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'The War on Terror' is what it claims to counter

By John Tomlinson - posted Tuesday, 17 August 2004

The “War on Terror” is real, frighteningly real, if agents of the State break into your house, terrorise your family, seize your computers or whatever. But realistically this is unlikely to happen to the majority of Australians at the moment. For most citizens, the “War on Terror” is simply a metaphor, albeit a metaphor that is subject to several interpretations.

Those opposed to being misled by John Winston Howard’s adoption of Bush’s “Pre-emptive redemption” have renamed the metaphor the “War of Terror”. They point to the 37,000 Iraqi-civilian dead since the beginning of the current invasion of Iraq, the absence of weapons of mass destruction, the horrors of Abu Ghraib prison, the widespread bombing of civilians in Afghanistan, support for the Israeli land grab on the West Bank, the continuance of Israeli assassinations of Palestinians, and the continuing threats, made by the US, to attack Syria and Iran. In addition there is the erosion of civil liberties in the West, the draconian increases in power given to ASIO and other security forces, and the spectre of being whisked off to Guantanamo Bay or other centres of torture.

The xenophobic, the fearful, the poorly informed, the confused and those on the far right who believe in the necessity of the current American, British and Australian Governments’ crackdown on “terrorists” embrace the metaphor of the “War on Terror” in much the same way as frightened children clutch their favourite teddy bear on dark nights. For many, the bogeyman is everywhere.


Alexander Downer’s recent intemperate attacks on Spain and the Philippines for withdrawing troops from Iraq may have gone down a treat with a frightened and confused electorate. His suggestion that both countries were pandering to terrorists ignored the fact that the Spanish Socialists had promised that if they won government they would withdraw their troops prior to the Madrid terrorist bombing and that the Philippines were only going to stay in Iraq for two more weeks. The Philippine government succeeded in saving the life of one of their nationals who had come to represent the migrant worker’s “everyman”. Downer whipped himself up into such a lather of denunciation that he evoked in me an image of someone who would be prepared to go to the Philippines and personally slit the throat of the released truck driver just to stymie the kidnappers.

Spain and the Philippines have had decades of dealing with terrorism, whereas most Australians ignored terrorism until the attacks on the World Towers and in Bali. Downer himself continued to deny the Indonesian TNI and militia’s prolonged terror attacks on the East Timorese nearly up to the referendum in 1999. He ignores the on-going TNI attacks in Aceh and West Papua. Until recently he has been remarkably silent about the Sudanese government’s support for militia violence in southern and western Sudan. He ignores the on-going violence in the Central African Republic, the Russian government’s brutal crushing of Chechen aspirations, and the US government’s bankrolling of numerous right-wing paramilitary groups in South America. It is a case of "terrorism: now you see it - now you don’t". 

There is a need for citizens in the West to carefully reflect upon what is happening in our name both at home and abroad. Hopefully, we may, with a little effort, put the “War on Terror” into perspective. If we continue to use the concept as some sort of cuddly metaphor we may see it as an antidote to violence. In fact, it is simply a convenient mystification of the violence that our governments use against those whom they’ve decided are our enemies.

Once we come to understand that the violence of the State is often far more widespread and terrifying than the violence of non-State forces then it behoves us to take a position on violence per se. Pacifists clearly have a far easier ethical path to tread than do most of us who would, in some circumstances, resort to violence. But most people would consider that State violence should be commensurate with the violence directed against the State. War hawks can justify, if only to themselves, the use of disproportionate force against an opponent.

Some ethicists may be able to justify killing Charlie if Charlie was attempting to kill another or oneself. But such justifications would inevitably rely on a very high degree of proof that Charlie was intending to kill in the very near future. It would be necessary to prove that there were no non-lethal alternatives available to prevent Charlie carrying through with the intention to kill. One would need to do much more than simply assert that “intelligence” existed that Charlie had weapons of mass destruction. The principle of proportionality is the central justifying feature in such thinking and the subsidiary principle is due process.

The “War on Terror”, as presented by the leaders of the Coalition of the Killing, in Iraq and Afghanistan, lacks these elements of proportionality and due process. Clearly, in the dropping of cluster bombs on civilian targets one can detect vengeance, haste, hostility and indifference to the wellbeing of civilians - sorry, I meant potential collateral damage. The attack on civil liberties and critics in the home countries is also out of line with the threat that due process and respect for justice pose to the “democratic” State. It is of the same order as setting out to win a “War on Poverty” by shooting beggars. 


Clearly, most would prefer to live in a world in which terrorism and violence was entirely absent rather than the current conflict-filled one we inhabit. If we want to have a peaceful world then the first step is to understand what fuels violence and to appreciate that violence takes many forms. There are massive inequalities of wealth within and between countries. Each day 40,000 people die of starvation or malnutrition, billions are without clean drinking water, health services, adequate shelter or education, where 22-24 million people are refugees or internally displaced people. There are on-going wars in Africa, Asia, and South America. Injustice is pervasive. In Australia, the incarceration of asylum seekers in concentration camps is driving many of them mad, the government’s treatment of Indigenous Australians would shame any civilised nation and the widespread breaching of social-security recipients endangers the health and security of hundreds of thousands of our poorest citizens.

If we worked to ensure a just world in which the gross extremes of wealth were abolished, past injustices addressed, where everyone was assured of the basic necessities of life and where current conflicts were negotiated we might not succeed in abolishing all violence and terror but we would certainly have made a good start. Before this can happen, we have to stop glibly accepting meanings attributed by governments to each and every metaphor that their spin-doctors bowl up to us.

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Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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