Another Essay I had to write for College back in April '09

United States: Terrorism and Domestic Preparedness

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the unsuccessful attack (probably aimed at the White House or Camp David) that resulted in the crash of a jetliner in Pennsylvania have resulted in a new and surprising emphasis by the Bush administration on fighting terrorism.

Rebels, insurgents, paramilitaries, separatists, militants, guerrillas, insurrectionists, fundamentalists... are these all terrorists? Or does terrorism claim its own exclusive niche? The annoying inability to define terrorism is betrayed in the UN 2006 Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy - "we, the States Members of the United Nations...strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes".

The UN has been motivated for decades to find a phrasing for terrorism which, as a replacement for "all its forms and manifestations", narrows down to a precise profile of violence which can be condemned despite of the circumstances. The lack of an agreed definition matters for many reasons. It blocks the possibility of referring terrorist acts to an international court, as for genocide and other war crimes; it leaves individual countries free to prohibit activity which they want to classify as terrorism, possibly for their own political convenience; and critically it enabled the Bush administration to conjure in the public mind parallels between the 9/11 attacks of the World Trade Center and the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. The vocabulary of terrorism has become the successor to that of anarchy and communism as the catch-all label of contempt, exploited accordingly by media and politicians.

Over the last 20-30 years the UN has approved 13 Conventions which try to eliminate terrorist activity. These conventions culminated in 2006 in a broad Global Strategy to Defeat Terrorism which promise a coordinated plan of action thanks to "unique consensus achieved by world leaders". Such claims to consensus are however undermined by those states that have abused their monopoly of legitimate violence. Although often conducted at arms length, violence sponsored by governments such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe has undeniably instilled fear into their own populations, perhaps encroaching into the domain of terrorism and adding complexity to its classification.

During the Cold War, American foreign policy was built on the twin bases of containment and alliances: containment of the Soviet Union and her allies and alliances with our friends in support of that containment. The critical element in the achievement of that policy was approval by both sides that the nuclear weaponry of the day would stop any preemptive strike of one against the other. We called that MAD, or Mutual Assured Destruction. An extra important element in that policy was the fact that our allies, and to a fairly lesser extent the allies of the Soviet Union, were able to implement constraints on the policies and behavior of both of the principals. Say what you will, even with a couple of very close calls, that policy prevailed and the Cold War never turned hot.

The role of the intelligence community during the Cold War, as it is (or should be) at any given time, was to provide policy makers with finished intelligence designed to help with the decision making process. Whether or not the collection and analytical processes succeed, all the intelligence-producing organizations in the intelligence community are designed to provide that product.

The demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the accompanying threat of Soviet nuclear weaponry brought a close to that era. The events of 9/11 set us on a completely different path. Since that horrible moment, we have embarked on a totally new foreign policy of preemptive unilateralism and an equally new domestic policy of intolerance for dissent and of creating and maintaining fear and anxiety in the American public. The question for examination is whether or not those changes and these new policies serve us well in the ongoing struggle with radical Muslim terrorism.

In 1995, President Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 39 (PDD-39), the United States Policy on Counterterrorism. This Presidential Directive built upon previous directives for combating terrorism and further elaborated a strategy and an interagency coordination mechanism and management structure to be undertaken by the Federal government to combat both domestic and international terrorism in all its forms. This authority includes implementing measures to reduce our vulnerabilities, deterring terrorism through a clear public position, responding rapidly and effectively to threats or actual terrorist acts, and giving the highest priority to developing sufficient capabilities to combat and manage the consequences of terrorist incidents involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The administration’s domestic policy during our period has been based solely on ensuring the “security of the American people.” That has brought us the Patriot Acts, wireless wiretapping, the abrogation of habeas corpus, torture, rendition, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. We have been given a color coded terrorist threat warning system and daily hammering on what constitutional rights Americans have to give up to be “safe.” Most importantly, this administration and its supporters in the Congress, the media, and the public have resorted to the worst kinds of character assassination and name calling to maintain the atmosphere of fear and anxiety they have so adroitly created. If you disagree with the policy they support, you are “soft on terror,” “unpatriotic,” or, even worse, a traitor. In short, dissent is intimidated — a process never approved by our founding fathers.

Though 9/11 has brought terrorism to the forefront of many American citizen minds, Terrorism, however, was hardly ignored in previous administrations. In fact, at the start of the Reagan administration, Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced that resistance to terrorism would replace the Carter administration’s focus on advancing human rights throughout the world. Even though opposition to terrorism never really became the chief focus of the Reagan administration or successor administrations, each of these paid major attention to the issue and produced many significant documents that shed light on the policy choices faced today. Terrorism has been the topic of numerous presidential and Defense Department directives as well as executive orders. Terrorist groups and terrorist acts have been the focal point of reports by both executive branch agencies (for example, the State Department, CIA, and FBI) as well as Congressional bodies – including the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Congressional Research Service. The General Accounting Office has also produced several dozen reports evaluating the U.S. government’s ability to prevent or mitigate terrorist strikes.

The failure of the tools of counter-terrorism to stop the destruction of the World Trade Center led to the beginning of rhetoric as an additional weapon. The Bush administration packaged counter-terrorism as "the war on terror" with references to a crusade. In choosing words which conjured the specter of a clash between Christian and Muslim civilizations, the Americans reinforced rather than damaged al-Qaeda ideology, uniting rather than exploiting the deep divisions within Islam. It is no wonder that European leaders were horrified. References to a crusade were swiftly cast off but it was not until the latter part of 2006 that the US moderated its warrior imagery of counter-terrorism.

The ability of the United States Government to prevent, deter, defeat and respond decisively to terrorist attacks against our citizens, whether these attacks occur domestically, in international waters or airspace, or on foreign soil, is one of the most challenging priorities facing our nation today. The United States regards all such terrorism as a potential threat to national security, as well as a violent criminal act, and will apply all appropriate means to combat this danger. In doing so, the United States vigorously pursues efforts to deter and preempt these crimes and to apprehend and prosecute directly, or assist other governments in prosecuting, individuals who perpetrate or plan such terrorist attacks.

Since the September 11 attacks, America is safer, but we are not yet safe. We have done much to degrade al-Qaida and its affiliates and to undercut the perceived legitimacy of terrorism. Our Muslim partners are speaking out against those who seek to use their religion to justify violence and a totalitarian vision of the world. We have significantly expanded our counterterrorism coalition, transforming old adversaries into new and vital partners in the War on Terror. We have liberated more than 50 million Afghans and Iraqis from despotism, terrorism, and oppression, permitting the first free elections in recorded history for either nation. In addition, we have transformed our governmental institutions and framework to wage a generational struggle. There will continue to be challenges ahead, but along with our partners, we will attack terrorism and its ideology, and bring hope and freedom to the people of the world. This is how we will win the War on Terror.

Nevertheless, real doubts linger over the capability of politicians. The fundamental alteration of attitudes necessary to neutralize terrorism can perhaps be engineered only by good citizenship. We may need to devote more energy to the incorporation of mixed ethnic communities and to the inequalities that are inseparable from modern economics. If we cannot express to politicians that global fairness, peace and human dignity matter more than the comforts of consumerism, then our fate may certainly be similar to the idea of Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy in which the English poet reacted to British government-sponsored violence in 1819:

And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken....

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