Why did the United States choose to frame its imperialist posture after 9-11 as a 'global war on terrorism?' Not a few have been puzzled by this way of justifying the new projection of American power. Terrorism is a tactic, not a country; it is a tool, not an ideology or an end. How does one wage war against a tactic or a tool? Economics Professor M. Shahid Alam asks these questions and explains how the frame works.

One day Mulla Nasruddin went to his neighbor, known to be a mean fellow. "Sir," he explained, "your ox has gored my cow and killed her after she refused his amorous advances." His neighbors shot back, "So what has that got to do with me? Should a man be held responsible for what an animal does." The Mulla answered cheekily, "Thank you, Sir. It was my ox that gored your cow."

Adapted from: Idries Shah,  The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasruddin

The United States declared a 'global war on terrorism' within days of the attacks of September 11, 2001 on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Instantly, terrorism was elevated by the US establishment and media into the greatest, most ominous threat the 'civilized world' had faced since the collapse of communism.

Why did the United States choose to frame its imperialist posture after 9-11 as a 'global war on terrorism?' Not a few have been puzzled by this way of justifying the new projection of American power. Terrorism is a tactic, not a country; it is tool, not an ideology or an end. How does one wage war against a tactic or a tool?

Nevertheless, the frame was cleverly chosen. It was and remains a most effective tool for mobilizing the American public behind the neo-conservative project of using wars - multiple and endless, if necessary - to deepen America's global dominance and to make it irreversible.

Instead of tracking them down
through surveillance and police work,
the United States has used the
elusiveness of terrorists to justify
pre-emptive strikes and wars.
In addition, since terrorists may be
hiding anywhere, the war against
terrorism must be global.

On September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists tragically brought death to Americans on their own soil. Barring the attacks of Pearl Harbor, this was unprecedented in American history. The terrorists had demonstrated that Americans were vulnerable to attacks inside their own shores. It now appeared that the blowback from US policies in the Middle East could reach across the Atlantic to hit the US itself. To say the least, this was disconcerting.

American policy makers chose to magnify this new vulnerability to advance their imperialist goals. By constantly harping on terrorism, by hyping the threat of terrorist attacks, fearful Americans would both endorse curbs on liberties at home and endless wars abroad - anything that would prevent 'Islamic' terrorists from crossing American shores. The 'global war against terrorism' looked like the perfect tool for producing these twin results.

The rhetoric of terrorism had other uses too. Terrorists operate without a return address, are ready to strike anywhere, and sometimes die with their victims. Instead of tracking them down through surveillance and police work, the United States has used the elusiveness of terrorists to justify pre-emptive strikes and wars. In addition, since terrorists may be hiding anywhere, the war against terrorism must be global.

Just as importantly, the United States has used its rhetoric of terrorism to delegitimize all forms of resistance. This occurs in two stages. First, US agencies employ a definition of terrorism that covers all groups that use violence as a means to achieve political ends, even legitimate political ends. Thus, Hamas and Hizbullah are 'terrorists.' Next, individuals or groups who provide 'material assistance' to 'terrorists' are also 'terrorists.' The United States has stretched this logic to delegitimize all resistance movements that it views as contrary to US interests.

A Google search also reveals that
the 'global war on terrorism'
is directed primarily at Muslims.
A search for exact phrases that
combined 'Islamic,' 'Muslim,' 'Moslem,'
and 'Islam and,' with 'terrorism,'
'terrorists,' and 'terror' yielded a total
of 3.3 million hits. On the other hand,
exact phrases that combined 'Tamil'
with 'terrorism,' 'terrorists,' and
'terror' turned up only 26,000 hits.
Substituting 'Jewish' for 'Tamil'
produced 211,000 hits.

Although the United States has almost exclusively targeted Muslims in recent years, it continues to insist that Muslims per se are not the enemy. They only target those who are 'terrorists' and those who support 'terrorist.' It is a clever distinction that empowers the 'good' Muslims who are on our side - mostly corrupt and despotic rulers - to fight the 'bad' Muslims, who are 'terrorists.'

In other words, the 'global war against terrorism' is a powerful rhetorical device that mobilized overwhelming domestic support at least, before the Iraq war became a quagmire behind America's imperialist posture that depended on endless, pre-emptive and illegal wars.

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that 'terrorism' as the new cover for a more invasive imperialism has quickly come to dominate the global public discourse. A Google search for 'terrorism' turned up 72 million hits, not too far behind the 97 million hits for 'democracy.' Taken together, the related terms 'terror,' 'terrorism,' and 'terrorists' generated 236 million hits, which exceed the 210 million hits for 'freedom.'

A Google search also reveals that the 'global war on terrorism' is directed primarily at Muslims. A search for exact phrases that combined 'Islamic,' 'Muslim,' 'Moslem,' and 'Islam and,' with 'terrorism,' 'terrorists,' and 'terror' yielded a total of 3.3 million hits. On the other hand, exact phrases that combined 'Tamil' with 'terrorism,' 'terrorists,' and 'terror' turned up only 26,000 hits. Substituting 'Jewish' for 'Tamil' produced 211,000 hits.

Why is the talk of terrorism directed overwhelmingly at Muslims? Despite the rhetoric of a 'global war on terrorism,' by now we know all too well that this war is aimed at Muslims, mainly at Muslims in the Middle East. This is a war of 'colonial pacification' of Islamic lands: the Muslims must be 'pacified' to secure 'our' oil wells in the Persian Gulf, and to entrench Israeli hegemony over the Middle East. This is also a religious war for the radical core of American evangelicals; it fits into their theology of end times. We ignore this only at our peril.

Click here for other articles by M. Shahid Alam:
Has Regime Change Boomeranged?
An 'Islamic Civil War'
Pitting The West Against Islam
Not All Terrorists Are Muslim
Israel, The U.S. And The New Orientalism
The Muslims America Loves
Real Men Go To Tehran
Did Thomas Friedman Flunk History

M. Shahid Alam, professor of economics at a university in Boston, is also a regular contributor to CounterPunch.org. Some of his CounterPunch essays are now available in the book, Is There An Islamic Problem? (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He is also the author of Challenging the New Orientalism: Dissenting Essays on America's  'War Against Islam' (IPI Publications: forthcoming).He may be reached at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.
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February 16, 2007