America’s hyperreal war on terrorism

The following article which appeared in the Pakistani paper, Dawn, on November 5, 2001, has been reposted here. It is an article looking at the wider ramifications of a loose definition of terrorism as well as the political and economic implications, fiercly criticizing U.S. policies. You can see the original article at

America's hyperreal war on terrorism
05 November 2001
By Anis Shivani

The best way to understand "America's new war" is as a convenient legitimizing rubric to extend American economic and military power abroad, and to complete the repressive domestic agenda already set in motion during the post-cold war years in the guise of the "war on drugs."

In both instances, corporate globalization's increasingly intolerant attitude toward dissent of any kind is implicated. This is not so much a war against "terrorism," but a pre-emptive strike against domestic and international opposition to the hegemony of transnational capital in the early years of the twenty-first century.

In this most hyperreal of wars, nothing is as it seems. The most unprecedented repression of dissent and diversity of opinion at home is and will be accompanied by hollow echoes of borrowed liberal endorsement of multiculturalism and identity politics.

In other words, the harassment of Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and dissenters in general, including intellectuals, journalists, artists, and activists, will reach new levels of reach aided by intrusive surveillance and monitoring tools.

But even as this unprecedented repression goes ahead, the administration will continue to voice shopworn clichis about this war not being a war against Arabs or Muslims or dissenters, and official discourse will present what seems to be a convincing rationalization in the form of the need to unify in a moment of national crisis.

There won't be internments like that of the Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans, during World War II.

And this won't be flat-footed crushing of dissent, as in the Alien and Sedition Acts, the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Red Scare following World War I, or the blacklisting of alleged communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era. In fact, relative to the earlier repressions, the true amount of repression will extend to the entire population and to all classes of people, but the greater the repression now the greater the evocation of supposed toleration and freedom from official quarters.

This is the postmodern form of repression, where terror-originating from the state is completely unlocalized, and it penetrates to the very core of the potential dissenter's heart and mind, and allows no possible refuge from the panoptical sights of the police state.

About 1,000 people have been put in detention without terrorism-related charges having been filed since September 11. The use of "secret evidence" against immigrants, permitted after Clinton-era anti-terrorism legislation, will proliferate.

The First, Fourth, and Eighth Amendments are being destroyed to complete the destruction of the Bill of Rights brought about by the "war on drugs."

In effect, the anti-terrorism legislation of 2001 is analogous to Hitler's 1933 Enabling Act, converting the hithertofore soft American totalitarian state into a hard one, making explicit by writ of law what was already occurring in terms of supression of free speech, dissent against the corporate global order, and massive inequalities in access to power and justice.

The usurpation of the voters' will in the 2000 election was a test-run: since this judicial coup engendered no noticeable dissent among the intelligentsia, press, and common people, the stage was set for an all-out assault on the remaining liberties of the people.

Just as the war on drugs criminalized poverty at home (two million, mostly non-violent offenders, languish in jails, and millions more face drug-related charges), the undefinable, fluid, ever-shifting war on "terrorism" will take the war on dissent to a global scale. Since Seattle 1999, the implementation of the corporate globalization agenda has become increasingly problematic. The IMF and the World Bank were facing massive protests against their scheduled September meetings in Washington, D.C. It is easy to see how an expansive definition of terrorism can be manipulated to put down all domestic dissent against globalization, so-called "free trade," and the neoliberal consensus in general. A school child throwing a rock at a window would fall under the definition of terrorism.

Again, this generalized, state-generated fear has been accomplished without a shot being fired, without even an acknowledgement of the decimation of civil liberties that has occurred. The silence and complicity of elite's is akin to what must have occurred during the Nazi consolidation of power, and during the anti-Semitic repression, when millions of right-thinking Germans simply failed to raise a finger against the enormity of injustice that was being institutionalized.

The repressive tactics endorsed by the new laws have long been sought by the state's intelligence and security apparatus. It has been easy to sell increased wire-tapping authority as simply a way to catch up with new technology. A majority of Americans now support increased security checks on Arab-Americans, even special IDs. A national ID card, a universal tool of repression, cannot be far away. Racial profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans has been endorsed by even liberal Senators. Anti-globalization activists wonder if their shop has been closed for good.

The distinctive element of this wave of repression is that it is accompanied by soft talk. The president and his surrogates will continue to make the correct multicultural noises about acceptance of difference, even advocacy of a Palestinian state should that be necessary to buy the short-term allegiance of recalcitrant Muslim states, but the words will be as hollow as the administration's "compassionate conservative" ideology. As more than $2 trillion was handed out to the richest Americans in a "tax cut" designed to starve the federal government of resources for public spending, the compassionate part of this policy relied on the armies of compassion to rally ordinary people to public service and on so-called faith-based initiatives to handle the welfare discards.

In this surreal war, an intended replay of the cold war with a new postmodern gloss, coalitions will be shifting for ever depending on the enemy of the moment. Iran, Russia, and China, with their own problems with internal dissenters, are momentary allies, but when the next steps are taken in this global war - say, an attack on Iraq, which the administration hawks are pushing for - the nature of the coalition will shift according to the dictates of the moment.

All through the cold war, the US supported reactionary, dictatorial regimes to fight the threat of communism. There was no principle involved except for the momentary roll-back of the immediate threat. Similarly, in this new war, the American people are being trained not to think of coalitions and alliances as permanent or rooted in anything but immediate expediencies.

Analogous to the war on drugs, which institutionalized indifference to poverty and inequality in the name of "quality of life" and a supposed ethic of responsibility, the war on terrorism is meant to neutralize any ideological alternative to the neo-liberal structure planned for the entire globe. In the decade since the end of the cold war, the US has been desperate to find an enemy worthy of stepping into the vacuum created by the Russians. But neither the new Russian state nor China, nor indeed the assorted "rogue states" or terror threats of the nineties, really filled the bill. The terrorists are all but being invited to put into motion that which will guarantee them the greatest possible attention and reward.

The question now is the extent to which transnational capital will allow the explicit repression of dissent at home, and the crushing of recalcitrant states not quite convinced of the neo-liberal consensus, to go forward. Since the end of the cold war, the strategy had been mostly soft repression, such as comes about by seductive offers of bounties upon joining the global alliance. If elites were ready to abandon commitment to equality and distributive justice, the rewards were immediate and plentiful.

Nevertheless, things were spinning out of control. A global recession was in the offing. Anti-globalization dissent was spreading like a virus.

The Senate was lost by the Republicans, and a generalized resentment was taking hold against the hegemony of transnational corporations in the most corrupt political system on earth.

But with Cheney, Powell, Rice and other holdovers from Bush I, it was surely only a matter of time before a re-enactment of past Middle East wars would take place to divert the public from the economic decline at home, and to further marginalize the voices crying out for social justice during the 2000 presidential campaign.

This president had to be instantly converted into a "statesman" with very high ratings, the rest of the corporate domestic agenda had to be completed, and a new justification was to be engineered for the burgeoning military budget (now nearly $400 billion a year).

The war on terrorism signifies not a return to multilateralism, as some have suggested, but an escalation of the unilateralist position already taken by conservatives during the first eight months of this administration. "You're either with us or against us." Is that multilateralism? The US is only seeking a thin cover for its avowed military and economic goals (including assertion of hegemony in the key, oil-rich Central Asian region), but it is not multilateralism by any means.

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