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April 9th, 2020

Handling terrorism, US style: The march of folly continues

Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests?

Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests?

CONTEMPLATING the ongoing US-led war on terror, one cannot help wondering whether Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” should not be made compulsory reading for all policy-makers, including Heads of Government. She starts with a lamentation that has a contemporary resonance:

“A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place and time is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense, and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

It is part of conventional wisdom that 9/11 has transformed America, and through it the rest of the world, in a profound and irrevocable manner. There is also a possibility that the neo-conservatives in the US who had a pre-9/11 agenda exploited the deep hurt and confusion felt by society to advance their own agenda. To facilitate matters further, they propagated the theory that 9/11 had changed everything. Whether that be the case or not, it is time to ask a few questions:

Was the transformation of America for the good of America? Where has the war against terrorism taken human society so far? What were America’s options post-9/11, and did it choose wisely? Did the rest of the world act wisely and responsibly?

When the UN headquarters in Baghdad was blown up (August19, 2003), Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, made an observation that merited more attention than it actually received. She said that the attack should serve as a “wake-up call”. In other words, the United Nations and the member-states should introspect and ask themselves: Why did some individuals or groups have such deep hatred for the UN that they should have done what they did?

Judging by the reaction of the UN Secretary-General and others, it would appear that Mary Robinson’s words were not heeded. The response to the attack in Baghdad has been to condemn those responsible. We all join in condemning the perpetrators, but some of us feel that condemnation by itself does not generate understanding of the ground realities. As a responsible response, mere condemnation is inadequate. It is also necessary to recall that Sergio Vieira de Mello was not the first senior UN official to be assassinated in cold blood. On September 17, 1948, Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator on his way to have tea with the military governor of Jerusalem, was ambushed and shot dead. His “sin” was that he had made recommendations on the status of Jerusalem, recommendations that were not to the liking of the perpetrators of that act of terrorism.

When 9/11 occurred, did the United States do any soul-searching? Alas, none at all. Nor did America’s friends and well-wishers advise it to do so. In fact, such condemnation is so mechanical and ritualistic that it becomes difficult, nay even politically incorrect, to raise certain fundamental questions. There are scores and scores of “experts” on international terrorism, but how many of them have raised the fundamental question: why is there terrorism?

Even as we take note of that serious flaw in America’s response to 9/11, we should commend the US Administration for the competent manner in which it proceeded to track down the terrorists, mobilised international support in order to freeze their funds, intercept the communications, and to bring to justice those apprehended. But, looking back, the US has over-reacted and exceeded the limits of good sense and legality in many respects. We will make only two points. Firstly, the manner in which the people incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay have been treated has tainted America’s well- deserved reputation as an exemplary democracy where the rule of law applies to all.

The second regrettable development has been the assault on the liberties of ordinary Americans. We all realise that it is not easy to find the right balance between the individual’s rights and the requirements of security in a society under threat from terrorists.

Let us compare terrorism to an ailment afflicting society. Suppose a doctor were to administer a medicine that aggravates the disease, should we not tell the doctor to have a second look at the diagnosis and prescription? The key question that should be uppermost in our minds is: is the America-led war against terror succeeding? If not, why not?

We all know that the US has mobilised enormous resources, material and human, to put an end to terrorism. In September 2001, the US Administration asked for and was given $ 40 billion for “emergency spending”. As many as 4000 persons were put on the job of chasing 50,000 leads. A quarter of the FBI’s 11,500 employees have been deployed. Yet, the sad fact is that the Americans do not feel secure. In February 2003, fearing an imminent attack, the US placed anti-aircraft missile batteries in Washington, and the UK’s Blair government deployed troops at Heathrow airport. There is no need to catalogue the attacks in various parts of the world. The attack in Najaf, Iraq, killing over 100 people, is only the latest in a painfully long series.

To understand the US-led war on terror, we should start with the American definition of terrorism. The CIA website gives the following: The Intelligence Community is guided by the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f (d):

“— The term ‘terrorism’ means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

“— The term ‘international terrorism’ means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country.

“— The term ‘terrorist group’ means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.”

What is excluded, deliberately so , from this definition is state terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism such as Israel’s “targeted assassinations”. Any analyst who is blind to Israel’s state terrorism will lamentably fail to understand the context and the raison d’etre of terrorist acts by Hamas and others. Anyone, including governments, who fails to condemn the terrorism of Hamas and of the state of Israel in the same breath is taking an indefensibly partisan view, to put it mildly. Anyone who holds such a partisan view will not be able to contribute towards a resolution of the complex issues involved.

The US has sadly deviated from its founding principles in the current war on terror, in invading and occupying Iraq, and in threatening Syria, Iran and North Korea. As intelligent global citizens, it is incumbent on us to see the big picture, and only by looking carefully and clearly at that big picture shall we be able to understand the roots of terrorism. And then only will we be able to treat the disease as opposed to its symptoms.

It will be wrong to blame the US alone for the wrong turning taken by the war on terrorism. America gave the lead, but those who followed it unquestioningly, suspending or distrusting their better judgment, are equally to blame. But the task before us is not to apportion blame. We should do what is right and proper, fearlessly and with calm determination. As the Bible says: “Where there is no vision, people perish.” It is high time we opened our eyes.

March 18th,2012   category: International Affairs : Articles, Politics |   

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