So, here we are again – in an era of “homeland security” and anti-terrorism hyper-awareness. Obviously, there’s a dangerous, rising current of aggression and violence – by fundamentalist groups and irresponsible governments. But it’s hard to be sure how much of what we hear is an accurate assessment, and how much is exaggerated – or worse, misinformation designed to disguise someone’s hidden agenda.
As in the Vietnam War, the notorious McCarthy era, and the Red Scares and crackdowns that have periodically re-occurred throughout US history, there’s a serious chill in the air. For those working to stop corporate globalization or fighting for social justice, this comes as no surprise. The effort to classify many of them as “potential terrorists” has been underway for some time. But things have gone much further since 9/11. The initial roundup and heightened security measures were merely a prologue, soon followed by a surge in “purges” for those expressing unpopular opinions and open calls for the use of torture to extract information from suspects. Meanwhile, the government assembled sweeping new powers to surveil, wiretap, monitor the Internet, detain people, and conduct secret searches.
Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge calls this “a permanent condition to which Americans must adjust.” Even less reassuring, many ideas for this war against “enemies within” have come from ultraconservative groups, eager to turn old wish lists into policy. Basically, the limits placed on the FBI and CIA about 25 years ago are being reversed.
We also have Joint Terrorism Task Forces, which were operating in some places before the US was attacked. Now they’re going nationwide through all 56 FBI field offices. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Justice Department funding for local police is slated for a tenfold increase, and a $1 billion electronic communication system linking federal agencies with local law enforcement is in the works. The goal here is to cement relations between the Feds and the locals. The process began two years ago, when the Justice Department offered money for new equipment if local cops identified up to 15 groups or individuals considered “potential threat elements.” The motivations, said Justice, could be “political, religious, racial, environment, or special interest.” Essentially, local law enforcement was being urged to monitor dissidents in their areas.
Meanwhile, the wall between the FBI and CIA is being shattered, giving the CIA an official role in deciding who gets targeted inside the US and what information is collected. Both agencies have received a green light to work together, including operations against domestic political groups and individuals. What groups? Officially, they’re supposed to have connections to terrorists or foreign intelligence agencies. But Atty. Gen. Ashcroft clarified that in December. “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty,” he announced, “my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists. They give ammunition to America’s enemies.” It was clearly a warning: This new security regime can easily be turned against almost any government critic.
In the days ahead, we’ll need many things to keep our hopes alive for a better future: among other things, clear analysis, a sense of history, and inspiring examples. We’ll also need to convince people that basic rights matter. Unfortunately, most people don’t know what’s in the Bill of Rights, not to mention the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even if they understand the importance of basic rights, many accept the logic that we’ll just have to do without all that until we feel safe again – whenever that is. Unfortunately, even many liberals and progressives neglect civil liberties as a central organizing principle; that is, until their own rights are threatened. So, let’s have a massive re-education program about what freedom really is. Let’s go beyond self-interest and prove that basic rights are crucial for everyone – not just options.
Further, we need to reclaim the language and change the debate. To start, that means challenging the loose and misleading use of words like patriotism and terrorism. In this regard, we’re up against massive forces of propaganda – in other words, corporate media. Clearly, we need more independent voices, but we also must become more adept at shaping the debate. For example, what is real security, and can we actually obtain it through a costly vigilance that borders on paranoia?
Politically-motivated violence is a real and growing threat, just as genocide is. There’s no point in downplaying it. But a war on terrorism – like the nuclear arms race, waged for 40 years in the name of anti-communism – will ultimately be a war without winners. As long as the retail terrorism of desperate people is met with the wholesale terrorism of the US, Israel, and other governments – it’s still M.A.D. – mutually assured destruction.
Penetrate official rhetoric and it soon becomes clear that the US and its surrogates have been the primary “retail” and state terrorists for quite some time. For example, Orlando Bosch and his anti-Communist Cubans, trained and supported by the CIA, were responsible for hundreds of bombings and murders in the 70s and 80s. Authoritarian regimes in Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Indonesia, and elsewhere – often with US backing – were responsible for systematic murder and torture. But these governments were never labeled “terrorist.” Neither were attacks by US agencies on the Black Panthers, Native Americans, and leftists ever acknowledged as applications of “state terrorism” at home. And let’s not forget how “terrorists” like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden got their start. Yet, the Orwellian nature of US life today makes it downright risky to criticize state-sanctioned violence.
At the same time, we desperately need to find some common ground with those who are captives of fear. It’s not enough to expose official lies or to take the high moral ground. We also need to cultivate compassion, and listen as much as we speak.
Finally, we need to confront the pervasive atmosphere of fear with a narrative of hope that is inspiring and convincing, bold and inclusive, attractive and honest. That’s easy to say, but hard to sustain. To do it, we must convince ourselves that a better future is still possible, that despite the violence of capitalism and fundamentalism, human solidarity and real freedom can, and often do, prevail. If you doubt it, just consider the past. Both history and justice are on our side.