One of my favorite programs offered by the BBC World Service is The Forum, a weekly intellectual discussion that brings together a diversity of world thinkers from business, politics, the arts, and the academy. On every segment the show invites a guest to pitch a "60 Second Idea to Improve the World". Alas I will likely never be a guest on the show, but drawn to the merits of this exercise I have been thinking about what my 60 second idea would be. After reading the scant reports in the American media about the situation in Yemen, where there is a popular revolution happening but which is almost never the main story being covered—the potential and overhyped threat of an al-Qaeda bogeyman is—my idea would be to remove the words "terror," "terrorist," and "terrorism" from our human vocabulary. And by the way, the BBC just made an excellent documentary about the inconsequentiality of al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Of course I realize that deleting a few words from our vocabulary would not in and of itself do very much to change anything. We would also have critically think about our humanity first, to really analyze our collective history of racism and bigotry. The persecution of others is universal, but I especially want to speak to my own historical legacy as an American. Many of us deeply applauded President's Obama's important speech on race during the last presidential election campaign. I think I even cried. The injustice African Americans have experienced, and continue to experience, is outrageous. And yet the other week I read Cornel West's contribution to The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (2011) where he criticizes Obama for suggesting that "Slavery was America's original sin." As West points out, Americans "had already conquered and dominated indigenous peoples. They're both affairs of white supremacy, but one came first." Indeed the destruction of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was also outrageous, and constituted a genocide.
Taking a wider look, we also have to really come to terms with the history of anti-semitism in the West. Every once in a while I am reminded of the persecution that Jewish people have long suffered in North America, Europe and Russia. We learn a lot about the Holocaust in school but not about how many of our parent's favorite Hollywood stars had to change their names because of discrimination. Painters like Amadeo Modigliani may be celebrated today as an artistic genius, but during his short life he was not even allowed to raise his own child because in France he was considered a "filthy Jew". Today the Holocaust is blamed on the sudden emergence of something evil in the form of Nazi Germany, and not as the result of actualizing centuries of Western bigotry and oppression against Jews. Never as something that was always potentially present in all societies, and which continues to be a possibility today.
Of course millions were also killed during the colonial project, "la mission civilisatrice," as have millions been killed post World War II as a result of Western Cold Wars and sanctions.
Please do not get me wrong. Unfortunately killing each other is not unusual. Genocides also happen elsewhere, for example in Turkey, Guatemala, Cambodia, and Rwanda. My point is not to isolate the Western experience as something unique, but to point out that we all come from this history and we continue to live this history. We need to recognize that. Pretending that we are now civilized, that racism and bigotry are something of the past, is dishonest to ourselves and perilous to those who continue to suffer from injustice. Instead of recognizing that we are all the products of this history, and critically engaging these harmful human tendencies, we have instead invented a new language that legitimizes racism and bigotry. It is the language of collective punishment that justifies mass killings, exclusions and oppression. But it shares the same roots as racism and anti-semitism.
According to Merriam Webster, the terror which I refer to means "violent or destructive acts (as bombing) committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands" (italics mine). However the Western and Israeli understanding of the word scratches out the final four words. Instead terror is perceived to be irrational, a re-articulation of the Orientalist logic that justified colonialism. Terrorists are just hateful. They cannot be reasoned with and do not deserve the same human rights as the rest of us. At the extreme terrorists are no longer even human beings, let alone rational ones, but instead animals that need to be eradicated like cockroaches. Indeed somebody who attended the demonstrations in New York City after the execution of Osama bin Laden described how one man kept repeating, "We killed the cockroach." Yes this may be an extreme case, but the United States repeatedly kills human beings by remote control and the American public applauds the removal of terrorists from our world. Something is seriously wrong with this situation, especially considering that the bombs are never that precise and when one supposed "terrorist" is attacked, dozens of civilians are also killed. Can you even imagine your children being killed by remote control?
Many people would argue that members of al-Qaeda threaten to hurt Americans and Europeans and so it is justifiable to attack them. But then we forget the political origins of 9/11 and the fact that America and her allies have also killed tens of thousands of people since 9/11, the vast majority of whom had no connection to al-Qaeda. So our logic of fear also justifies attacks against us. And yet while we think that "terrorist" ideology is poison because it justifies killing innocents, how many innocents do we kill under the rubric of the so-called war on terror? Really we can say that we do not support killing innocents, but if we look at the numbers we win the game hands down. And this is not new. When confronted with the reality that around one half a million Iraqi children died under the sanctions regime, former Secretary of State, our highest diplomat, responded that "we think the price is worth it." While she made this comment on the popular show "60 Minutes," there was almost a media blackout about it in the West. Walking the talk is not what we do best. At least al-Qaeda is honest.
But al-Qaeda is not the only group persecuted as "terrorists" and represents merely the unpopular fringe. Many of the other groups defined as "terrorists" have much more legitimate reasons for choosing a particular tactic to defend populations and realize political goals. Mainly to oppose occupation and the lack of civil rights. Sometimes to oppose state "terrorism". Yes those last four words in the above definition are probably the most important. Israel may defend the shooting of unarmed teenagers who are trying to feel their land under their feet that is being illegally occupied under the rubric of "terrorism". But like I mentioned in a previous post they can only choose their neighbors if they want to commit the same kinds of war crimes that necessitated a safe haven for Jews in the first place. They must first become the "terrorists" themselves. Except that nobody in the West will call a spade a spade when it is brandished by our own team.
Much like our imagining of the Holocaust as a geographical and temporal aberration, something that happened in Germany in a specific time period that the Allies opposed, and not something that is much more widespread, and even within ourselves today, we have created a new way of thinking that also locates evil in a particular region and peoples. In his book The Colonial Present (2004) Derek Gregory calls this a process of ‘imaginative geographies’, which he attributes to Said. “These are constructions that fold distance into difference through a series of specializations. They work, Said argued, by multiplying partitions and enclosures that demarcate ‘the same’ from ‘the other’, at once constructing and calibrating a gap between the two” (Gregory, 2004, p 17). In this way ‘our’ spaces are imagined to be different than ‘theirs,’ and in fact are usually construed as the inverse. This allows us to behave differently in their spaces than we would behave in ours: torture in Guantanamo and Iraq, extra-judicial killings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and collective punishment in Gaza and Iraq.
And yet there are times when even in our own spaces we deny very particular populations fundamental rights. I am still struggling to understand how an Iraqi-American oncologist living in upstate New York was arrested and convicted on criminal counts for violating the sanctions against Iraq after he sent food, money and medical supplies to his friends and family to distribute to struggling Iraqis who were then dying in the hundreds of thousands. The oncologist was never formally accused of any terrorism, only arrested in the weeks preceding the American-led invasion of Iraq and tried in a criminal courtroom. And yet the Department of Justice lists his case as a successful prosecution against terrorism (or did so until they disabled the page on terrorism statistics earlier this year). This just shows that the logic of terrorism operates outside of our system of justice. Otherwise the oncologist would have been accused of terrorism and allowed to defend his case in a court of law. Indeed none of those killed by Western drones are being given the same international human rights as were given to the Nazis after World War II. And being given to the Serbian military leader Ratko Mladić right now. But neither was Osama bin Laden allowed these rights, to the dismay of one of the still living Jewish Nuremberg Trial lawyers.
As Palestinian rap group DAM sings in "Who's a terrorist":
Who's a terrorist?
I'm a terrorist?!
How am I a terrorist when you've taken my land?
Who's a terrorist?
You're the terrorist!
You've taken everything I own while I'm living in my homeland.
You're killing us like you've killed our ancestors.
You want me to go to the law?
You're the Witness, the Lawyer, and the Judge!
If you are my Judge,
I'll be sentenced to death.
You want us to be the minority?
To end up the majority in the cemetery?
In your dreams!
Only we are not dreaming. If the logic of naming and persecuting terrorists operates outside of our shared humanity, it is no longer useful in our modern world. Palestinians have every right to claim that Israel terrorizes them. Israel regularly bombs Gaza to intimidate Hamas and starves the people so they will do what Tel Aviv says. America bombed Iraq to intimidate Saddam Hussein and is still occupying Iraq to get Iraqis to do what Washington says. We continue to collectively punish all of Afghanistan for the sins of a handful of men who were not even Afghanis. Of course many people in the Middle East and elsewhere are justified when they reason that we are the terrorists, but the system as we crafted it is only one-directional. We came up with the idea and copyrighted it so that nobody else is allowed to use it against us. This is a problem in a world that we have to share. We need rules and standards by which to live together. International law exists for a reason. President Obama made a step in the right direction when he stopped using the phrase "war on terror" but he did not go far enough. The words "terror," "terrorist," and "terrorism" need to go as well.