The War on Terror, started by the U.S. government as a response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and later joined by other governments, is 11 years old today, with no end in sight. It has had and continues to have grave consequences for the human rights of people worldwide. Osama is dead, and the war in Iraq is over, and yet people are still stuck in Guantanamo, drone strikes are more numerous than ever before and the internal security forces of Western states are increasingly powerful. It’s a high price for an uncertain gain.
However, before I discuss the consequences for human rights, I would like to make it clear that I believe, as any rational human being, that terrorism is evil, that it has to be stopped and that democracies have a right to defend themselves against violent, anti-democratic fanatics (see this post for example).
I also believe that democratic governments should be especially vigilant because the freedoms that they are elected to protect, offer opportunities for those who hate freedom, opportunities that do not exist in other political systems. Potential terrorists find it relatively easy to enter a democracy and operate in it. A democracy is a very vulnerable form of government because of the freedom it gives to everyone, even those who don’t mean well.
The freedoms of a democracy can be and are abused, but this, it seems, has frightened democratic governments to such an extent that they have decided to limit these freedoms up to the point that they are in danger of abandoning them altogether, and hence doing the work of the terrorists for them. It can be acceptable to limit certain rights for the protection of other rights (see also this post), but the right to security seems to have taken on an absolute priority, at the expense of many other rights. There is no reasonable balance anymore.
1. Civil liberties
Governments try to defend their countries against terrorist attacks by limiting civil liberties in their territories.
- The right to privacy has been limited: CCTV has become ubiquitous, DNA databases have been created, eavesdropping and wiretapping have been legalized etc.
- “No-fly-lists” have come into force, limiting the freedom of movement of even those who have written critically of the government or attended peace-protests.
- Hate speech laws have been voted to silence jihadist hate preachers, silencing others at the same time.
- “Racial profiling” by the police has turned innocent people into possible suspects, often inverting the burden of proof.
- Habeas corpus has been limited, periods of detention without charge extended, sometimes indefinitely (for “enemy combatants”).
However, in spite of all this, the constraints on a government’s actions within its territory are sometimes still considered to be inhibiting:
- “Extraordinary rendition” has been covertly practiced, allowing suspects to be tortured outside of the territory by professional torturers in other countries.
- Extra-territorial prisons have been created, in Guantanamo, but probably elsewhere as well, where suspects can be tortured or held indefinitely and where the Geneva Conventions supposedly don’t apply.
The war on terror has also changed people’s minds and attitudes.
- The media have started to censor themselves. Solidarity with the government at war and the commander-in-chief, or the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, appeasers, “useful idiots” or even open allies of the enemy have turned many in the media into uncritical supporters of the war.
- Citizens have turned on Islam and Muslims. Xenophobia and more specifically islamophobia have undermined the ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, and have in certain cases even led to hate crimes against Muslims.
- A “culture of fear” has been created by the terrorist but also nurtured by irresponsible western politicians. This fear has damaged democracy. Not only have the media relinquished their traditional role as watchdogs. Politicians as well, and especially incumbents, have abused the fear of terrorism to harness support. Alert levels seem to go up just before elections.
3. Preemptive war
The US government has elaborated and implemented the strategy of preemptive war, a war
waged in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived inevitable offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (allegedly unavoidable) war. (source)
The Iraq war was deemed a preemptive war because Iraq was allegedly about to attack the US with weapons of mass destruction, or supply these weapons to terrorists. Whatever the merits of the case against Iraq – and with the passing of time these seem to become weaker and weaker – the war has been framed, correctly or not, as a necessary stage in the ongoing war on terror. It has, however, resulted in massive numbers of casualties on both sides. The human rights violations caused by the war stand in no relation to the violations caused by terrorism or the violations that could have been caused by Saddam.
In any case, you can’t solve the problem of terrorism by violent means only. Terrorism has causes, and there will be terrorism as long as these causes exist. (Mind you, I don’t want to excuse or justify terrorism).
It is now widely believed, even in US government circles, that the war on terror is counter-productive. Especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture in Abu Ghraib and the detentions in Guantanamo have produced a backlash and have increased rather than reduced the terror threat. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate issued the following among its “key judgments”:
The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. (source)
The war on terror has created and exacerbated resentment, hatred of the West and anti-americanism. And with anti-americanism often comes hatred of democracy and freedom, as wellas Islamic radicalization. Apart from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is no evidence that any of the strategies in the war on terror has done any good (source). Any even this tiny success seems to be far from certain.
There is something fishy about the concept of a “war on terrorism”. This “war” is in fact no such thing. There is no well-defined enemy. Anyone can at any time become an enemy. For this reason, there is no conceivable end to the war. And if you claim to wage a war on terrorism, you might as well claim to wage a war on carpet bombing. Both are tactics or strategies, not something you wage war against.
If you insist on calling anti-terrorist actions a war, then you give too much credit to the riffraff you’re opposing. Rather than deranged criminals they can call themselves soldiers. And soldiers defend something. You legitimize them. You turn a crime into a two-sided struggle in which each side defends its positions. This in turn leads to the view that the war on terror is a war of the West against the rest, bringing back images of colonialism, imperialism and the crusades, again legitimizing the terrorists, helping to consolidate their often internally opposed forces, and making them honorable in the eyes of some ordinary citizens.
I can understand that the concept of a “war on terrorism” is useful for some Western governments, because an executive that is at war has more powers, less oversight, more popular support and less criticism, but it’s a meaningless and dangerous concept. Let’s give it up, or let us at least declare victory in the one we’re now fighting for 11 years.
(This post is hoisted from the archives and slightly revised. The original was published on August 6th, 2008 and is unfortunately still relevant today).