Presidents Obama, Bush, and other politicians routinely call them and their leaders evil. Others say they’re hapless dimwits lured into sacrificing themselves on the altar of jihad for the sake of remuneration or virgins in paradise. There are also theories that they’re trying to rid their countries of what they perceive as military occupations by foreign governments. Who are the suicide bombers and why do they want to kill us so bad they’re willing to blow themselves up? Why are there so many people volunteering to end their lives in such a gruesome way?
Although these questions aren’t new, they’ll help us zero in on the great terrorist debate taking place in the world today. It will be helpful to imagine from time to time as you read this post that you’re really from outer space and have suddenly landed in the middle of this global mess. We see two primary opponents each shouting that the other is evil and must be killed. One is a great nation of the world. The other is a secret terrorist society that claims to be representing the interests of Muslims.
Are the evil and dim-witted theories correct? Or is much of the terrorism in the Middle East, as Professor Pape and others have argued, a response to fact that the United States has kept large military forces there since the Persian Gulf War? And that suicide terrorism is a tactic specifically used to end what is seen by many in the Middle East as a military occupation of their countries. Pape has also posited that long-term suicide terrorist campaigns cannot be successful unless supported by civilian communities who’re resentful of the occupation and therefore sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause.
Pape’s ideas suggest that suicide bombings are not just acts carried out by terrorist groups but are expressions of an angry, desperate people who see such tactics as the only way to rid their homelands of a foreign invader who worships a different god and possesses a superior military force that effectively controls their government. The results of polls conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (http://www.jmcc.org) support this interpretation.
Palestinian public opinion polls conducted by the Center in June, 2004, and December, 2004, found that 70% and 63% of respondents, respectively, supported the 2nd Palestinian Intifada (started September, 2000) against the Israeli occupation. Moreover, it’s reasonable to assert that antipathies and desperation are likely to increase exponentially if people in an occupied country believe that the foreigners are not just controlling their government, but are propping up what many perceive as a corrupt and repressive regime.
In his interviews and fatwas, Osama bin Laden has maintained that U.S. policies support and perpetuate an unpopular Saudi regime. That the Saudi government is corrupt and brutal is hardly a radical idea. The New York Times ran an article last summer about a new report released by Amnesty International accusing the Saudi government of gross human rights violations. Among the excerpts from the report quoted in the piece are:
“Combined with longstanding and severe repression of any perceived dissent and an extremely weak human rights institutional framework, these measures have swept aside embryonic legal reforms and left people in Saudi Arabia almost completely devoid of fundamental freedoms and protection of their human rights.
“Old and new laws prescribe harsh and cruel punishments for terrorism-related offenses, including beheading and flogging, yet are so vaguely written that they can be, and are, used to punish and suppress expression and activities that are recognized and protected as legitimate the world over.”
We’ve also heard from quite a large number of former U.S. soldiers that the war in Iraq is morally bankrupt. 1,700 of them have even formed a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War. They’ve released videos explaining why they oppose the war. Many of these can be found on YouTube, such as this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcMk3V3LZcQ. Also, in contrast to the politicians and pundits exhibited in the Western mass media, there are many conscientious objectors in the U.S. and around the world who either oppose the wars in the Middle East or oppose the way they’re being conducted. Yet, for every voice, placard, or web site mounting an objection, there are at least as many supporting the war on terror. In the nine years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan a veritable cottage industry of jihadi research societies and arm-chair Internet sleuths have come into existence to assist the CIA and FBI.
The Three Voices of the War on Terror and the Unheard Fourth Voice
For the most part, there are currently 3 types of voices that can be discerned in Western media speaking about the war on terror. One is the mass media, which mostly contain the voices who support the current war and largely agree with the way it’s being carried out. They explain that the war is necessary to fight off those who want to kill us and, ultimately, dominate the world. There are also many independent voices that agree with these policies. This includes a wide range of sources from journals and blogs to videos and tweets. Many of these voices take an even more hawkish stance than the one communicated in the mass media. (From time to time, a voice is heard in the mass media that thinks we should start reducing the role of the military but is pretty faint, almost immediately drowned-out by the zeal of arm-chair warriors.)
The second voice is more critical of the war on terror and thinks much of it is corrupt and money driven. These wars don’t serve ordinary people’s interests, but rather wealthy corporate interests instead. It has even been asserted that the people of Iraq and the U.S. share more in common with one another than either does with their respective governments because the governments are beholden to wealthy elites. This is the voice that hungers after peace and tends to believe that, except for a small percentage, most people in the world are good. Therefore many of the problems can be solved through peaceful means instead of violent ones.
The third voice is the voice of Islamic jihad. This usually takes the form of communiques from terrorist leaders that are sometimes reprinted or played in the mass media. These have ranged from written statements to grainy, hard-to-decipher videos. They typically express—especially the ones released after September 11th—strong denunciations of America and Israel, co-conspirators on a quest to dominate the world.
The first and third voices are extremely convinced of their own righteousness and communicate to each other according to what we’ll refer to as the monster dialectic:
Terrorist: You are evil and must be killed.
U.S. Officials: No, it is you who are evil and must be killed.
Together (in unison): Then, let’s kill each other!
The main thing to observe is that, most of the time, they aren’t so much talking to each other as attempting to convince their own particular audiences and potential supporters, which is necessary to sustain their leadership and the current wars. When bin Laden or Obama states that one or the other is evil, he is really attempting to justify his own use of violence:
“It’s okay for me to kill because they’re evil.”
Very often missing—at least for those of us in the West—is unfiltered commentary from those who, unlike the bin Ladens of the world, actually carry out the terrorist attacks and, more importantly, those who must live in the towns and cities in which these tragic events occur. These voices compose the unheard fourth voice. Even if it may be difficult to compile interviews of suicide bombers, it is possible to interview the ordinary people living in these war zones and dealing with its terror every day. The Western media has done an extremely poor job of getting their stories.
This raises disturbing questions why the Western media has not been full of in-depth reporting on the extreme conditions under which so many Iraqis have had to live since the onslaught of the American-led invasion. If you consider the suffering imposed on them by more than a decade of U.S.-backed sanctions followed by six grueling years of agonizing war, and the fact that we supported a madman to lead their government for more than a decade, it’s utterly incredible to think a so-called free press and creative community has not deluged the world with story upon story of the conditions ordinary Iraqis have had to endure. Instead, we’re left with a few tidbits here and there. Yet based on past experience, we in the West know the voice of the victim is not always the unheard voice. Most of us in the West can easily recall the months of mega reporting that went into the devastating effects these attacks had on the people closest to them.
Here are some interesting statistics concerning the safety and feelings of Iraqi citizens during the U.S. led war there. They are based on polls referenced in a report from the Brookings Institution
Iraqi Public Opinion
Although the war on terror came to their country two years later than Afghanistan, Iraqis have experienced terrorism like no other country, with suicide and road-side bombings surging beyond anything the world has ever witnessed. In addition to the activity of terrorists, a lot of this stems from the ethnic tensions that erupted after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that wound up pitting Shiite against Sunni. The violence continues to this day.
IRAQ: WHERE THINGS STAND 2007
Conducted (MARCH 2007) by D3 Systems for the BBC, ABC News, ARD German TV and USA Today (2,212 Iraqi adults from throughout the country were interviewed)
QUESTION: WHO DO YOU THINK CURRENTLY CONTROLS THINGS IN IRAQ?
59% of the population stated it was the U.S. Government while only 34% thought it was their own.
QUESTION: SUPPORT FOR THE PRESENEC OF COALITION FORCES IN IRAQ
78% of the total population opposed the presence of troops in their country. In February of 2004, 51% were opposed.This increased to 65% by November 2005.
QUESTION: IS IRAQ IN A CIVIL WAR?
42% of the population believed they were in the midst of a civil war.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES IN IRAQ: FOUR YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF INVASION
Conducted by Opinion Research Business, MARCH 2007
QUESTION: DO YOU BELIEVE THE SECURITY SITUATION IN IRAQ WILL GET BETTER OR WORSE IN THE IMMEDIATE WEEKS FOLLOWING A WITHDRAWAL OF MULTI-NATIONAL FORCES?
53% of the total population thought it would get a great deal better, while only 26% (mostly Sunni) thought it would get a great deal worse.
QUESTION: WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING HAVE YOU PERSONALLY EXPERIENCED OR WITNESSED OVER THE PREVIOUS THREE YEARS?
26% of the total population in Iraq experienced the murder of a family member or relative.
QUESTION: APPROVAL OF ATTACKS ON US-LED FORCES
In January of 2006, 61% of the total population of Iraq approved of violent attacks on US-led forces. This was up from 47% the preceding January.
QUESTION: TO IRAQIS: HOW WOULD YOU RATE SECURITY CONDITIONS IN IRAQ TODAY?
75% of Iraq’s total population thought the security situation was poor.
QUESTION: TO IRAQIS: DO YOU THINK THE US GOVERNMENT PLANS TO HAVE PERMANENT MILITARY BASES IN IRAQ OR TO REMOVE ALL ITS MILITARY ONCE IRAQ IS STABILIZED?
80% of the Iraqi population believed the U.S. plans to have permanent military bases.
Afghan Public Opinion
Afghans have been caught up in the war on terror for more than eight long years. How do they feel about it?
Survey of the Afghan People for the Year 2009
The following are excerpted highlights from a survey of more than 6,000 Afghans conducted by The Asia Foundation in 2009.
“Just over half of respondents (51%) say they fear for their personal safety in their local area. However, much higher proportions of respondents report at least sometimes having fears for their safety in the South East (65%), South West (62%) and West (62%), than in other parts of the country. There has also been a significant rise in the incidence of crime and violence experienced by respondents in these regions since 2008.”
“Seventeen percent of respondents report that they or someone in their family have been victims of violence or crime in the past year. Nearly one in ten victims of violence report that this was due to the actions of militias and insurgents (9%) or foreign forces (9%). The incidence of victimization from military type actions has been rising steadily since 2007.”
“The proportion of respondents who express fear to vote in a national election rose significantly between 2008 and 2009 (from 45% to 51%). This is now true for the majority of respondents in the South West (79%), South East (68%), West (61%) and East (56%) of the country.”
“The majority of respondents (71%) support the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed anti-government elements. The high level of support for this approach is likely to be influenced by the fact that a majority of respondents (56%) say they have some level of sympathy with the motivations of armed opposition groups.”
“In 2009, a significantly higher proportion of respondents than in previous years mention freedom (50%) and peace (41%) as the greatest personal benefits they expect from democracy.”
Afghan National Mood 2004 – 2009
The chart below shows an trend of national Afghan sentiment over the last 5 years. Bright spots include an increase from 38% of respondents in 2008 to 42% in 2009 who believed the country is headed in the right direction and a decline from 32% in 2008 to 29% in 2009 who believed the country was moving in the wrong direction. These results, however, indicate a sweeping change in national mood between 2004 and 2009, a period time that witnessed an escalation of the war on terror.
Chart can be found on The Asia Foundation web site.
Afghan Civilians Angry Over Deaths
After more than nine long years of war and bombs ripping apart the country, Afghan citizens are increasingly assembling to protest the war and vent their anger at the seemingly never ending carnage. But there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. AFP reports that the 110,000 foreign troops now battling the insurgency inside the country will rise to 150,000 by late 2010 as anther 30,000 U.S. and 6,800 NATO troops arrive.
UN figures show almost an 11% increase in the civilian death toll during the fist 10 months of 2009.
“Figures released to AFP by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) put civilian deaths in the Afghan war at 2,038 for the first 10 months of 2009, up from 1,838 for the same period of 2008 — an increase of 10.8 percent.”
Afghan Civilian Deaths Rise 40% in 2008
According to an AP article in The Huffington Post, a United Nations report states that 2,118 Afghan civilians were killed in 2008 by U.S., NATO and Afghan troops, a 31% increase over the previous year. Insurgents were responsible for 55% of the deaths while U.S.-led forces killed 39% or 829 deaths, 552 of which were due to air strikes.
Children Die in Explosion
As 37,000 more U.S. troops stream into Afghanistan as part of President Obama’s troop surge, the strain of war and continued violence is apparent among the Afghan population. After an explosion killed four children in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul on Wednesday, thousands of civilian protesters assembled on a road between Kabul and Jalalabad in Nangarhar chanting, “Death to America!” An effigy of Obama was also burned accompanied by chants of, “Long Live Islam!” and “Death to Obama!”
Statements of Afghans Affected by the War
The table below contains translations of statements by Afghan civilians who’ve been directly impacted by the war on terror. Their statements are part of a report on written by E.L. Gaston, who lived in Afghanistan from January to November 2008 and was funded by CIVIC and the Harvard Law School Henigson Human Rights Fellowship, and Rebecca Wright, also a Henigson fellow, who spent a month researching in Afghanistan. The report was issued in 2009 and can be accessed at www.civicworldwide.org/afghan_report.
Table 1. Excerpts from CIVIC Report: Losing the People
|What happened to your family?||What assistance did you receive?||What assistance did|
|What are your feelings about the incident now?
|Father lost seven members|
of his extended family in 2008 airstrike in Wardak; living as IDP in Kabul
|“When I arrived at the|
house, I saw that a bomb had hit it directly…. I could see all the dead and injured bodies. My son’s wife was horribly injured. My son had injuries on his feet and the force of the blast had thrown him over the tree. Another daughter was blasted into so many pieces that we still have not been able to find her body.”
|In process of receiving|
ACAP assistance; received immediate transport from US troops to medical services; one son given $200 and a guitar from US military who temporarily detained him mistakenly.
|“Everything we have now has been provided to us by friends and relatives …The ICRC offered to give us tents and mattresses. But this wasn’t enough. We couldn’t live in a tent. … The cost of transportation for the tents and mattresses to Kabul where we have family and support would cost us more than the items are worth.”
|Three neighbors whose|
village in Shindand district, Herat was bombed twice by US forces as of interview date, once in April 2007 and once in July 2008
|“I was asleep but woke up with the bombing and got out and saw that my cousin was killed by this incident. I was seeing that there were helicopters that were shooting the people they were|
seeing so I fled into a home for cover… When I went to see my house [4 days later]. It was destroyed and nothing was there. Some of our family members left even their shoes.”
|Eligible for ACAP assistance but blocked for more than a year due to persistent security concerns; Some members of this community received Code 99 payments and community assistance when the area was bombed a third time approximately 6 weeks later.||“Last year also our house was bombarded. Completely destroyed in the bombing. Still I don’t receive any help for that. Why should they help me this time?”; “In my mind, I thought that international forces were not using force on civilians. Now I see that it has
changed – they are killing all people. They don’t care if it is civilians or the bad guys. They think all the people are the same. They see it all from the same lens.”
|15-year-old boy lost his sister in a US airstrike on a wedding party in Nangarhar, July 2008||“I was also a member of the wedding party [that was bombed] but I was farther away [from the direct hit]. We lost my 16-year-old sister though.”||Received Code 99 payment.||“I feel bad and angry when I see international soldiers. I thought that they were coming to help and bring peace but they aren’t paying attention to civilians.”
Pakistani Public Opinion
The following information is based on a recent report from The Pew Global Attitudes Project (a Pew Research Center Project) The report makes the following qualifications:
“Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 1,254 adults in Pakistan between May 22 and June 9, 2009. The sample, which is disproportionately urban, includes Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, portions of Baluchistan and the NWFP are not included because of instability. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were not surveyed. The area covered by the sample represents approximately 90% of the adult population.”
The first page of the report states that Pakistanis believe their country is in a state of crisis, wracked by crime and terrorism. Approval ratings of the government is the lowest in a decade and virtually everyone is dissatisfied with national conditions. Corruption and a weak economy are major public concerns. As the table below indicates, Pakistanis are increasingly opposed to al Qaeda and the Taliban while 69% are concerned that extremists may take control of the country.
Chart can be found at http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=265.
These feelings haven’t resulted in improved feelings about the United States, its leadership or its intentions:
“Barack Obama’s global popularity is not evident in Pakistan, and America’s image remains as tarnished in that country as it was in the Bush years. Only 22% of Pakistanis think the U.S. takes their interests into account when making foreign policy decisions, essentially unchanged from 21% since 2007. Fully 64% of the public regards the U.S. as an enemy, while only 9% describe it as a partner.”
The war on terrorism in Pakistan raises serious concerns among members of the public as many are extremely concerned about that what are perceived to be drone strikes by the U.S. are causing too many civilian deaths and that these are taking place without the consent of their government. The report goes on to state:
“Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say the attacks are not necessary and just about a third (34%) say they are necessary. Moreover, almost all respondents who are aware of the strikes say they kill too many innocent people (93%).”
Yet for all the anti-American sentiment, a significant number of Pakistanis appear to be open to better relations with the U.S., as the chart below indicates.
A key finding of the Pew report is that Pakistanis view the actions of the U.S. military within their country negatively when seen in the context of operating without being subject to the control of the Pakistan government. As the chart below demonstrates, the public mood shifts from condemning U.S. unilateral action to approving a more supportive role for the Superpower.
Another highly interesting finding involves the idea of societal norms. Western perceptions of church and state, as well as justice, are often different than those in a country like Pakistan. For example, the report found that 71% of the population were in favor of allowing religious leaders to decide property and family disputes, with women showing a clear preference over men in this regard. With respect to harsh laws and punishments, the Pew report had this to say:
“Pakistanis overwhelmingly favor stoning people who commit adultery (83%), and comparable percentages favor punishments like whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery (80%), and the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion (78%). Support for strict punishments is equally widespread among men and women, old and young, and the educated and uneducated.”
Other notable finding include:
- “About seven-in-ten (72%) want the U.S. and NATO to remove their military troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Only 16% approve of Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.”
- “Most Pakistanis consider the U.S. an enemy, while only about one-in-ten say it is a partner. Distrust of American foreign policy runs deep, and few believe the U.S. considers Pakistani interests when making policy decisions.”
- A majority of Pakistanis believe the U.S. acts unilaterally in world affairs without considering the interests of countries like theirs. Only 22% felt the U.S. considered their interests a great deal or fair amount when deciding foreign policy matters while 53% said it didn’t consider their interests at all.
To read the full Pew report, go to: http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/265.pdf.
American Public Opinion
American Support for War in Afghanistan
An article on CNN.com cites results from CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released in September, 2009, reports that a majority of Americans (58%) oppose the war in Afghanistan.
Another CNN article about the same poll states that U.S. opposition to the war is up 11 points since April and is at the highest ever since the war began shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks.
American Support for War in Iraq
Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director, noted that American support for the war in Iraq dropped to 39% in 2005 and has hung in the low to mid-30s since.
On March 13th, 2008, Gallup reported that a majority of Americans want to get out of Iraq. “With the five-year mark of the start of the Iraq war approaching, Gallup finds that 60% of Americans would like to see a timetable set for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and 59% say the war was a mistake.”
The Global War on Terror Consensus: What the People Do Not Want
Based on the information in the polls above, the conclusion is pretty straightforward: most ordinary people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan don’t want U.S. troops or drones to be directly involved in fighting insurgents or terrorists in their countries. It’s also clear that most ordinary Americans agree with them.
Assuming this is true, then who is that wants these endless wars to continue? If you remove ordinary people from the equation, that only leaves politicians and terrorists.
Conceptual Distance Required to Maintain Monster Status
By the time that we learn about a suicide bomber they’re dead. From a military standpoint, a suicide bomber is quite effective as long as there are people willing to carry out the mission. But use of this weapon will be likely to create more of a psychic distance between the target community and those planning the bombing attacks. First of all, once the deed is done, the actual perpetrator cannot be apprehended. Indeed, much of the time there’s not enough remains to even identify the bomber.
In this sense, the bomber is like a ghost. He or she could have been anyone. In some cases it’s simply not possible for investigators to find out who they were. They become a cipher waiting to be filled in. Know one to question and ask why except for friends and family, who may or may not know anything. It’s largely left to us—the news recipients—to fill the void with our own explanations. Therefore from a media standpoint, suicide bombing may even help exacerbate the unknown between target population and bomber. Since the bomber is not there to explain his reasons, we’re left with no alternative but to equate him with the terrorist leaders. But are the two necessarily the same? Perhaps there may be different motivations? Regarding this question, the Western discourse has made some distinctions. Some of these were mentioned above about suicide bombers being dimwitted or brainwashed, etc. Yet the fact that there have been more people in the last few years than at any other time in recorded history strapping on bombs presents us with reasonable evidence to discount these theories.
Suicide bombers often leave behind videos and written material describing who they were and why they’ve done what seems to many of us incomprehensible. Do any of these videos suggest different reasons than the ones available in the media? When we as Western citizens or objective observers try to imagine the suicide bombers many of us instinctively feel like there must be some fundamental difference, some almost unbreachable divide that separates us—just as we do when we see a violent criminal portrayed on the evening news. The context of the way in which he is presented to us by itself is enough to create this impression. We see a still shot blown up on our tv screens superimposed on a stark white background. He or she is discussed in the third person, as we hear all the gory details stream in. We are conscious of a conceptual separation between him and the rest of us who watch safely abstracted from the reality of the monster that begins to take shape word by word, image by image.
It is important to understand what this conceptual separation means. First of all, to demonize someone—to turn them into a monster—and keep them a monster, it is necessary to ensure that the monster-object be kept at a certain distance from the population in which he is to be imagined. It is out of this fertile void that the monster is formed and shaped. Yet his existence depends on a paradox of sorts. On the one hand, the right amount of detail must be revealed to make a powerful enough impression in the subjects’ minds. While on the other, the image must be one that remains focused on his malevolence and heinous deeds. The subject cannot be taken too close to other aspects of the monster because, by definition, a monster cannot be a multi-faceted being to any appreciable extent. In other words, the essence of his being must be overwhelmingly associated with evil. A monster whose evil is outweighed by his finer qualities is not a monster.
In the present struggle between Islamic terrorists and the West, perhaps the single greatest point of commonality between the two sides is the way they depict each other. It is straight out of the propaganda handbook: create an image of the monster, give him enough detail to make him believable, yet keep him at an appropriate conceptual distance from his target population. It is this distance that not only gives birth to the monster but allows the propagandist the ability to manipulate his monstrosity.
This raises the question of who creates whom? The suicide bomber pushes a switch and explodes himself and others creating a horrible scene. But it is the storyteller who uses this material to terrify his audience. Which, in turn, raises the question what kind of stories do the Middle Eastern storytellers tell when they describe the carnage of the suicide bombers? Is it reasonable to expect that they’ll create the same monster that we in the West create? The terrorist groups and their supporting communities, for example, actually turn the suicide bomber into a kind of hero, sacrificing himself for the freedom of his countrymen. An elaborate set of rituals and symbols have been created for this purpose to tell the story of martyrs fighting for the sanctity of the homeland. Another question is the kind of story that is told when American bombs rip apart neighborhoods creating horrible scenes of destruction? The terrorists use this to demonize us in the minds of their audience. In many cases in both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. violence has been a key event in turning affected communities against us. As this post will demonstrate below both sides in this bloody awful war are quite adept at creating terrifying circumstances.
The Monster Story Matrix
Media is therefore an important component in the present war on terror. At any given time, there appear to be 2 storytellers, 2 audiences, and 4 stories. In addition to telling Westerners that the terrorists are evil, the West is telling populations in the Middle East that the Western soldiers are there to liberate and protect them. Meanwhile, in addition to busily telling Middle Easterners that suicide and car bombs are effective ways to force the infidel-occupier out of their lands, the terrorists are also attempting to communicate with Western populations. Their message has been: unless you make your government change it’s ways you are as corrupt and evil as your leaders and consequently will be subject to violent attacks.
Voting out a democratic government touches on a crucial point in Professor Pape’s theory. Terrorists believe suicide bombings are effective instruments against democracies because voters will be motivated to elect a government that will pursue policies that result in less violent outcomes. It is tactically correct for the targeted democracies to counter this by focusing voters’ on the idea that the terrorist group does not want to peacefully co-exist with them; it only wants to kill them or, at best, convert them to their radical beliefs through brainwashing. This way they can effectively counter the terrorists’ message: Why does it matter what kind of policies we have? They’ll want to kill us anyway. This logic leads to an endless, vicious cycle. As long as we base our actions on this belief there is no room for the terrorists to believe anything different than what we believe. They only want to kill us. Therefore we must kill them. But this, in turn, means they must also kill us. And around and around we go, killing each other.
Table 1. helps to visualize the stories that each side in the war on terror are telling:
|Storytellers||Muslim Audience||Western Audience
|West||We're helping to liberate you. If you oppose us, then you are evil like the terrorists.||Terrorists are evil; and want to kill you.
|Terrorists||West is evil and wants to kill you.||If you don't tell your government to leave our countries you are evil like it and subject to violence.
This story matrix, simple as it is, is the insurmountable barrier that has kept peace at bay and perpetuated the war.
The Spreading War on Terror
Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, suicide bombing campaigns were limited to struggles such as those in Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka. Since 2003, the numbers of people blowing themselves up in Iraq have skyrocketed. Professor Pape based his landmark book , Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005) on a comprehensive database of all suicide attacks carried out from 1980 to early 2004, a total of 315 disparate attacks involving 462 suicide attackers during that time period.
These numbers are quaint by today’s standards. From May, 2003 to September, 2007, there were 1,545 multiple fatality bombings in Iraq, 545 of which were suicide bombings. According to Thomas Hegghammer, Senior Research Fellow, at FFI (the Nowegian Defense Research Institute), Assaf Moghadam has compiled a database that contains 1,945 suicide terrorist incidents from 1981 to mid-2008. 82% of these attacks have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. 88% of all suicide attacks (Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Chechyna) have taken place within the context of Pape’s occupation theory.
Observers, like Moghadam and Hegghammer, believe suicide bombings are motivated more by extremist ideologies that are focused on “a socially distant enemy,” and that Western military interventions have merely helped facilitate their spread and acceptance. This theory contains elements of the point made above about the need for distance between a monster and his audience.
It should be no wonder, then, that nine years into this long, bloody war that the same thing that happened in Iraq now seems to be happening in Afghanistan, a country that witnessed 140 such attacks in 2007 alone—more than the previous 5 years combined. Prior to 2001, Afghanistan, like Iraq, had never experienced suicide attacks. It looks like the same thing could happen in Pakistan and now Yemen. On New Year’s Day, 2010, in Pakistan, 75 people were killed and 60 injured in a suicide car bomb attack. There have been at least two dozen suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan since last October.
Enter a new participant in the war on terror: Yemen. A 23-year old Nigerian man who supposedly joined an al Qaeda cell in Yemen and attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound flight recently prompted President Obama to remind Americans that they’re still “at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” The Commander-in-Chief went on to state that he’s made it “a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government,” yet another democracy in name only that, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, engaged in human trafficking, restricted freedoms of speech and the press, countenanced child labor and child marriage, practiced torture and prolonged, secret detentions. Like the blatantly corrupt Karzai government in Afghanistan or the late Musharraf military dictatorship in Pakistan, American support for these governments when so many of the citizens in those countries are openly opposed to them can’t possibly represent a foreign policy that will be conducive to either democracy or peace. Instead of being a remedy for terrorism, failed policies like this help explain why Americans become targets of extremists and terrorists.
Like al Qaeda’s, the U.S. logic is simple: Our enemies, the terrorists, are evil. They cannot be reasoned with. As stated above, this is the monster dialectic. To reiterate, this means that military force is the only way to protect ourselves from the threat these enemies pose. When both sides believe this and act on it an endless feedback loop that perpetually reinforces itself is created. Yet the presence of U.S. troops fans the flames of resentment and hatred in the hearts and minds of those who live in the occupied countries. This explains why the message of fighting to expel the occupier-infidel that terrorist groups promulgate finds a large and receptive audience. Hence wherever we go in the Middle East to engage in direct military action, people in the occupied countries start blowing themselves up.
As the body count increases, each side is provided with plenty of media material to reinforce their point that the other guy is evil. Yet, as Pape notes in a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, most of the attacks in Afghanistan are directed at Western military targets, not Afghan targets. The same article states that since the troop increases began in 2005, the number of terrorist attacks have risen dramatically: 782 in 2005, 1,736 in 2006, and nearly 2,000 in 2007, and over 3,200 in 2008.
Being from outer space, one might think it’s prudent to ask at this point about the source of all this evil? Why does the violence keep multiplying? Far more people are victims of suicide attacks today than when the war on terror began.
Almost a decade into the war on terror and we seem no closer to winning. Indeed, like a cancer out-of-control it keeps spreading. Isn’t it time to start re-examining the policies we’ve implemented to try to end this cycle of bloodshed? Is the policy of not listening to those who would attack us a wise policy? Does it make sense to continue to say, “You are evil. We cannot talk to you. There is no basis on which we can come to an understanding.” The situation reminds one of the 1967 film, “The Red and the White,” by Miklós Jancsó, in which each side in the Russian Revolution is running back and forth in an absurd game of organized killing and being killed.
How many innocents need to die before we start to ask some serious questions? Perhaps the biggest monster is not so much the militant Islamists who want us out of Middle Eastern Muslim countries. For there is a good basis to believe that we could better control the violence if we were to pull our troops out of those countries. Furthermore, serious observers don’t really believe in the radical-Islam-world-domination theory. Even if there are some crazy enough to act on such an outlandish idea, the prospect for success is laughable and there is scant evidence that anyone is actively pursuing such a grand scheme.
Perhaps the real monster the West fears is what the militant Islamists would do if they were to take power in the oil producing countries they want us out of . Or what would happen if the Taliban seized control of Pakistan, a nuclear state? Perhaps the real monster is $200 / barrel oil and an even more unstable nuclear situation than the world now lives under. Perhaps the real monster is also all those companies from Black Water to KBR that have grown fat on the war on terror and, from a profit perspective, at least, actually have an incentive to see it continue. Yet out-of-control oil prices are valid security and economic concerns: If we can’t control the price of crude, we enter into the unknown. This is the bogey-man we really fear. This is the monster that threatens the status-quo. Also, Muslim states where real democracy thrives and not puppet regimes beholden to Western masters does cast the future of Israel in a more uncertain light.
In fact, oil is at the heart of many of the major policy conundrums for the last 50 + years. Despite the warning of the 1970′s oil crisis, we’ve done little since this time to seriously develop energy alternatives. There were also those long-ago adjurations from some of the best minds in the West, such as Kenneth Galbraith, who warned about an economy driven by over production of non-essential goods and an unhealthy reliance on credit. Yet the West, with the U.S. at the head of the pack, has been pulling the world forward on a relentless path devoid of values rooted in anything but infinitely increasing profits; a tumultuous and uncertain path that can only seem to end in a wasteland knee-deep in disposable petroleum-based products and forgotten, useless brands.
Isn’t it time we started being honest with ourselves? Terrorist groups in charge of major oil producing countries like Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia is the real monster we fear. Yet being from outer space, we must consider whether this logic is faulty and the simplistic reasons given by politicians for the war on terror are actually true. And that those who don’t agree are naysayers at best and potential terrorists at worst. But if this is true, the question why so many young men and women in the Middle East are blowing themselves up is undeniable. It keeps coming back to haunt us as though it were trying to remind us of something. Are they—the suicide terrorists—the uneducated morons with no futures that some make them out to be? Or do they earnestly believe they’re fighting a war to liberate their people?
This turns out not to be as easy a question to answer if your source of information is the Western mass media. While there are millions of web sites, blogs, and videos offering mountain upon mountain of commentary and analysis on these subjects, it’s quite difficult to find a straightforward answer. Or an unfiltered interview with a would-be suicide bomber, or even a citizen who’s endured living through the wretched conditions of the war-torn countries in the Middle East. Most of the content repeats what we’ve already heard ad infinitum. But thoughtful analysis by people like Professors Robert Pape and Riaz Hassan (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia) have offered strong arguments that there are political and sociological reasons that are motivating Muslim citizens throughout the Middle East to fight against the United States and other Western military forces.
“Contrary to the popular image that suicide terrorism is an outcome of irrational religious fanaticism, suicide bombing attacks are resolutely a politically-motivated phenomenon.”