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The Faith-Based War on Terrorism

Many people now believe that the greatest terrorist-threat stems from Islamic fundamentalism; that there is currently a clash of civilizations: one secular and the other fanatically religious; that the terrorist is so enthralled by crude religious notions that he is led to murder infidels. Thus the war on terrorism might be defined as the opposition to organized, faith-based and indiscriminate violence.

“Antiterrorism,” however, is an organized, faith-based campaign of practically indiscriminate violence. By “faith-based” I mean that elite antiterrorists, such as members of the Bush administration, trust that only their opponents are ever evil and that the US deserves and can handle imperial power; meanwhile, the followers of antiterrorism cling to empty slogans. The war on terrorism is a massive exercise in trust with murderous consequences, which means that there is no significant difference between the antiterrorist and the terrorist.

In support of these claims there is, first of all, the American government’s desire to produce widespread fear of its military capabilities. Instead of speaking of “terror,” however, the US speaks euphemistically of the need for “credibility” or for “shock and awe.” The American antiterrorist terrorizes by maintaining over 700 military bases around the globe. With its flair for euphemism, the “Joint Vision 2020” of the US Department of Defense declares that “given the global nature of our interests and obligations, the United States must maintain its overseas presence forces and the ability to rapidly project power worldwide in order to achieve full spectrum dominance.”

Then there is the US commander-in-chief’s framing of the war on terrorism in explicitly religious terms. In his 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush declared, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world; it is God’s gift to humanity,” that we must place “our confidence in the loving god behind all of life and all of history,” and “we go forward with confidence because this call of history has come to the right country.” He called the war against terrorism “a crusade.”

Bush frequently invokes a theological opposition between good and evil. He speaks of “an Axis of Evil.” In a speech given just three days after 9/11, Bush said “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” There are, of course, nonreligious views of good and evil, but to the extent that the so-called antiterrorist believes he or she fights on behalf of God, the war against terrorism is obviously faith-based.

Many people take a leap of faith in uncritically accepting the Bush administration’s obscure notion of “terrorism.” Sometimes the war on terrorism is mythologized and said to be against “terror,” which is a kind of fear. There is, of course, not even a potential military response to fear; the notion of attacking fear itself with tanks and helicopters is incoherent. Although a cause of fear may be so attacked, the hope of ending terror by any means at all is quite utopian. Like the so-called “war on drugs” and the “war on poverty,” the “war on terror” lacks even the appearance of plausibility. At most, certain drugs, certain poor people, and certain causes of terror are targeted.

The war on terrorism is generally taken to be directed against zealots who massacre civilians. So defined, however, there is no war on terrorism. The US and its allies cannot target all faith-based mass-murderers, because these so-called antiterrorist forces themselves faithfully kill many civilians. More civilians died in the recent war in Iraq than in the 9/11 attacks. According to IraqBodyCount.com, at least 8249 civilians have so far died in Iraq during, and as a direct result of, the war. At least 3000 civilians died during the overthrow of the Taliban (see Cursor.org). Moreover, coalition forces cannot oppose all mass murderers who seek weapons of mass destruction (WMD), because these forces implicitly threaten people with actually-possessed rather than just-desired WMD.

The standard response to these facts is that the terrorist differs from the antiterrorist, since only the terrorist intentionally kills civilians. When the antiterrorist kills civilians, this is “collateral damage.” Since, however, this unintentional damage is typical of US and NATO military operations, the civilians must be killed as a means to a certain end. To say that the antiterrorist engages in a war knowing that these deaths will occur is to say that the antiterrorist approves of these deaths as a way of achieving this end.

The civilian deaths may not be intrinsically useful to US war plans, but these deaths are entailed by its high-tech military tactics, such as the bombing of targets from a great distance and the use of land mines, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium shells–which kill civilians even after the war officially ends. To the extent that these civilian deaths confirm the use of military tactics unique to antiterrorist forces, the collateral damage is instrumental. The US military official can verify that sufficient bombs are dropped in a campaign by checking whether the damage bleeds into the margin of expected error. Were there not a single civilian casualty in the first Gulf War’s bombing missions, the pilots might have been court marshaled for flying too low to the ground and for putting themselves and their expensive planes in jeopardy.

Notice that the terrorist can adopt the same instrumentalist formulation. To say that the terrorist approves of his killing of civilians is to say that these deaths are the means to what the terrorist thinks is a good end, such as the overthrow of US-supported dictatorial rulers of largely Muslim populations. Thus the terrorist can justify his killing of civilians in the same way as can the antiterrorist. The killing of civilians is strategically but not intrinsically useful to the terrorist.

On the other hand, to say that the targets of the 9/11 attacks were civilians requires that “civilian” be defined arbitrarily as a noncombatant who does not hold a weapon but who may–especially in an integrated, postindustrial society–nevertheless be essential to the society’s ability to make war. The Pentagon is obviously a military target, the White House is a leadership target, and the World Trade Center, at the heart of the US economy, supported the military. Of course, none of this is to say that the terrorists were justified in attacking these targets. Regardless, were the killing of noncombatants despicable, the antiterrorist would be unable to capitalize on this intuition because antiterrorist forces frequently kill noncombatants.

In the case of the first Gulf War, most of the civilian deaths were intentional rather than accidental. Recall that Iraq’s power plants were deliberately targeted and that this in turn destroyed Iraq’s ability to purify water. As Barton Gellman wrote in the Washington Post, “Some targets, especially late in the war, were bombed primarily to create postwar leverage over Iraq.” The intent “was to destroy or damage valuable facilities that Baghdad could not repair without foreign assistance. … Military planners hoped the bombing would amplify the economic and psychological impact of international sanctions on Iraqi society, and thereby compel President Saddam Hussein to withdraw Iraqi forces from Kuwait without a ground war. They also hoped to incite Iraqi citizens to rise against the Iraqi leader.” (See Gellman’s article at: Global Policy Forum).

Regarding the economic sanctions against Iraq, Defense Intelligence Agency documents uncovered by Thomas Nagy reveal that “the United States knew sanctions had the capacity to devastate the water treatment system of Iraq. It knew what the consequences would be: increased outbreaks of disease and high rates of child mortality. And it was more concerned about the public relations nightmare for Washington than the actual nightmare that the sanctions created for innocent Iraqis.” At least 300,000 noncombatants, mostly children, died as a result of these sanctions. UN estimates of the death toll run much higher. (See Nagy’s article at: The Progressive. On the death toll of the sanctions, see Global Issues.)

Osama bin Ladin repeatedly cites these particular deaths as justification for strikes against US civilians. In his 2002 “letter to the American people,” for example, he writes that American civilians are targeted in part because “You have starved the Muslims of Iraq, where children die every day. It is a wonder that more than 1.5 million Iraqi children have died as a result of your sanctions, and you did not show concern. Yet when 3000 of your people died, the entire world rises and has not yet sat down.” (All of the bin Ladin transcripts can be found in the section, “Understanding America’s Enemies,” at: Robert-Fisk.com.)

The belief, then, that there is currently a war against organized, nonrational mass-killers of civilians is based on faith rather than evidence. Some of the leaders of antiterrorism, such as President Bush, take the war on terrorism literally to be a religious crusade (for oil, for Judeo-Christian control of the holy sites, and for the supremacy of God’s favored nation). The secular, neoconservative leaders still trust, against historical evidence of the nature and of the demise of all previous empires, that there is some moral imperative to establishing an American empire and that such an empire could be sustained. Followers of antiterrorism trust that the official caricature of the difference between terrorism and antiterrorism reflects reality. Not only is faith central to both terrorism and antiterrorism, but a glaring consequence of this faith in both cases is similar: the useful slaughter of noncombatants.

The antiterrorist may insist that there is no comparison, because the terrorist is interested solely in killing infidels whereas the antiterrorist wants to protect a democratic social order so that everyone can live in peace, that the terrorist is simply insane and evil. The problem with this portrait of the terrorist is that it is contradicted by Osama bin Ladin’s stated reasons for fighting the US and its allies. Instead of trusting Bush when he caricatures the terrorist’s goal as simply “the killing of Americans” and the terrorist’s reason as “hatred of freedom,” the antiterrorist should comb through bin Ladin’s interviews and messages. Granted, bin Ladin may not represent all so-called jihadists, but his explanation of the attacks on the US is surely more representative of the average jihadist’s than that of Bush. The point is not to sympathize with bin Ladin’s view; rather, the point is to understand so-called terrorism with a view to ending it wherever it may appear. Bin Ladin’s theism, anti-Judaism, and willingness to kill are most easy to reject.

What a person realizes very quickly in reading the bin Ladin transcripts is that he hasn’t in them the slightest motivation to withhold his true reasons for violent opposition. On the contrary, for clearly religious reasons he is supremely confident in his message; he answers questions directly and systematically, and his message is a consistent one. He mocks the US government’s reason for forbidding the mainstream media to air his messages. In his words, “They said that Osama’s messages have codes in them to the terrorists. It’s as if we were living in the time of mail by carrier pigeon, when there were no phones, no travelers, no Internet, no regular mail, no express mail and no electronic mail. I mean, these are very humorous things. They discount people’s intellects.” (See his unreleased 2001 interview with Tayseer Allouni). More likely, the fear is that people will understand the true reasons for Islamic terrorism so unashamedly presented by bin Ladin.

The upshot of bin Ladin’s message is, as he says in the Allouni interview, that “America won’t be able to leave this ordeal unless it leaves the Arabian peninsula, and it stops its involvement in Palestine, and in all the Islamic world.” In a 2002 tape he asks, “Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot? This is unfair. It is time that we get even. You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb.”

Bin Ladin sees “terrorism” as a reaction to American foreign policy in the Middle East. By “reaction” is meant the barbaric reciprocation of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Bin Ladin wants the US to leave Middle Eastern countries, that is, to stop supporting corrupt rulers in the region–Saddam Hussein was one such ruler–and to stop defending Israel’s extravagant contribution to the cycle of violence with Palestinians.

The Islamic jihadist does indeed hate what we would call open, free, tolerant society, which hatred bin Ladin makes very clear in his “letter to the American people.” He echoes the Christian fundamentalist in declaring that “You are a nation that permits acts of immorality, and you consider them to be pillars of personal freedom,” and in railing against drug use, gambling, and fornication. Then again he echoes the leftwing radical in saying “You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries.”

In this carefully-written letter, however, bin Ladin distinguishes between his condemnation of American society and his reasons for supporting jihad against the US. The letter is a systematic reply to two questions: 1) “Why are we fighting and opposing you?” and 2) “What are we calling you to, and what do we want from you?” The harangue against American culture is nowhere found in his answer to the first question. In answer to the second question, bin Ladin seems to mix advice, recommendations, and demands.

According to bin Ladin, the jihad is not a way of killing Americans to end the modern way of life. The Islamic jihadist is opposed to much of modern society, but no more so than, say, Jerry Falwell or Dennis Kucinich. The jihadist attacks American civilians to avenge deaths caused by US foreign policies in the Middle East. My point is not remotely to defend the jihad, rather, I have suggested that the war against terrorism is an international, faith-based campaign of practically indiscriminate violence, and that the war is thus itself terroristic. By promoting patriotic allegiance to comforting slogans, blinkered antiterrorist administrations simultaneously foster the very idea of a war against terrorism.