The core issue of my article is really very simple: Can a society be democratic with counterterrorism as a core political and cultural value widely practiced and institutionalized? Considering that by definition counterterrorism necessarily leads to militarist policies practices at home and abroad, its apologists view it as a necessary evil in the name of national security. Historical studies show that terrorism has been rising not declining, while the political and economic costs to society have been immense.
Is America a model democracy, the epitome of an pluralistic and open society, the example for the rest of the world to emulate, or is it a paranoid society in search of enemies that the US government must create in order to preserve the anachronistic political, social and economic status quo against the tide of history? If you lived in the US during the first fifteen years of the 21st century, you probably noticed that government at all levels, the mass media, businesses and churches are all concerned about terrorism to the degree that this has become an obsession and national hysteria deeply embedded in the culture. In fact, the culture of counterterrorism is so deeply embedded in America that one finds it throughout the educational system in courses taught from elementary school to graduate school; in Christian churches and Jewish synagogues that see Islam as the source of terrorism, as though there is a “terrorism gene” in the DNA of those espousing Islam as their faith.
A pluralistic society like the US has many layers of history and culture that reflect the diversity of the various ethnic groups living here from the Native Americans and African-Americans to the Europeans, Asian and Latin Americans. One layer of contemporary American culture, a predominantly political one on top to the consumerism layer, is counterterrorism that feeds off the mass psychology of fear. Counterterrorism has become an industry in itself and a lucrative one at that because the government has been throwing billions to everyone from surveillance specialists to the common media propagandist and consultant for hire.
That counterterrorism is an integral part of the dominant culture ought to concern all citizens, even the financial and political elites that enjoy most of society’s privileges under such culture.
Does the majority of the American people really feel and living in a democracy when the counterterrorism has converted society into a police state? George W. Bush used to say that “they”, namely militant Muslims, hate our freedom. In other words, they are just jealous and all of the actions across the Islamic world are driven by jealousy for the American way of life; a way of life that is an anathema of course for the vast majority of Muslims. Bush’s comment assumes that at least the majority of Americans are really convinced they are free and that the rest of the world is not, at least Muslims are not enjoying the same precious freedoms as American Christians and Jews.
While most Americans feel that they are free to shop as a way of life, if they have money of course, do they believe that their voice makes any difference in political, social or economic affairs? No doubt, many Muslims would probably empathize with Americans on this issue. Do American citizens believe that the social contract is for them as the Founding Fathers intended, at least as Thomas Jefferson did, or has the social contract become a business one for the socioeconomic elites that exert dominant influence in the political arena at all levels and have a paternalistic attitude toward the middle class and workers? In this domain many Muslims would also empathize with Americans who feel that their government represents the elites.
Americans have as part of their ideology the “Exceptionalism” doctrine that goes back to the 19th century. The institutionalization of counterterrorism plays right into the ideology of “American Exceptionalism” as well as the Cold War anti-Communist campaign that Truman unleashed in 1947 – Truman Doctrine. I suppose if everyone is a citizen of a quasi-police state operating in the name of safety and security then no one is a prisoner of an illiberal regime because of the collective nature of the police state methods that the state imposes on society. In other words, Americans living under a counterterrorism regime, which necessarily requires police state measures, believe that they are “free”.
Perhaps Americans are not as free as Norwegians under a totally different model of democracy. For the most part, Americans are convinced of what their government and media tell them, namely, that their “freedom” must be restricted for their own good. Under rigid security measures extending from illegal surveillance to drone warfare carried out in Africa and parts of the Middle East, the US is always fighting to preserve the freedom for all at home and all freedom-loving people across the world! Rhetoric aside, in the final analysis, freedom to an American in the early 21st century means living within the very rigid confines of counterterrorism institutions. He trick is to keep the public convinced that counterterrorism is not a fad, but a way of life for a very long time. The way to achieve the goal is to make counterterrorism an integral part of the mainstream culture.
It is simply impossible to turn on the radio, TV, read a newspaper or news magazine, go to a mainstream online news outlet and not have to encounter the chronic crisis America is facing with Islamic terrorism. It is as though government and media are expecting a repeat of 9/11 on a daily basis; at least this is what they want the masses to believe when they turn on the radio or TV, or read any of the newspapers. Never mind all of the real problems in the lives of the average American, such as declining living standards because the government has clipped the social safety net in order to provide more assets to the corporate welfare system, everything from bailouts to tax relief, to tax loopholes that permit corporations and individuals to stash their money abroad and avoid paying taxes. As long as we promote counterterrorism, who cares about the poverty rate, lack of proper funding for education, expensive health care costs, etc.
Economic and social issues affecting the working class and middle are not an issue worthy of discussion for mass media or the two political parties that represent the financial elites, whereas terrorism and an imminent Muslim threat, lately combined with a revived Russian one, are significant. After all, terrorism and the Russians assisting the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine poses a threat to US national security, thus to the life of the car transmission worker in Indiana, to the retired grandmother in Omaha, to the college student who cannot afford tuition or housing in New York city. Social and economic problems are not at issue, but the Islamic terrorists, many of which the US and its allies helped create in the last thirty years, those are real threats. What about economic and social news affecting the ordinary citizen? The media deals with corporate business news and with the lives of celebrities, and that ought to be sufficient. Believe it or not, this works because people internalize external problems, blaming themselves because they are not billionaires or movie stars.
Never mind that the reality of upward socioeconomic mobility looks increasingly bleak because the top one percent of Americans own half of the wealth and the only support for government spending is in the parasitic defense sector and tax breaks to the rich and corporations that contribute to the rising public debt and result in massive transfer of wealth from the lower classes to the financial elites. This is not an issue worthy of discussion because there are terrorists running loose in Iraq and Syria, terrorists that the US and its regional allies were assisting just two years ago.
The police must rule out terrorism, as though it is the first suspect in any routine fire in a train station in New York, Washington or any major city. The same assumption holds true for the typical psychologically disturbed gun enthusiast who opens fire on a crowd of people. There is something very curious about a society where authorities find it necessary to rule out the “terrorism theory” first even on the most obvious and routine cases of homicide, arson, and other crimes that never required such an ideological filter 20 years ago. Unique in American society, the counterterrorism theme finds expression in books, magazines, video games, movies, TV shows, and even toys. This theme is so pervasive in the political mainstream and socio-cultural milieu that the unsuspecting citizens assumes terrorists are waiting just around the corner to deliver harm to innocent Americans because they are evil and hate America. Is it safe to take the subway in Washington DC or New York without assuming a terrorist may have placed a bomb under your seat?
The institutionalization of counterterrorism is not simply in the domain of foreign intelligence gathering and domestic security, but in every sector of society from media and education, to social organizations and culture. Practically all government agencies are part of the counterterrorism prism. Not just Homeland Security, the FBI, NSA, and the CIA, but every single federal and local law enforcement agency has counterterrorism as a theme around which its activities revolve. Everything from Airport Security to the Social Security, from the Department of Energy to banking regulatory agencies is focused on anti-terrorism. Counterterrorism people are also in all media outlets to “advise” on how to present domestic and international news stories. For example, the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine is made up of “terrorists”, as are the Palestinians, as are the tribes fighting against the US-EU imposed regime in Libya, as are the rebels in Colombia, etc.
The mainstream media has no other focus than terrorism as the core of its message. Not just FOX and CNN, but all mainstream news outlets focus on this theme as though there is nothing else taking place in the US or the world. The American people are bombarded by counterterrorism “news and analysis” 24 hours a day seven days a week, and if that is not enough, there are the motion pictures and TV shows. I am amazed that living under such a culture of mass-media-manufactured fear and hysteria about terrorism that people can still trust anyone including their loved ones. There is something seriously wrong with a society’s sense of balance when the mass media presents even the weather report from a “crisis” perspective as though people can actually do something about nature that is presented as “enemy force”. What is a person to think when even national holidays become “crisis management” affairs, when the symbol of American democracy, the White House today in comparison with the 1970s resembles a military/police fort?
When I walk into Pentagon City Mall and see all of those people shopping, I wonder how many of them are making a living as a result of the terrorism industry that the US has created. I wonder how many of them are thinking that they are safe and secure because the US government together with the media and business has created a culture of counterterrorism and institutionalized it as a way of life. If they really believe it, then government and media have succeeded in mass indoctrination. Do they even think about terrorism as an issue as they window-shop from one store to the other? I wonder if the counterterrorism regime and culture never existed, would the Pentagon City Mall shoppers think differently about the social contract and about their role as citizens toward the state.
Is a “Muslim terrorist” more likely to be a threat to Pentagon City Mall shoppers, or a psychologically unbalanced ordinary American indoctrinated in the counterterrorism ideology, believing that guns are the simple solution to complex problems that befall the individual and society collectively? Ironically, the counterterrorism culture feeds the aggression proclivities in individuals while suppressing the rational and creative tendencies that cannot survive the weight of an institutional structure demanding conformity and not questioning. We are now at a point where glorification of counterterrorism pays, while criticizing it is tantamount to treason.
The American Sniper motion picture that glorifies a soldier shooting Iraqis, including children, is a reflection of American values today molded by the counterterrorism culture. The real American sniper claimed to have killed 255 people. He bragged that he loved it because killing was fun, just another recreational activity no different than hunting deer. US Navy Seal Chris Kyle wrote “I hate the damn savages. I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” When Obama recently tried to lessen the anti-Islam bias by noting Christians killed Muslims in the name of God during the Crusades, the conservatives and many media outlets insisted there is no moral equivalence, and the president has no right to insult Christians in such manner. The US media simply assumes that the Western Judeo-Christian culture is free of war crimes, when in fact during the last five centuries Christians have killed the overwhelming majority of people on this planet, beginning with the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Jewish Holocaust.
The missionary aspect and ideological inspiration of America’s “war on terror” is itself a continuation of a long-standing US foreign policy tradition that dates to the Wilson administration. Announcements from the Bush White House that the enemies of the US are “evil” and if grouped together they constitute “the Axis of Evil” makes one wonder not just about the moral standards US policymakers, the media and all propagating such notions, but about the level of political maturity and sense of realism. Is the issue of combating non-conventional warfare a religious and moral one, Armageddon about to descend upon humanity, or is this a matter of policy and strategy that government must analyze and arrive at the best possible solution for the benefit of all of its citizens and not just the defense industry?
If only the rest of the nations behaved exactly as the US wishes in everything from their domestic economic and social policies to their foreign and defense policies, then they would not be “evil” and targeted for regime change by Washington. This is not to absolve other nations and organized guerrilla groups of responsibility for their actions. Nor is this a defense of random acts of violence or even organized ones en masse that lack a grassroots support and have as a goal publicity rather than social change. Having said this about the futility of what the US calls “terrorism” as a military means to a political end that is almost never achieved, if “the terrorist enemy” kills x number of people and US military retaliation is 100 times x, then what does this reveal about the US and its resolve to find a constructive solution to a political problem? Of course in the absence of retaliation against “the enemy”, the culture of anti-terrorism could not be justified, hence the need to continue the vicious circle that government and the media project as necessary.
It is true that the mass media in most of the world is very biased, slanted to favor the political and social status quo, lacking in serious news and analysis, focused instead on business and entertainment. Mainstream media is simply an instrument of the status quo rather than one that critiques the status quo or promotes social justice. It is just as true that the message the US culture of anti-terrorism sends to the rest of the world is military solutions work against any enemy of the state baptized “terrorist”, while human rights and social justice need not be considered. In other words, the US anti-terrorism culture has global consequences, especially when the US encourages military solutions only to the complex problem of militant conduct among young Muslims who see right through the hypocrisy of US foreign policy.
At the urging of the US, the UN adopted 16 conventions against terrorism, but the poor countries, especially African countries, have resisted pouring precious assets in this area because health needs – infectious diseases especially – as well as primary food needs take precedence. Besides the poor nations that are forced to spend resources on what the US defines as “terrorism” and to divert resources from human needs, all countries have become more militarized as a result of the US global counterterrorism campaign. Just as disturbing, many countries have been using the “war on terror” to violate their citizens rights; after all, the US does not observe human rights, according to the Senate Intelligence report on CIA torture of political prisoners.
It is up to the American people to change the destructive culture of counterterrorism that is a pretext for preserving the political, economic and social status quo and makes society more dangerous rather than safer. The first step to change is to become aware of what the anti-terrorism culture is all about, rather than accepting the incessant indoctrination of media, government, business, and social-cultural organizations. Social justice cannot possibly be realized under counterterrorism regime. Under the current legal system and political-cultural climate, it is very difficult for anyone who does not wish to be isolated from the mainstream to speak out against the culture of counterterrorism.
Of course, there are academic works on the subject, and of course there are blogs that express opposition to the status quo under the counterterrorism culture that has resulted in quasi-police state practices, everything from denying human rights to cops shooting down unarmed black youths as though they are the terrorists. A society that does not permit dissident voices to be heard not in the periphery but within the mainstream as part of the debate about the social contract, a society that treats dissidents as unpatriotic, pro-terrorist elements that the FBI must place under watch, such a society is authoritarian and has no political or moral authority to preach democracy to anyone in the world unless it first begins to practice it for itself.
The state mobilizes public support for itself and institutions it protects, while the majority of the population falls in line with the state that presents itself as 'protector' of public interest. It would be naive to deny that the state has every right to protect its people and its national sovereignty combating any threats from hostile forces. However, there is a huge difference between the state's right to self defense within its own borders, and unleashing a global "war on terror" that violates the national sovereignty and rights of innocent people, while at the same time promoting a culture of counterterrorism. Without engaging in lengthy analysis of 'the ethics of counterterrorism', analysis that can be approached from different ideological and political perspectives, the bottom line is that counterterrorism measures used as a pretext for police state methods benefits the political, economic, and social status quo. At the same time, counterterrorism precludes democratic preactices, societal progress to the benefit of all people, and social justice, while it maintains a "military-solution based foreign policy" that invariably results in disaster for all parties concerned.