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Can We Pursue Terrorists Without Becoming Like Them?

From torture to warrantless wiretapping, the Bush administration's approach to terrorism has defied legal standards at all levels.
 
 
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Back in September 2002, Maher Arar was passing through JFK airport in New York. He was expecting a simple transit. A Syrian-born Canadian citizen and wireless technology consultant, Arar was traveling home to Ottawa after a vacation with his family in Tunis. The stopover in New York was the best deal he could get with his frequent flyer miles. He had no inkling of what would happen next. He didn't know that he would spend the next ten months being tortured in a secret jail.

At the airport immigration line, U.S. officials pulled Arar aside. They fingerprinted and photographed him. They didn't let him make any phone calls. They didn't let him contact a lawyer. Interrogated about his connections to another Syrian-born Canadian, a bewildered Arar did his best to answer the questions. The authorities were not satisfied. They transferred him to New York's Metropolitan Detention Center where he spent more than a week. Then, based on evidence that they would not share with him, U.S. immigration officials informed Arar that he would be deported to Syria. He objected that he was a Canadian citizen, that the United States couldn't just send him to another country, particularly not Syria, where they might well torture him. Heedless, U.S. officials loaded him onto a private plane and flew him to Jordan, where he was beaten before being driven across the border into Syria.

In Syria, Arar was imprisoned in a cell that was just large enough for him to stand. He was repeatedly tortured and forced to sign a false confession. Only as a result of outside pressure--by his wife, by human rights organizations, by the Canadian consulate--was he finally released and returned home. Two years later, a Canadian Commission of Inquiry cleared Arar of all charges of terrorism. Yet the United States still bars him from visiting the country. An innocent man caught up in the machinery of fear created by the U.S. "global war on terror," Arar will bear the scars of his experience for the rest of his life.

Maher Arar's story illustrates the key problems with the Bush administration's approach to terrorism and how it has defied legal standards at all levels. In the United States, the administration suspended key civil liberties. It imprisoned over 5,000 foreign nationals, subjected 80,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants to fingerprinting and registration, sent 30,000 "national security letters "every year to U.S. businesses demanding information about their customers, and justified the large-scale, warrantless wiretapping of citizens. It denied the right of habeas corpus to both American and non-American detainees and plans to continue to restrict the legal rights of terrorism suspects by trying them in military tribunals rather than civilian courts.

At the international level, the administration rationalized the use of torture and rendition. It presided over gross human rights violations in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Camp Delta at Guantanamo, Cuba, a series of rendition sites in Europe, and elsewhere. At the geopolitical level, it broke international law by pursuing a preventive war against Iraq. It failed to capitalize on the international goodwill directed at Washington after September 11 by brokering a broad, multilateral effort against terrorism. Instead, the United States ignored promising overtures from longstanding adversaries, rejected the advice of previously close allies, and set dangerous precedents that will haunt U.S. foreign policy for decades. Through it all, American policymakers either relied on or hid behind the excuse of faulty intelligence, which contributed to the failures to track the September 11 perpetrators prior to the attacks and continued to entrap innocent victims like Maher Arar in the post-September 11 era.

The "global war on terror" has been going on now for over six years. Its emphasis on military responses--in Afghanistan and Iraq--has only swelled the ranks of terrorist organizations. The erosion of civil liberties has undermined democracy at home and raised serious doubts abroad about U.S. credibility. The failure to put adequate funds into homeland security--particularly port and border protection--has put too great a burden on local governments. The hostility to international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court has weakened the very institutions that can properly address terrorist organizations. And the refusal to address the root causes of terrorism--economic inequality, repressive regimes, foreign occupation--has ensured that the conditions continue to flourish that produce if not the terrorists themselves then the communities of anger and alienation that support terrorist organizations.

A just counter-terrorism policy would shift the focus away from military solutions, which have done so little to improve the security of the United States and have sent Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia into tailspins of insecurity. It would focus on strengthening homeland security and the international mechanisms that hold terrorists accountable. And it would attack the enabling conditions that are laid out in this document--economic inequality, the international health crisis, unjust dictatorships, and regional wars.

The Chinese have a saying: before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. The U.S. pursuit of vengeance, rather than justice, has been similarly self-defeating.

Core Misconceptions

Fear disables rational thinking. In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes how rapid heartbeat and adrenaline rush distort the immediate perceptions of frightened people. They make mistakes. They see guns where there are no guns. They misread facial expressions. They come to the wrong conclusions.

Since September 11, the United States has been kept in an artificially prolonged state of fear. The Bush administration has used this fear to advance a fundamentally irrational and un-American agenda. As a result, America has misidentified terrorists, seen weapons of mass destruction where they don't exist, and supported quick-draw military solutions when diplomacy would have been more appropriate.

Such fear has paralyzed the U.S. system in the past--during the McCarthy period of the Cold War, during the Red Scare after World War I, in the era of Jim Crow legislation in the South, in 1798 when Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Today, by contrast, the paranoia behind the Bush administration's counter-terrorism campaign threatens to sustain a global crusade of unlimited scope and duration. Even during the Cold War, the United States negotiated with the object of its worst fears. The current regime of fear is more theological in nature. "We don't negotiate with evil," Vice President Dick Cheney famously remarked. "We defeat evil." In such a struggle against "evil," all means can be justified, as they were during the Crusades and the Inquisition. By putting the "fear of the Devil "into the American public, the Bush administration has acquired carte blanche to transform not only certain U.S. policies but the entire policy-making structure.

Congressional critics of the administration have challenged the worse excesses of this fearful crusade. There have been campaigns against torture, the abrogation of habeas corpus, and unlawful surveillance. But the opposition has been unwilling or unable to challenge the heart of the administration's terrorism policy. It, too, has been fearful--of being labeled "weak on terrorism." The administration and its mainstream critics still buy into several core misconceptions about terrorism: that we need a war in the first place, that terrorists represent a major threat to U.S. national interests, that terrorists are attacking "our "way of life.

Until we address these core misconceptions, workable alternatives cannot replace the current failed policies.

Misconception: Terrorism is the major threat to U.S. and global interests

The September 11 attacks were horrifying. So were the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Terrorist acts in Bali (2002), Istanbul (2003), Madrid (2004), London (2005), Delhi (2005), Amman (2005), Algiers (2007), and elsewhere have been equally without justification.

The world's major leaders have argued, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said, that terrorism is the greatest global threat of the 21st century. "No challenge is greater than the threat of terrorism," Australian Prime Minister John Howard proclaimed in 2006. "Terrorism is the greatest threat to world peace," said Vladimir Putin in 2000. In the United States, there is a bipartisan consensus around terrorism as a major threat. In its 2004 party platform, the Democratic Party, too, put winning "the global war on terror" as the top challenge facing the United States.

Terrorist acts, by claiming innocent lives, are indeed reprehensible. But does terrorism pose a major threat? We can measure the size of a challenge in several ways: the acuity of the threat, its scope, and its likely duration.

Measured in terms of acuity, terrorism pales in comparison to nuclear weapons and climate change. A nuclear exchange and several degrees of global warming threaten the existence of the entire planet rather than select targets on the surface. Terrorists have no interest in destroying the world, nor do they possess the means to end the human race. Their goals and capacities are considerably more circumscribed, and that applies even to al-Qaeda.

In terms of scope, the number of victims of terrorism remains relatively low compared to the casualty rates connected to disease, malnutrition, or conventional military conflict. The number of terrorist attacks has certainly increased since the invasion of Iraq. In 2001, the peak in terrorist fatalities to that time, international terrorist attacks killed 3,572 persons and injured 1,083. By 2006, those numbers had risen to 11,170 deaths and 38,191 injuries, approximately half occurring in Iraq alone. In contrast even to these higher numbers, however, more than 2,000 children die each day in sub-Saharan Africa as a result of malaria, a preventable disease. Several hundred thousand people died as a result of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Nearly four million people have died as a result of the Congo conflict.

Finally, there is the question of duration. Al-Qaeda is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its concerns were originally quite specific--to compel the United States to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia. It was on the verge of extinction after the collapse of its patron, the Taliban, in Afghanistan in 2001. If approached with the appropriate legal mechanisms--and with the discriminate force associated with law enforcement undertaken with due respect for human rights --al-Qaeda will once again retreat into obscurity. Regional wars, by contrast, have been with us for millennia. Global inequalities have persisted since the age of colonialism. Though of more recent vintage, nuclear weapons will be very difficult to get rid of, and the half-life of uranium 235 is 700 million years. These are indeed durable challenges. In another decade, after appropriate counter-terrorism measures, the current "greatest threat to world peace" will likely be demoted in importance. Terrorism, after all, was at the top of Ronald Reagan's agenda when he took office in 1981. But as the number of attacks began to decline, particularly in the 1990s, so did the U.S. evaluation of the threat.

It can be plausibly argued that the symbolic nature of terrorist attacks far exceeds the number of casualties. The argument here is not to ignore terrorism but simply put it into perspective. To elevate terrorism to the status of a "major threat" is to give more power to the terrorists than they deserve.

Misconception: A "war" on terrorism is the only solution.

It is meaningless to say we are fighting a "war on terror." Terrorism is a particular tactic of political violence. Wars are conducted between states. Declaring a war on terror is like declaring war on serial murderers. War is what al-Qaeda wants. Such language elevates the terrorists to the level of warriors in a battle. The terrorists are criminals, not warriors, and should be treated accordingly.

Many of the real successes in combating al-Qaeda in the years since Sept. 11, 2001, have come from treating the terrorists as criminals. International cooperation on intelligence as well as police work and domestic investigations have been particularly helpful. War--the use of military force--has been counterproductive. The invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was falsely presented as part of the "global war on terrorism," in fact served as al-Qaeda's most effective recruitment campaign.

By enshrining preventive war as a policy doctrine in the national security strategy in general and for combating terrorism in particular, the Bush administration has actually reduced rather than increased U.S. security in several ways. It has reinforced the image of the United States as eager to use military force and willing to do so without regard for international law and legitimacy. This has led other countries to resist U.S. foreign policy goals more broadly, including efforts to fight terrorism. Advocating preemption also warns potential enemies to hide the very assets that Washington might wish to take action against. Finally, if the United States enshrines preemption as a core policy doctrine, it legitimates its adoption by other countries, which increases overall global instability and reduces security, as other countries are emboldened to justify attacks on their enemies as preemptive in nature.

The casting of counter-terrorism in the language of war has justified extraordinary means such as rendition, the seizing of terrorism suspects and transporting them to places where they can be interrogated and tortured. By resorting to these extralegal tactics, the United States sets dangerous international precedents. Citing the U.S. example, another country's secret service could abduct American tourists in Paris on suspicion of terrorism, transport them to a third country, and torture the suspects into confessing.

With the war on terrorism, the administration and Congress have given the Pentagon a blank check. Military spending has risen dramatically since 2001. In 2003, reflecting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, military spending increased nearly 28% and passed the $500 billion threshold. For 2008, the administration has requested $623 billion.10 Not including funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon spending has increased 35% since 2001. Even after taking over Congress in the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats have not challenged the bloated military budget.

Finally, a "war" suggests that victory is possible and terrorism can be extinguished. But terrorist networks are decentralized, and new leaders emerge to replace older ones. Even if one group surrenders or disbands, it has no necessary influence on any other groups. Police never speak of ending crime, only controlling and reducing it. The same applies to terrorism. Perhaps acknowledging this basic insight, the House Armed Services Committee removed the phrase "Global War on Terror" from the 2008 defense budget.

Misconception: Terrorists are attacking "our" way of life.

Terrorists have traditionally pursued narrow political ends. The Irish Republican Army wanted to oust the British and unite Ireland. The Basque ETA, the Corsican FLNC, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and the Kurdish PKK all have wanted independence for their countries. Once these aims are achieved, the terrorist organizations either disappear or become official political entities. For instance, the Stern Gang, an Israeli terrorist organization, became absorbed in the Israeli army after the declaration of the country's independence.

Al-Qaeda, because of its transnational aspirations, is a new type of terrorist organization. It wants to awaken and inspire the Muslim world. While it envisions a long struggle against the West, its first targets are the Arab governments that have suppressed radical Islamic movements. Its final goal is to re-establish an Islamic caliphate or state.

This grand vision suffers from several problems. Al-Qaeda derives its strength from its narrow objectives of resisting the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The larger goal of establishing a caliphate motivates only a handful of people. Al-Qaeda is also not a centralized organization that can dictate policy to its members. Its more militant adherents are largely focused on resisting U.S. power projection in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Terrorists are, by and large, attacking the policies of the U.S. government, not a Western way of life. If these policies change, particularly in the Middle East, terrorist organizations would lose a major organizing tool. A change in U.S. policy in the Middle East--withdrawing from Iraq, providing more reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan, pressuring Arab allies to democratize, brokering a two-state peace deal between Israel and Palestine--would deprive al-Qaeda of its mobilizing symbols. Despite its myriad divisions, the Islamic world has united in opposition to current U.S. military policy. If U.S. policy changes, then diversity will return to the foreground, and the notion of an Islamic caliphate will become even more improbable a goal than it currently is.

The roots of terrorist support lie in despair. Poverty alone is not responsible for terrorism, or else Haiti and Burkina Faso would be terrorist strongholds. And oppressive state structures, too, are not sufficient, or else North Korean citizens would be among the ranks of the world's terrorists. Rather, the despair that generates terrorism derives from a combination of unjust economic, political, and geopolitical conditions. Prosperity and a greater degree of self-determination--which is, arguably, "our way" of life--is considerably appealing throughout the Muslim world, even among communities that today produce or support terrorist operations.

Finally, after September 11, the victims of terrorism have not been, by and large, Americans. Half the victims of terrorism in 2006 were Muslim and most were from Iraq. Only 28 U.S. citizens died in terrorist attacks in 2006. Indeed, as political scientist John Mueller has argued recently in Foreign Affairs, the terrorist threat to the United States has been greatly exaggerated. No terrorist attacks have taken place on American soil since 2001, and investigators have not turned up any real al-Qaeda cells in the United States. "The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11," Mueller writes, "may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists."

A Just Security Policy

Once we address the core misconceptions of U.S. counter-terrorism policy, the fear begins to lift. Terrorism is not the most important threat facing the world. Military tactics are largely counter-productive for they elevate the status of the terrorists and also create conditions that help spur recruitment. Terrorists are not bent on destroying "our" way of life but are animated by particular ideologies and derive their support from opposition to specific U.S. foreign policies. Only when we put terrorism in proper perspective can we start to think about appropriate solutions.

Four major building blocks support a just counter-terrorism policy: improving homeland security, strengthening legal systems, promoting democracy and human rights, and addressing the root causes of terrorism.

Terrorism is not the most important threat facing the world or Americans. But September 11 happened, and we must prevent another attack like it from happening again. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of the Bush administration's purported cure of a "global war." Prevention entails tightened border security, improved intelligence and oversight of intelligence agencies, strengthened protections for critical infrastructure, and denying terrorists access to weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons, and other items that can be used as weapons. Mitigating the effects of terrorist attacks requires honing disaster preparedness and emergency response plans and strengthening the infrastructures and public services that might either be targets of an attack or that would be necessary to respond effectively to such an attack.

Law is ultimately a more effective method of ensnaring terrorists than military force. Osama bin Laden remains at large, and military campaigns have only swelled the ranks of his followers. A more effective response to terrorism requires strengthening the national and international legal infrastructure necessary to identify and prosecute the individuals and organizations that facilitate, finance, perpetrate, and profit from terrorism. A strengthened UN should be the primary instrument for pursuing this objective. Unilateralist elements within the U.S. Congress and a lack of enthusiasm by members of the administration have been major obstacles to a more sustained and constructive U.S. engagement with the UN system.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration made an apparent U-turn with respect to the UN, suddenly recognizing its importance in combating terrorism. But that momentary honeymoon ended with the invasion of Iraq and the administration's ongoing campaign to undermine the International Criminal Court. Such moves have weakened the international legal architecture that represents a globalization of America's firm principles and beliefs in the centrality of the rule of law. Revelations of torture sanctioned by Bush administration personnel and efforts to exempt U.S. troops from Geneva Convention restrictions in waging the "war on terrorism" have also raised legitimate questions over the seriousness of the Bush administration's commitment to international law.

In a just security approach, a balance between liberty and security need not require sacrificing the former for the latter. Such an approach would refuse to sacrifice the fundamental elements of transparency and accountability, which are necessary for democracy to remain vital. It would refuse to subject people like Maher Arar to unlawful detention and torture because of "security "interests.

The administration's approach to combating terrorism should embody respect for the very human rights that America defends and promotes at home. This means that citizens should loudly proclaim opposition to religious extremism and actions taken in its name, no matter the perpetrator. Citizens should also reject any policies that undermine human rights norms in the name of a "war" on terrorism, including those that inflict casualties on innocent victims, that lift restrictions on the CIA to allow assassinations, and that permit the hiring of human rights violators.

Finally, combating terrorism requires looking beyond any one terrorist event--horrific as it may be--to address the broader socioeconomic, political, and military contexts from which terrorism emerges. Because terrorism is a particular kind of violent act aimed at achieving a political objective, a preventive strategy must also address its political roots in occupation and oppression. The United States is a target of terrorist attacks "because we support governments and policies that are sources of their oppression," writes banker and former president of the New York Stock Exchange Richard Vague.14 Other root causes include failed and failing states, which provide terrorists with unregulated arenas for operations; economic inequality, which can enhance support for terrorist acts and provide a source of recruits, even though poverty itself does not cause terrorism; and efforts by one country to institutionalize a position of global dominance, including through alliances with repressive regimes. Addressing root causes is one way of insuring that the efforts of terrorist groups to mobilize support meet as inhospitable a social, economic, and political climate as possible.

In his 1941 State of the Union Address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt talked about Four Freedoms. The first two--freedom of speech and religion--came directly from the U.S. constitution. The third, freedom from want, derived from the experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s. But the fourth one, freedom from fear, spoke to a public facing the escalation of a world war that would, before the year was out, engulf the United States.

Today, the U.S. government has forgotten that this fourth freedom is as precious as the other three. Fear created the "global war on terror." Fear propelled the invasion of Iraq. Fear plucked Maher Arar from the immigration line at JFK airport and consigned him to a year of torture and imprisonment.

Fear is the greatest weapon of terrorists. When it becomes our greatest weapon, too, what does that make us?

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus . John Gershman is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus for the Interhemispheric Resource Center.