The first and most difficult step to take is to open up debate over the logic and appropriateness of the War on Terror that American opinion leaders and the public at large have been trapped into serving. As a self-powered system the War on Terror permits them criticism of the way it is conducted but not questions about whether it should be fought at all. In this way the War on Terror transforms almost all criticism into its own cannon fodder. Only by publicly debating the existence and justification of the War on Terror itself can we begin to expose the psychological and political nets that entangle us within it and begin to cut them away.

This will not be easy. Those who begin the discussion, especially politicians, are likely to pay a heavy price. Their message can easily be misunderstood or distorted as a refusal to take the problem of terrorism seriously, to learn the lessons of our lack of preparedness on September 11, or to recognize al-Qaeda as the force for evil it is in the world. Many will find their political, economic, and even personal interests so well served by the discourse, fears, and escalating expenditures of the War on Terror that, consciously or not, they will resist evidence of its counterproductive effects and destructive dynamics. Inexorably, however, as the War on Terror continues to expand, breaking every barrier in our constitutional system and budgetary system, it will overextend itself so grossly that even many Americans who benefit from it will be emboldened to think critically and speak publicly about it.

Having seen the problem, how can we solve it? How can we break the vicious circles that transform our mobilization to combat terrorists into the raw material they need to succeed? Almost all experts agree that despite the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, such European countries as France, Britain, Spain, Italy, and Germany, with their large and sharply discontented Muslim minorities, face a substantially more serious terrorist threat than does the United States. Yet, in Europe the problem is dealt with productively and much less disruptively as a law-enforcement issue, not as a war that elevates the terrorists into a world historic force. Instead of glorifying terrorist groups as enemies of civilization on the order of the Axis powers, we should follow Europe’s example by treating terrorists as the dangerous but politically insignificant criminals they would be without our help. For to the extent that al-Qaeda and its clones are motivated by the overreactions they can trigger from us, mounting a ‘‘war’’ against them plays directly into their hands.

When America labels tiny bands of Muslim fanatics as posing the kind of existential threat to the United States and the western way of life associated with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, we enhance their stature enormously in the minds of all Muslims, whether they agree with al-Qaeda or not. Al-Qaeda terrorists are criminals in every western country, and in almost every other country, and should be treated accordingly. Yet one effect of the War on Terror has been to make the accusation that someone believes that terrorism is a law-enforcement problem a conversation stopper. To say as much is to provide prima facie proof of naiveté, to identify oneself as a holdover from the Clinton administration or as suffering from a “pre-9/11 mindset.” But we must understand that public intolerance for the notion that terrorism is a law-enforcement problem is a weapon used by the War on Terror against us.

Once terrorism is understood as primarily a law-enforcement problem, the most important asset America has in preventing terrorist attacks inside the homeland is the loyalty of millions of American Arab and Muslim citizens. They have an unparalleled ability to discern, identify, and help apprehend Arab or Islamic extremists who might be involved in terrorism. But the War on Terror, as a “war,” quickly became a confrontation between a distrustful government and communities of Muslim and Arab citizens treated as possibly aiding and abetting the enemy and as, in effect, “detainable until proven innocent.” Thus, by suspending normal procedures of legal due process, the War on Terror discouraged precisely those Americans most able to help identify terrorists from trusting the FBI, speaking freely with investigators, or even becoming available as informers and infiltrators.

Lowering the Temperature By Ian S. Lustick
EXCERPT: Trapped in the War on Terror

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06