“What is a possible alternative to the War on Terror?” was a question posed by Richard Rubenstein during our session on the Logic of Terrorism and the Fallacies of Counter-Terrorism. This is an immensely complicated question, and one that cannot be answered without first discussing global power structures, Western imperialism, hegemonic neoliberalism and the system of structural violence that has underwritten all our studies here. What is “terrorism”? Who constitutes a terrorist? What is the magnitude of the threats post by current terrorist activity? Why have so many counter-terrorist strategies failed so bitterly? The answer lies not in a political or policy-level analysis of the war-on-terror efforts but rather in a deeper understanding of Western intervention in the Middle East, and a broader lens on history and society without falling trap to generalizations and cultural stereotypes.
In this session, I found myself increasingly frustrated at the ease with which phrases like “their ideologies of radical fundamentalist Islam” were thrown around. “Radical fundamentalist Islam” is itself a fallacy, a fancy term to point fingers towards for all the problems we face. Islamophobia is a convenient foreign policy tool. That is not to say that groups like ISIS or the Al Qaeda are not murdering innocent people, but they are most certainly not an existential threat to the United States/Western civilization/the world as we know it. The people most disadvantaged by the rise of terrorist cells are the citizens of the countries in which they exist. A more pressing question to ask is what gives rise to terrorism? It is not some warped, inflammatory Islamic ideology that entices young people from around the world become murderous “jihadist ideologues.” For the majority of ISIS fighters, there is a very real, economic burden that they face and the wages they earn by becoming fighters are what allows them to make a living. Is that a justification? Perhaps not. But we cannot eliminate the decades of American (and Soviet) bombs dropping on countries like Afghanistan and Iraq from the conversation. Even today, the use of (imprecise and poorly executed) drone strikes has been nothing but a massive violation of international law that naturally causes resentment and anti-US sentiments to fester. In 2016 alone, over 30,000 bombs had been dropped on Syria and over 5,000 drone attacks were executed. In total, the number of people killed in Iraq and Syria alone in the last five years is close to one million. The number of ISIS fighters is estimated to be around 20,000. Even statistically speaking, how could the country with the world’s largest $600 billion dollar military not eliminate a few thousand fighters?
The answer is not simple, but it is obvious. War is profitable. Raytheon stocks surged after the missile strikes in Syria earlier this year. Donald Trump’s defense stock holdings skyrocketed (literally). I am not making the case that it is one man behind the entire military industrial complex (this issue long precedes Trump), but corporates control this country. It is careless, in my opinion, to attribute the failures of the war on terror on religious fundamentalism in the Middle East without a serious critique first on American complicity. The questions I always come back to are how we, as a group of grassroots organizers and peacebuilders, can use this information to hold truth to power. We discussed that the solution seems to be to bring gradual, incremental change in hegemonic structures, but in the meantime, can we just forget about the thousands of people being relentlessly shelled by American bombs on the other side of the world?