Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 April 2007
Issue No. 840
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

War on terror, culture of fear

A circular and mutually reinforcing relation exists between the fear that sustains the war on terror and the vested interests that generate the fear, writes Gamil Matar*

The still raging and escalating war on terror, in whose name people are killed, governments are destroyed, and international organisations are undermined, is also exacting a more far-reaching and pernicious toll. It is sewing corruption, perverting facts, falsifying history, spreading chaos, pinning prejudicial labels on human beings and redefining civilisation. We thought we knew so much about it, but it is becoming more apparent that we've barely seen the tip of the iceberg. We knew that it was an evil war, in its aims and means, like most wars. We know now that it is a global war, as Bush had predicted and probably planned. Europe and a part of the Middle East were the theatres of World War I. Europe, Asia and the Middle East were the theatres of World War II. In the current world war being waged by President Bush and his sidekick Tony Blair nowhere is safe.

We saw how warring and non-warring nations recovered from the effects of the first and second world wars and even from the Cold War, which we might call World War III. Those wars decimated cities and economies, amalgamating little states into bigger ones and splitting up bigger states into smaller ones. In most cases, people were able to overcome these tragic experiences. In some cases, nations benefited from these experiences and summoned their resolve and energies to contribute to human progress, to achieve prosperity and independence, to establish the principles and practices of democracy, and to create the edifices for the realisation of social justice, which still stand proud in some countries.

But from the outset of America's war on terror, we were warned that it would be different and that it would not end. The warnings themselves have not ended, though even Bush remains unclear about whom exactly the enemies are. Hitler was very explicit about who his enemies were, as were Mussolini, Churchill, Stalin and the ultranationalist generals of Japan. Throughout World War II the peoples of Europe, America and Asia knew who they were fighting. Then, after less than six years, the war ended in the European theatre when allied forces entered Germany, after having bombed its cities, factories and roads, and the war in Asia ended when Harry S Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With today's war, no end is in sight. Almost six years have passed since phase one of the war against terror -- the invasion of Afghanistan -- and four years have passed since the beginning of phase two -- the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Neither of these battle theatres shows any sign of respite.

What we didn't know at the time was that this was an uncanny war, the first of a kind, every aspect of it perverse. Never before, I believe, has a ruler gone to war knowing in advance that it would be such a long undertaking, lasting dozens and perhaps hundreds of years, and boasting of this very fact as well. I doubt any nation in history has committed itself to such a protracted war and to sustaining its unimaginably exorbitant and heavy costs. So why should the US, which has yet to levy a war tax to finance the military machine or to proclaim a general mobilisation or, at least, to instigate a draft?

The abnormality of this war goes much deeper still. It is not just that the US has created a curious coalition of nations that never signed an alliance treaty or even shared in hostility to a clearly defined enemy. Nor is it just that "the people" who are currently resisting this war had never harboured such a great hostility towards the US and none to speak of towards its allies, such as Italy, Romania and Spain. Nor is it just that the parties to World War IV have absolutely no perception of how it might end. None of the allies -- the self-appointed representatives of the international community -- can envision a peace conference held in some city at some point in the future and, even less, who would take part in negotiations aimed to end this supposedly endless war. Who, after all, would sit on the opposite side of the table to the conquerors of terror to sign a treaty of surrender or peace?

One of the most profound and insidious aspects of this exceptional war is the culture of fear it is spreading. "The 'war on terror' has created a culture of fear in America," wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Jimmy Carter, in The Washington Post of 25 March. "The Bush administration's elevation of these three words into a national mantra since the horrific events of 9/11 has had a pernicious impact on American democracy, on America's psyche and on US standing in the world. Using this phrase has actually undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us. The damage these three words have done ... is infinitely greater than any wild dreams entertained by the fanatical perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks when they were plotting against us in distant Afghan caves." Yet the impact of this on Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims is far worse.

The war on terror has disseminated fear everywhere. Fear is a much greater threat to nations than the most lethal weapons. Fear numbs the mind and sparks the weakest, most cowardly and basest instincts. It makes people easy prey to the whims and follies of demagogues and dictators. It was by playing on fear that Bush could mount his invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Whenever his project bogs down or he comes under fire, Bush instructs his aides to drum up people's fear of another terrorist attack. This was the climate that smoothed the passage of the Patriot Act and the erosion of civil and personal liberties under government surveillance and secret detentions. This act, moreover, set the model for other governments, which never would have dared introduce a law like it before. Now that the greatest democracy on earth has it, it has become the right of every ruler on earth to impose a patriot act of his own; in our case, to make it an eternal constitutional cornerstone and perpetual font of legislation. The perpetuation of fear has turned back the tide of democracy, stymied the march of liberty, and let absolute rulers rule more absolutely.

Although we probably didn't need reminding, Brzezinski tells us that the culture of fear breeds despair. The proof lies in America itself, which went from scared to demoralised. Compare the America that waged its Cold War against the Soviet Union, confident of itself and in its allies, and the desperate panicking America of today, making the rashest decisions conceivable and backing down from its confrontation with Arab ruling elites over democratisation and the rotation of authority.

The global war on terror has bred two interrelated mutually dependent phenomena: the entrepreneurs of terror and the entrepreneurs of security. The influence of the former is amply illustrated by the rapidly and deliberately inflated list of so-called potential security targets in the US. According to a recent study, in 2003 Congress cited 600 possible targets for would-be terrorists. In 2004, the number shot up to 28,360 and then soared to 77,769 in 2005. Currently, some 300,000 locations are listed on America's national database of potential targets. If this phenomenon tells us anything it is that vested interests have a stake in terror and its perpetual rise. One cannot help thinking, in this context, of the part played by American research centres in laying the ground for the war on terror even before it had ever occurred to terrorists to attack the United States.

Security entrepreneurs have played a no less spurious role. We know now that national security services in most countries, too, have developed vested interests in the war on terror, not least of which is the enormous political influence they have acquired. But the culture of fear has also sparked a great boom in the private security sector. On top of the slew of already pre-existing security firms -- some transnational -- there have emerged hundreds of new ones, all dedicated to providing protection to politicians, film and music stars, influential families, and the rich and famous of every stripe. With all those guards, hidden cameras and metal detectors everywhere, is it any wonder that everyone is feeling increasingly nervous? Security now means big money. In Iraq alone, some 100,000 private security entrepreneurs are raking in billions of dollars protecting US armed forces personnel and those America installed in government there. The phenomenon is widespread and growing -- here in Egypt, too -- and it feeds on the culture of fear, without the continuation of which some very important and wealthy people would lose a lot of money and influence.

People -- rulers and ruled alike -- are afraid. Their reasons for being afraid and their ways of expressing their fear may differ, but they can all be traced to the "war on terror". These are the magic words that make us think like a people under siege and that trigger in many in this part of the world the instinct to resist.

* The writer is the director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.

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