who was suspected of having terrorist links.

There are, of course, those who see these moves as essential to maintaining the security of our nation. “The ATA was used to arrest and convict the Toronto 18,” says James Weston, the executive assistant to North Vancouver MP Andrew Saxton. This is one of the favoured examples touted by supporters of the act, a high profile case in which a group of radicalized Islamic youths were prevented from acting on their plans to detonate fertilizer bombs in downtown Toronto. Specifically, the lengthy and complex sting operation that led to the arrests has garnered great praise for the provisions of the act that allowed the surveillance and infiltration of this terrorist cell.

However, it is not clear that the provisions of the ATA were in any way necessary for the completion of the investigation. The RCMP has been using infiltration and wiretapping techniques long previous to 9/11, perhaps most prominently in the well publicized “Mr. Big” cases which sought to bring down various criminal elements in Canada.

The Mr. Big technique involves undercover officers offering suspected criminals the opportunity to join a larger scale criminal organization, and introducing them to Mr. Big, the supposed ringleader. Over time, and frequently after the consumption of alcohol, the officers would attempt to elicit confessions under the guise of using them to impress Mr. Big. These cases were subject to a great deal of public critique, due to the probable elements of coercion inherent in the process.

Take note that these investigations took place prior to the advent of the ATA. Legal challenges have been mounted against the RCMP in response to several of the Mr. Big investigations, but mounting one concerning actions taken under the ATA would be considerably more difficult. This is due to “the incredible tendentiousness of the whole rhetoric of the war on terror,” as Cameron puts it, wherein labeling someone a terrorist “evokes some fanatical minority using extreme violence.” This term automatically colours any judgment that is to be made of the accused prior to the introduction of actual evidence, and it is applied far too liberally at present. This problem has manifested to an even greater degree in the United States, where the Patriot Act granted the U.S. government near absolute control over the lives of their citizens.

A Worldwide War Of Semantics

On American soil, sweeping roundups of suspected terrorists or terrorist affiliates have become the norm in the years after the inception of the War on Terror, and among these there have been false accusations, imprisonments and torture based on simple mistaken identity.

The detainees at Guantanamo Bay have only recently been granted the right to appeal for habeus corpus, a move which has resulted in the freedom of an estimated 72 per cent of those interned at the facility who have applied for a hearing. This means that there is no conclusive evidence of terrorism or terrorist affiliations in the cases of almost three quarters of the prisoners at Guantanamo. It is truly staggering to think that, of the thousands of terror-related arrests made during the last decade on American soil, only a fraction are in any way supported by actual evidence. The fact that innocent citizens may be rounded up, subjected to summary abusive imprisonment on the power of mere conjecture and released without recourse is indicative of policymaking of truly Orwellian dimensions.

At the extremity of these trends, the Government of Swaziland recently passed the, Suppression of Terrorism Act, a transparent piece of legislation which purports to take aim at the threat of terrorism in this African nation. This legislation has actually been bent to the purposes of the ruling monarchy, with anyone who dissents against the acting ruler, King Mswati III’s decision making being prosecuted as a terrorist. Amnesty International has stated that sections of the STA “threaten human rights, are inherently repressive, breach Swaziland’s obligations under international and regional human rights law and the Swaziland constitution and are already leading to violations of the rights of freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

In the Amnesty report on the issue, it is noted by a UN special rapporteur that, “the definition of ‘terrorist acts’… given in an anti-terrorism law is critical to assessing whether the restrictions on freedom of assembly … exceed that which is permissible.” The devil is in the details, as they say, and it is this particular detail of laws concerning terrorism that can bring about such hellish consequence. “The use of the language of terrorism adds nothing to our lexicon of any value,” says Cameron, “and it may in fact diminish the value of the instruments that we already have at our disposal.” The definition of terrorism is elastic, and its polarizing power is too likely to be abused. This effect has been well documented in the last decade, as foreign agents detonating homemade explosives on our soil are taken to be terrorists, whereas the U.S. Air Force dropping laser guided bombs on “strategic targets” overseas are participating in the nation’s “liberation.”

Leaving aside discussions of the motives behind any and all liberating of resources, it is quite likely that news reports in the Middle East reported a complete role reversal, with the Great Satan once more bringing terror to unsuspecting civilians. With terrorism having become such a hot button term, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the label is frequently substituted for “combatant,” “dissenter,” “heretic,” “enemy of the state” or any other category which the speaker wishes to cast in a harsher light.

As such, there is no concrete definition of terrorism to draw from, and the anti terror laws being established by governments across the globe are alike only in that they serve to polarize the populace and inspire widespread suspicion. Today, there is a widespread and carefully cultivated perception that “terrorists” lurk around every corner, waiting to spring upon us while yodeling dogmatic slogans and baring their explosive laden midsections. To be sure, the war in the Middle Eastern nations is no small event, and is worthy of our attention, but the omnipresence of the notion of terrorism is worrying. It has already allowed for grave human rights violations to occur worldwide, and the “us and them” semantics show no signs of slowing.

The Argument Against “Terror”

On Canadian soil, the situation only differs in the particulars, with hundreds of our own citizens being harassed, arrested and deported on charges worthy of doubt. The mere mention of terrorism is now enough to cast a blight on the life of an individual. Jose Figueroa, one such individual, has been a landed immigrant on Canadian soil for long enough to sire three children, and yet has undergone a nightmarish series of interviews and hearing in an effort to retain his right to live here. Sadly, this is a case that he says “is not unique,” but rather “represents a trend that is going on within [Canada].”

Figueroa is orginially from El Salvador, where he was affiliated with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, which made the switch in the intervening decades from being a revolutionary organization to being a legitimate and recognized left wing political party. During the period when the FMLN was active as an armed revolutionary group, El Salvador was under rule by a brutal military regime, which committed all forms of atrocities against the citizenry. “The war on terror in El Salvador was a war against a terrorist government,” Cameron says, “the FMLN was trying to bring about political change to a better, more just and more peaceful society.” After the regime was overthrown, the FMLN completely disarmed and disbanded all military elements, leaving a left wing party that now forms the elected government of the nation. Understandably, Figueroa states that “[his] moral decision from 25 years ago still stands,” and he bristles at the notion of “agreeing [that the FMLN was a terrorist cell] or apologizing.”

Figueroa “began his journey into Canada in 1995,” and has not looked back since. He and his wife started a family in their chosen home, raising three children, one of whom is an autistic son whose wellbeing depends heavily on the fruits of the Canadian medical system. By all accounts, he has been a model citizen since his arrival, having lived for 15 years without even a single traffic ticket to mark his good repute. Prof. Cameron has come into contact with Figueroa’s case, and he describes him as “an exemplary person … the fact that he’s standing up for his own rights speaks to his character … [and] he poses no threat to anyone.”

It came to Figueroa’s attention in 2007 that his family’s case was up for review by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, due to his past ties with the FMLN. With a little digging, he found that the board, “[doesn’t] have a clear definition of terrorism, because they don’t have that definition stated in the laws of immigration.” Even on Canadian soil, we have risked imbuing the government with the power to prosecute whomever they choose, as our definition of terrorism is nearly as murky as Swaziland’s.

As to the El Salvadorean conflict of years past, Figueroa feels that the Canadian government is, “trying to come up with an interpretation of something they don’t understand,” which has led to their misapprehension of the situation. With this case standing as only one part of the whole, it is not difficult to imagine that “there are many cases in the past where [deported Canadian citizens] have gone quietly,” and many more to come unless there is an effort made to redefine terrorism in more intelligible terms. As Figueroa elegantly summarized, “the concept of ‘terrorism’ needs to be deconstructed and rebuilt again so it fits the objective conditions of what is happening around the world.”

Thus far, anti-terror legislation has proven to be either a vessel for injustices or an unpractical, ineffective and unnecessary addition to justice systems. “For hundreds of years … we have confronted much graver perils than what is represented by fundamentalists from the Middle East,” Cameron notes, “and we’ve developed a series of regulations that govern the actions of states and non state entities [to deal with these threats]. I’m a firm believer in international criminal court, in Interpol, in all the instruments that we have … if someone blows up a building, they’re a criminal. If someone kills someone else, they’re a murderer.”

It seems that the anti-terror legislation needs to be stricken down altogether, and the whole syntax of the War on Terror abolished. Casting one group or another as terrorists only serves to alienate various sectors of humanity from one another, without providing any digestible information about the relationship between them. Linguistically linking adherents of one ideology or another to a negative emotional state is childish at best, and at worst an effective tool for warmongers.

As Cameron observes, “the only way that you could justify [aggressive anti-terror legislation] is with these spurious mind games that people come up with … where someone has planted a bomb and you need to get information from them within a set time.” However, he says, “To suggest that we want to take an exceptional situation and build that into the heart of our judicial system, to bring this cancer into our judicial system, is to fail to understand the very nature of justice.” Laws cannot and should not be designed to counter straw men, or exceptions in extremis.

Even when in a state of war, it is incomprehensible to use the label of terrorist, unless of course both sides are said to be terrorizing one another. It may be more difficult to distribute accurate portrayals of who the players are in international conflicts, but this would be the morally correct practice. If there is an end in sight for the War on Terror, it lies in legislative reforms, which will lead to linguistic and conceptual reforms. In the immortal words of Winston Churchill, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” and framing international relations in terms of a war on terror does nothing if not inspire fear.

//Max Mackay
Staff Writer

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