War on Terror

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The United States's War on Terror (2001-), also known as The War on Terrorism, is an example of an endless crisis. It is also a misnomer or at least a misleading use of the word "war", as it can lead to confusion over the appropriate response. "War" suggests retaliation using techniques effective in standard (symmetric) warfare but which are not effective (and even counterproductive) when used in asymmetric warfare.

The United States experienced one morning of coordinated attacks by perhaps a few dozen individuals on September 11, 2001; there have been no further attacks since, although several attempts have apparently been thwarted. There certainly has been no presence of enemy troops on or near US soil for many decades, probably not since Pearl Harbor.

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  • George W. Bush: "When terrorists murder at the World Trade Center, or car bombers strike in Baghdad, or hijackers plot to blow up planes over the Atlantic, or terrorist militias shoot rockets at Israeli towns, they are all pursuing the same objective - to turn back the advance of freedom, and impose a dark vision of tyranny and terror across the world."1

Professor Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University in New York1:

There's something profoundly illogical about talking about a war on terrorism. It's like a war on weather. You know, terrorism is a method, methodology, it's an approach, it's killing civilians to achieve a political objective. It's a means. It's not a discrete thing. It's not like Burma, you can have a war on Burma, you can have a war on fruit trees, because that's something physical. Terrorism is not tangible, and, as one might have guessed given this President, this administration, their orientations, this was a sort of portmanteau term which was used to group together those targets that they already had decided they were going to go after - so-called "rogue regimes", including governments that had and have had absolutely nothing to do with the people who attacked the United States, were a target before 9/11...

In fact, the Iraqi government was an opponent of al-Qaeda. The Iranian government has always been an opponent of al-Qaeda. Hezbollah, which is another target of the war on the terror, has always been an opponent of al-Qaeda, so we are not talking about the people who attacked the United States. We are not talking about the terrorists who killed 3,000 Americans.

To lump every form of radical Islam together, to lump for example Hamas - which is a movement that's never attacked the United States, which has not got attacking the United States or the West or opposing Western values as central to its program - with al-Qaeda is a huge, huge error. It's a terrible, terrible, terrible mistake. Hamas is... whatever the heinousness of the means they may have used, it's a resistance movement.

Hezbollah similarly is essentially a Lebanese resistance movement. To lump them together with al-Qaeda, which is a world-wide anarchistic, anti-Western millenarian movement which has no roots anywhere - it's a global movement - there's a fundamental falsehood there. A fundamental falsehood, and it has led the United States to do something which is extremely dangerous, which is to turn itself into the opponent of movements which, throughout the Islamic world, because they are seen as legitimate resistance movements, and are very popular, in a way, that is driving people towards the more radical, towards the much more dangerous movements like al-Qaeda.

The Rockridge Institute said (2007-06-06):

The phrases "war on terror" and "crimes against humanity" use different words to frame the same issue and, in doing so, evoke different ideas and guide us toward different actions. The phrase "war on terror" frames the issue as an open-ended military action against a vague, indeterminate enemy, with open-ended war powers given to the President for an indefinite period. "Crimes against humanity" frames our response to 9/11 as a police action where international law enforcement agencies are directed to root out groups and individual criminals using many of the same methods effective against crime syndicates. Further, these phrases trigger related moral and political principle frames deep in our unconscious minds, shaping how we experience our relationships to our political leaders and to people in other countries.

"War" triggers fundamental moral and political principle frames that evoke an evil world in which we must look to an authoritarian President as commander-in-chief, whose orders we obey in order to protect our entire society from destruction by foreign enemies. With these frames dominating our thinking, we are more likely to tolerate giving up some of our civil liberties and dropping bombs that kill innocent civilians. By contrast, "crimes against humanity," as both a word and issue frame, triggers deep moral and political principle frames of an interdependent world where dangers occur, but they are not debilitating. With this frame foremost in our minds, we are more likely to protect society by enlisting the police, while also reaching out to our neighbors, who are suffering in other countries where poverty, disease, and oppression make it more likely that people will become terrorists.

The persistent repetition of the "war on terror" word and issue frame triggers and reinforces deep moral and political principle frames. So, even when someone opposes the Iraq policy, they often do it by invoking the frame they wish to negate. This is why Americans who want to shift the ideas underlying American political debate — towards a greater emphasis on the values of empathy, social responsibility, fairness, honesty, integrity, and community — must do so by changing the deep moral and political principle frames that we use in thinking. We do this in large part by stating these frames openly and often. In other words, it is nearly impossible to persuasively articulate a law enforcement policy on Iraq when one is continually using the phrase "war on terror."

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  • 2006-09-11 The Phony War: "President Bush not only created a fake 'War on Terror' to scare voters into supporting his policies – he is failing to address the real threat facing America" by Robert Dreyfuss, Rolling Stone: "According to nearly a dozen former high-ranking officials who have been on the front lines of the administration's counterterrorism effort, the president is not only fighting the wrong war – he is fighting it in a way that has actually made the threat worse. The war on terrorism, they say, has been mismanaged and misdirected almost from the start, in no small part because the president simply does not understand the nature of the enemy he is fighting."
  • 2006-05-11 video Cafferty-Dictatorship: Jack Cafferty discusses Bush's warrantless wiretapping
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