December 19, 2015

America's Asymmetrical War Against the Muslim World

by Sheldon Richman

The demagogic exaggeration of the "terrorist threat," which was the centerpiece of the last Republican debates, is easily deflated with just a moment's thought. What is the chance that any particular resident of the United States will happen to be in the same place as someone who intends to murder in the name of the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, or some other cause? Less than minuscule. Many commonplace things are likely to kill you long before you encounter an Islamist, white-supremacist, or anti-abortion terrorist in the United States. Typically, we don't find it worth the money it would take to substantially reduce those other risks. We could cut traffic fatalities considerably by outlawing left turns and reducing the speed limit to 5 MPH. But who would support those measures? So why tolerate the government's spending trillions of dollars (not to mention the violations of liberty) in its futile attempts to save us and our open society from all possible terrorism - especially when it could make us safer by spending less money and respecting our liberty through a noninterventionst foreign policy?

Of course, the assessment of the small risk would change - although not significantly, given the size of the U.S. population and land mass - if we knew that the number of would-be terrorists was growing. But we can be confident, as John Mueller and Mark. G. Stewart note, that the number is tiny. How do we know? We know because we don't see much terrorism in the United States. As Mueller and Stewart note, 9/11 was an obvious outlier and many of the foiled terrorist plots were instigated or at least advanced by FBI informants. (Attacks at military facilities should not be counted as terrorism, a loaded term coined to let the US government and Israel get away with murder.) And what terrorism we've seen has not been terribly sophisticated.

Some forms of terrorism are difficult to pull off. The coordinated hijacking of multiple airplanes by men armed with box cutters (although low-tech) was no simple mission, and with (low-tech) locks on flight-deck doors it has become even more difficult. But other forms are easy if you don't mind dying or, indeed, you wish to die. It is not rocket science to come up with ways to kill lots of innocent people. Sayed Farook and Tashfeen Malik walked into a crowded office party with legally purchased firearms, killed 14 people, and wounded 22. In Israel the other day, a Palestinian drove his car into a group of Israelis waiting for a bus. That sort of activity cannot be foiled unless the perpetrators publicly declare their intentions, which, by the way, Malik did not do. Others are not likely to do so either.

If America were crawling with ISIS cells or self-"radicalized" lone wolves, we'd be seeing far more violence than we've seen. Right after 9/11, officials and analysts said they were certain a "second wave" was coming. It did not happen.

Moreover, as Mueller and Stewart point out, most would-be terrorists appear to be misfits who couldn't bomb their way out of a paper bag and wouldn't even try without goading by an FBI informant. The fear-mongering anti-terrorism complex - which consists of the government-media-"terrorism-expert" industry - portrays would-be terrorists as an invincible force of crack operatives led by "masterminds" who are high-tech wizards. (The fear-mongers would have you believe that encryption was invented by ISIS.) But the record does not support this picture. Just as the Cold Warriors had a financial and power interest in having us think the Russians were 10 feet tall, so the counter-terrorism lobby has the same interest in persuading us that "Islamists" are uniquely and diabolically cunning; they will soon be making suitcase nukes, it is intimated, and bringing them to Times Square.

Republican presidential candidates delight in saying that "we are at war." Indeed, depending on whether you count the Cold War, we're either in World War III or World War IV. Balderdash! The terrorist incidents in the West in fact demonstrate the asymmetrical nature of what's going on between the United States and its targets in the Muslim world. The US government and its accomplices are waging actual war. Even if the ground force is (currently) small and remote-controlled drones are increasingly preferred over conventional bombers and gunships, the war now conducted by the West is not far removed from traditional war.

In contrast, terrorists commit crimes (torts, really) against people in the United States, France, etc. They shoot up parties, concert halls, and restaurants. It's horrible, but it's not war. ISIS and al-Qaeda have no armies capable of invading the United States, no navies, no air forces. They have no ability to conquer the country or bring down the government. In no sense can they defeat us. Only we can do that.

"We" are at war with them. They are not at war with us. The terrorism we've witnessed is resorted to precisely because they, or more precisely their domestic sympathizers, are unable to wage war against American society. Those who insist loudest that we are being warred upon understand that a government on a war footing will be permitted to exercise an intolerable degree of power over us. Presidential candidates drool over the thought of themselves as commanders-in-chief.

When Rick Santorum, echoing his presidential rivals, says that "radical Islam is on the move and their motives are to destroy the western world," he's merely vying for votes by spreading baseless fear. A few "lone wolves" do not constitute "radical Islam," and motives (even if correctly ascertained) are irrelevant when capability is lacking. Mueller and Stewart describe a "terrorist" who aspired to topple the Sears Tower in Chicago, have it slide into Lake Michigan, where it would (he hoped) create a tsunami, which would wash back on the city, and open a jail, springing the inmates. Shall we lose sleep over such plots?

As I've said before, the price exacted from Americans by the cynical anti-terrorism complex consists in lost liberty, lost privacy, lost prosperity, and needless stress. But there's another high price: the social destruction that will result from the suspicion directed at American (and other) Muslims. It's well-established that ISIS and al-Qaeda want to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims in America and elsewhere. American politicians say they don't want that to happen, but the logic of their rhetoric and authoritarian proposals cannot help but sow hostility toward all Muslims.


Sheldon Richman is chairman of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society. He blogs at Free Association.

"List of wars involving the United States," (1775 to the present)

General Smedley Darlington Butler, "War Is A Racket," 1933

Sir Peter Ustinov, "Terrorism is the war of the poor. War is the terrorism of the rich," 1921--2004

The UN High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change "defined terrorism as any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organisation to do, or abstain from, any act."

Leon T. Hadar, "The "Green Peril": Creating the Islamic Fundamentalist Threat," Cato Institute, August 27, 1992

The War on Islam

Enver Masud, "A Clash Between Justice and Greed, Not Islam and the West," The Wisdom Fund, September 2, 2002

Andrew Beatty, "Poll: Israel and US Biggest Threats to World Peace," EUobserver, October 30, 2003

"Wrongful Death Compensation: Afghan $200, Iraqi $600, Indian $1200, French $1 Million, American $10 Million, Israeli-American $116 Million," The Wisdom Fund, November 26, 2003

Jacob Bender, "Lessons From the Three Wise Men," The Wisdom Fund, December 20, 2003

"America's Empire of Bases," The Wisdom Fund, January 15, 2004

[American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies.

  • Muslims do not "hate our freedom," but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states.
  • Thus when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy. Moreover, saying that "freedom is the future of the Middle East" is seen as patronizing, suggesting that Arabs are like the enslaved peoples of the old Communist World - but Muslims do not feel this way: they feel oppressed, but not enslaved.
  • Furthermore, in the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering. U.S. actions appear in contrast to be motivated by ulterior motives, and deliberately controlled in order to best serve American national interests at the expense of truly Muslim self- determination.
  • Therefore, the dramatic narrative since 9/11 has essentially borne out the entire radical Islamist bill of particulars. American actions and the flow of events have elevated the authority of the Jihadi insurgents and tended to ratify their legitimacy among Muslims. Fighting groups portray themselves as the true defenders of an Ummah (the entire Muslim community) invaded and under attack - to broad public support.
  • What was a marginal network is now an Ummah-wide movement of fighting groups. Not only has there been a proliferation of "terrorist" groups: the unifying context of a shared cause creates a sense of affiliation across the many cultural and sectarian boundaries that divide Islam.
  • Finally, Muslims see Americans as strangely narcissistic - namely, that the war is all about us. As the Muslims see it, everything about the war is - for Americans - really no more than an extension of American domestic politics and its great game. This perception is of course necessarily heightened by election-year atmospherics, but nonetheless sustains their impression that when Americans talk to Muslims they are really just talking to themselves.
--"Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Strategic Communication," Office of the Under Secretary of Defense For Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, September 2004, page 40-41]

["This is a memo that describes how we're going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran."--Gen. Wesley Clark, "'Seven Countries in Five Years',", March 2, 2007]

Sheldon Richman, "Why They Hate Us," The Future of Freedom Foundation, June 27, 2007

[That climate makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that the majority of mainstream Muslims hate terrorism and violence as much as we do--John L. Esposito, "Want to Understand Islam? Start Here," The Washington Post, July 22, 2007]

"Regime Change: 'Seven Countries in Five Years'," The Wisdom Fund, October 12, 2007

"Bush Administration Exploited Terror Plots For Political Gain," Huffington Post, February 23, 2008

"American Patriots: Muslims Didn't Do 9/11," The Wisdom Fund, September 11, 2011

Aaronson Trevor Aaronson, "How the FBI's Network of Informants Actually Created Most of the Terrorist Plots 'Foiled' in the US Since 9/11," Mother Jones, October 9, 2011

John Feffer, "Crusade 2.0: The West's Resurgent War on Islam," City Lights Publishers (March 20, 2012)

Mehdi Hasan, "Islam Is A Peaceful Religion," Oxford Union, July 3, 2013

Mehdi Hasan, "What the Jihadists Who Bought 'Islam For Dummies' on Amazon Tell Us About Radicalisation,", August 21, 2014

War on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya: Craig Murray, former UK ambassador, speaks out, September 17, 2014

Ted Galen Carpenter, "Moving Beyond Self-Serving Myths: Acknowledging the Principal Cause of Radical Islamic Terrorism,", December 14, 2015

Paul Street, "An Idiot's Guide to Why They Hate Us,", December 22, 2015

Chris Hedges, "The American Empire: Murder Inc,", January 3, 2016

Adam Johnson, "U.S. Dropped 23,144 Bombs on Muslim-Majority Countries in 2015,", January 8, 2016

[colonialism and imperialism are two most deadly forms of terrorism--Andre Vltchek, "How the West Creates Terrorism,", January 22, 2016]

[According to retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, a Vietnam veteran who served as chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell . . . "The things they do seem like heinous acts of terrorism to us, but in fact that is the only option we've left them with."--Vegas Tenold, "The Untold Casualties of the Drone War,", February 18, 2016]

[They don't hate 'our freedoms.' They hate that we've betrayed our ideals in their own countries--Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., "Why the Arabs Don't Want Us in Syria,", February 22, 2016]

[All the major world faiths produce violent people. In the Rwanda genocide of the 1990s, Christian Hutus murdered between 500,000 and 1 million other people, and the Christian churches were deeply involved in enabling this slaughter.--Juan Cole, "How Not to Talk About Muslims After a Terrorist Attack,", March 23, 2016]

[Islamic extremism was virtually unknown fifty years ago and suicide bombings were inconceivable.--Gary Leech, "Islamic Extremism is a Product of Western Imperialism,", March 23, 2016]

Stephen M Walt, "Monsters of Our Own Imaginings,", March 24, 2016

[connecting terrorism to Western intervention could spark a serious self-examination--Joe Lauria, "Why We're Never Told Why We're Attacked,", April 9, 2016]

Fareed Zakaria, "Why they hate us,", June 20, 2016
Editorial Comment: Fareed makes some valid points, but his conclusions are only partially correct because:

The state of Infinite war will not stop - Gareth Porter Talks w/ Lee Camp, August 26, 2016

Murtaza Hussain and Cora Currier, "U.S. Military Operations Are Biggest Motivation for Homegrown Terrorists, FBI Study Finds,", October 11 2016

[The U.S. dropped an average of 72 bombs every day - the equivalent of three an hour - in 2016--F. Brinley Bruton, "U.S. Bombed Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia in 2016,", January 9 2017]

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