The war on terrorism is the first political growth industry of the new millennium. After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush promised to lead a "crusade" to "rid the world of evil-doers." Unfortunately, the political fallout from the 9/11 attacks could fatally blight both individual liberty and public safety.
After the terrorists killed thousands of Americans, the United States had the right and the duty to retaliate against the perpetrators -- the Al Qaeda network -- and destroy their ability to ever strike the United States again. Bush's initial response to the attacks received almost universal support among the American public and pervasive support from foreign governments.
But as time passed, the Bush administration continually broadened the war. The response to attacks by a handful of killers is morphing into a campaign to vanquish all potential enemies of U.S. hegemony and to impose American political values on much of the world.
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Americans' trust in government soared after the terrorist attacks. In the days after the attack, flag waving and patriotic appeals swept the land: polls showed a doubling in the number of people who trusted government to "do the right thing." The national media rallied to the cause with headlines such as "The Government, Once Scorned, Becomes Savior" (Los Angeles Times), "Government to the Rescue" (Wall Street Journal), and "Government's Comeback" (Washington Post). The government failed -- so the government became infallible.
The surge in trust was spurred by a profusion of false government statements in the aftermath of the attacks. The Bush administration did everything possible to portray the United States as a blindsided innocent victim. Yet, from the 1995 warnings from the Philippines that Muslim terrorists were plotting to use hijacked airplanes as guided missiles to attack America, to the warnings to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that Arab students at flight schools were acting suspiciously, to the warning that Al Qaeda operatives had infiltrated the United States, to the failure by the National Security Agency to translate key emails on the pending attack, the feds were asleep at the switch.
After 9/11, the Bush administration rushed to increase the power of federal agencies across the board. Within hours after the attacks, Attorney General John Ashcroft began strong-arming Congress to enact sweeping antiterrorism legislation. Ashcroft's constant shrill warnings of new terrorist attacks resulted in maximum intimidation and minimum deliberation by Congress.
Because of the actions of a handful of terrorists on September 11, federal agents could have more power over all Americans in perpetuity. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA-PATRIOT) Act treats every citizen like a suspected terrorist and every federal agent like a proven angel. The Bush administration carried off the biggest bait-and-switch in U.S. constitutional history. Rather than targeting terrorists, Bush and Congress awarded new powers to federal agents to use against anyone suspected of committing any one of the three thousand federal crimes on the books.
The Bush administration converted the terrorist assault into a trump card against American privacy. The Patriot Act entitled the FBI to cannibalize the nation's email with its Carnivore wiretapping system. The FBI is crafting a computer virus that can be inserted via email into targeted computers, allowing government access to everything a person types. FBI agents can now easily get warrants to compel public libraries and bookstores to surrender records of what books people borrow or buy. Federal agents have issued over 18,000 counterterrorism subpoenas and search warrants since 9/11; in many other cases, FBI agents have snared personal or proprietary information via arm-twisting and intimidation, no warrant required. The number of "emergency" searches conducted solely on the Attorney General's command (and approved ex po facto by federal judges) is skyrocketing. Operation TIPS, the Terrorist Information and Prevention System, raised the specter of millions of informants -- from truck drivers to letter carriers to cable television installers -- reporting any "out of the ordinary" behavior to the feds. The Pentagon's Total Information Awareness surveillance system aims to create a vast database dragnet, potentially creating hundreds of millions of dossiers on Americans containing all their phone bills, all their medical records, and everything they purchase (from books to magazines to plane tickets to guns) -- all in the name of preemptively detecting terrorists. The Pentagon is also financing research to track people by their gait and by their odors.
The Patriot Act gave the feds the right to financially strip-search every American. It created new financial "crimes without criminal intent" -- empowering the Customs Service to confiscate the bulk cash of American travelers who fail to fill out a government form. The president and federal regulators can now ban any foreign bank or institution from the U.S. market unless it bares its books to U.S. investigators. The Justice Department is exploiting Patriot Act powers to confiscate bank accounts for alleged crimes with no relation to terrorism. Federal officials continually bragged of the total amount of alleged terrorists assets frozen. But there were no press releases confessing that much of the money was later returned after no evidence of wrongdoing could be found.
The Patriot Act created the new crime of "domestic terrorism," defined as violent or threatening private actions intended "to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." This definition reaches far beyond the box-cutter crowd. It could take only a few scuffles at a rally to transform a protest group into a terrorist entity. This could allow the government to drop the hammer on environmental extremists (even those not spiking trees), anti-trade fanatics (even those not trashing Starbucks), and anti-abortion protesters (even those not attacking doctors). If the violence at a rally is done by a government agent provocateur -- as happened at some 1960s antiwar protests -- the government could still treat all the group's members as terrorists. Likewise, anyone who donates to an organization that becomes classified as a terrorist entity -- be it Greenpeace, the Gun Owners of America, or Operation Rescue -- could face long prison terms.
Six days after the terrorist attack, Ashcroft effectively canceled the "Great Writ" of habeas corpus with a decree announcing that the government would henceforth lock up suspected aliens for a "reasonable period." Over one thousand "special interest" detainees were jailed in the months after 9/11; however, no evidence surfaced linking any of those people to the terrorist attacks. Many suspects were locked up and not charged for weeks or months afterwards and effectively held incommunicado. More than six hundred people were deported after secret trials. When a New Jersey judge denounced the government's refusal to release the names of detainees as "odious to a democracy," Ashcroft responded by issuing an emergency regulation trumping the state court decision. Georgetown University law professor David Cole observed: "Never in our history has the government engaged in such a blanket practice of secret incarceration." Even after the Justice Department released or deported most of the "special interest" detainees, President Bush continued to describe all of them as "terrorists" and "murderers."
Airports have far more potholes after 9/11. Despite the success of all the hijacking attempts on 9/11, Bush raced to lavishly praise Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and Federal Aviation Administration Chief Jane Garvey. The feds promised to greatly improve airport safety. The result is institutionalized panic-mongering and an unending comedy of errors: hundreds of evacuations and scores of thousands of travelers delayed because of unplugged metal detectors, sleeping security guards, pairs of scissors discovered in trash cans, or other dire breaches of regulations. New search policies have become a Molesters Full Employment Act, with airport screeners obsessing on the underwiring of bras or poking and prodding beyond the bounds of decorum. Federal airport security agents have confiscated more than five million nail clippers, cigar cutters, screwdrivers, and other prohibited items since early 2002. But covert government tests showed that firearms, knives, and dummy explosives have continued to gush through the new improved checkpoints. Congress mandated that more than $5 billion be spent purchasing and installing bomb detection machines that are notoriously unreliable and generate endless false alarms every day. Travelers can now be arrested if they commit the new crime of raising their voice at the federal agent pawing the socks and underwear in their carry-on luggage.
At the same time that Bush is making government more powerful, he is making it much less accountable. The Bush administration seized on the national security emergency atmosphere to erect stonewalls around all federal agencies. On October 12, 2001 Ashcroft announced that the Justice Department was reinterpreting the Freedom of Information Act to make it far more difficult for Americans to discover what the federal government actually does. Bush issued an executive order gutting the Presidential Records Act, which required the routine release of most of a president's papers 12 years after their term ended. (Bush's action will keep secret the actions of his father and many of his own top advisors during the Reagan administration.) White House spokesman Ari Fleischer pressured the news media not to broadcast or even print a transcript of videotapes from Osama Bin Laden, warning that "if you report [the information] in its entirety that could raise concerns." At the same time that the Bush administration rations the truth, it is generous with fabrications. Bush's solicitor general, Theodore Olson, informed the Supreme Court: "It's easy to imagine an infinite number of situations where the government might legitimately give out false information."
While Bush perennially invokes freedom to sanctify his antiterrorism policies, freedom to dissent may be on the endangered list. Ashcroft informed a congressional committee in December 2001: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty... your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and . . . give ammunition to America's enemies." The federal Homeland Security Department is urging local police departments to view critics of the war on terrorism as potential terrorists. In a May 2003 terrorist advisory, the Homeland Security Department warned local law enforcement agencies to keep an eye on anyone who "expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government." Such an expansive definition of terrorist suspects is especially pernicious because the Justice Department is advocating the nullification of almost all federal, state, and local court consent decrees restricting the power of local and state police to spy on Americans. Homeland Security officials also urged local lawmen to be on alert for potential suicide bombers who could be detected by such traits as a "pale face from recent shaving of beard." They "may appear to be in a 'trance,'" or their "eyes appear to be focused and vigilant"; either their "clothing is out of sync with the weather" or their "clothing is loose." Perhaps to ensure that there will never be a shortage of suspects, federal experts advised local agencies of another tell-tale terrorist warning sign: someone for whom "waiting in a grocery store line becomes intolerable."
Shortly after 9/11, President Bush announced: "So long as anybody's terrorizing established governments, there needs to be a war." The Bush administration quickly organized what Bush labeled a "freedom-loving coalition" -- which included many of the most oppressive governments in the world. But as long as a foreign leader recited Bush's catechism on terrorism, his government was automatically certified as a partner in Bush's crusade against evil.
A week after the 9/11 attacks, Bush proclaimed he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" and made bin Laden the poster boy for the war on terrorism. Six months later, when asked about Osama at a press conference, Bush groused that bin Laden is "just a person who's now been marginalized" and insisted: "I just don't spend that much time on him, to be honest with you." From the initial targeting of al Qaeda, the enemies list expanded to include Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Somalia, and Libya, as well as an array of private groups.
The more foreign nations the United States bombs, the more domestic tranquility Americans will presumably enjoy. Bush declared on February 27, 2002: "We owe it to our children and our children's children to rid the world of terror now, so they can grow up in a free society, a society without fear." Bush assumes that there is a fixed sum of terror in the world and all that is necessary is to use enough force to "bring justice" to the culprits. Bush's policies may spawn new terrorists faster than the U.S. military can kill existing terrorists.
Bush proclaimed that "either you're with us, or you're against us in the fight for freedom; either you stand beside this great Nation as part of a coalition that will defend freedom and defend civilization itself, or you're against us." Bush often speaks as if all he need do is pronounce the word "freedom" and all humanity is obliged to obey his commands -- as if he were the World Pope of Freedom and his infallible proclamations are sufficient to justify scourging all slackers.
Bush rarely misses a chance to proclaim that the war on terrorism is being fought to save freedom -- either U.S. freedom, or world freedom, or the freedom of future generations. On January 31, 2002, Bush proclaimed: "We are resolved to rout out terror wherever it exists to save the world for freedom." Bush contrasts freedom and terror as if they are two ends of a seesaw. Because terror is the enemy of government, government necessarily becomes the champion of freedom. This simple dichotomy makes sense only if terrorists are the sole threat to freedom.
Terror was first explicitly used as a political tactic during the French Revolution. Terror had been used for thousands of years by despots to crush resistance but the French revolutionaries were likely the first to claim to be idealists for maximizing oppression. Maximilien Robespierre gushed that terror is "justice prompt, severe and inflexible," "an emanation of virtue," and "a natural consequence of the general principle of democracy." For Robespierre, terror tactics exemplified "the despotism of liberty against tyranny." The revolution featured not only the guillotining of thousands of aristocrats, but also the ritualized mass drownings of people in Nantes and the extermination of the populace of entire towns who failed to enthusiastically support the "despotism of liberty." Britain's Edmund Burke, the most eloquent enemy of the French Revolution, denounced "thousands of those hellhounds called terrorists."
By the mid-twentieth century, the term "terrorism" was routinely used to condemn those who attacked politicians, government forces, or established regimes. The Nazis denounced French Resistance saboteurs as terrorists. Terrorism has permeated Middle East conflicts since the 1940s, when Menachem Begin and his Irgun gang helped drive the British out of Palestine by blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people. In the 1950s, Algerians terrorized Paris and other French cities, eventually driving the French out of northern Africa and ending colonial rule. The United States revved up its military intervention in Vietnam to deal with what the Kennedy administration perceived as a "small war of terrorism and political subversion" by a few thousand Viet Cong. In the late 1960s, Palestinians became the premier terrorists in the Western world; the kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich heralded the era of televised political murders.
After President George W. Bush announced a war on terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, one British wit declared that this was the first time in history that war had been declared on an abstract noun. Actually, many politicians had declared war on terrorism in the preceding decades -- from Germany's Helmut Schmidt, to various Israeli leaders, to Ronald Reagan. Reagan's war on terrorism eventually crippled his administration, as revelations about the Iran-Contra scandal (trading weapons to gain release of hostages held by terrorists) raised the specter of both his impeachment and his senility. The first U.S. war on terrorism ended when a bomb exploded on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, demonstrating the abysmal failure of the U.S. government to protect American citizens.
While Bush portrays his war on terrorism as a simple question of "good versus evil," the concept of terrorism is murkier than many government officials would like to admit. Brian Jenkins, one of the most respected U.S. experts on the subject, observed in 1981: "Terrorism is what the bad guys do."
The U.S. State Department defined terrorism in 1981 as "the use or threat of the use of force for political purposes in violation of domestic or international law." Since government use of force is almost automatically lawful (based on government edicts and sovereign immunity), governments by definition cannot commit terrorist acts. For decades, U.S. representatives to the United Nations have been adamant that "state terrorism" is a near impossibility. Private cars packed with dynamite are evil, while guided missiles launched from government jet fighters that blow up cars driven by terrorist suspects are good, regardless of how many children are in the back seat at the time of the "surgical strike."
A core fallacy at the heart of the war on terrorism is that terrorism is worse than almost anything else imaginable. Unfortunately, governments around the world have committed far worse abuses than Al Qaeda or any other terrorist cabal. By treating terrorism as the supreme evil, and insisting that governments can never be guilty of terrorism, the Bush administration makes the crimes of government morally negligible. From 1980 to 2000, international terrorists killed 7,745 people, according to the U.S. State Department. Yet, in the same decades, governments killed more than 10 million people in ethnic cleansing campaigns, mass executions, politically caused famines, wars, and other slaughters. During the 1990s, Americans were at far greater risk of being gunned down by local, state, and federal law enforcement agents than of being killed by international terrorists.
Despite continual victory proclamations out of Washington, there is no end in sight for Bush's war on terrorism. An August 2002 United Nations report announced that Al Qaeda "is, by all accounts, 'alive and well' and poised to strike again how, when and where it chooses." Central Intelligence Agency director George Tenet warned a congressional panel on October 17, 2002 that Al Qaeda has "reconstituted, they are coming after us, they want to execute attacks" and that "the threat environment we find ourselves in today is as bad as it was the summer before September 11." Though the war on Iraq was justified to thwart terrorism, many experts believe that the bombing and invasion of an Arab country actually fueled terrorist fires. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, warned in May 2003 that Al Qaeda is "more insidious and just as dangerous" as before 9/11.
Despite scores of billions of dollars of new government spending, despite the hiring of legions of new federal agents, and despite the U.S. military campaigns to overthrow the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, Americans continue to be at grave risk.
The federal government must vigorously defend America against terrorists. But is the United States suffering more from political exploitation of terrorism than from terrorists? Is the Bush administration's aggression creating more terrorists than it is vanquishing? And what are the prospects for the survival of American liberty from an endless war against an elusive, often ill-defined enemy?
Copyright '2003 by James Bovard. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here with permission of the publisher, Palgrave Macmillan. Please feel free to duplicate or distribute this file, as long as the content is not altered and this copyright notice is intact.