Battle in Print: Beyond the war on terror

Alex Gourevitch

I am against the ‘war on terror’. I do not think our governments should attempt to mobilize society, its citizens, resources, and political ideas to ‘fight’ terrorism. But it is also not enough just to object to the war on terror. There are as many problems with the critics of the war on terror as with those who promote it.

What is the terrorism issue about? It seems to be a free-floating, all-encompassing problem, dramatizing threats to personal safety, or global imperial ambitions, or the politics of manipulation, or the struggle to preserve civilisation itself. One thing is for sure, its outsized importance in our society indicates that the issue is about more than terrorism itself. The terrorism issue is about how we think of the relationship between liberty, security and the purpose of politics.

After all, a brief glance at a few statistics demonstrates that the political preoccupation with terrorism cannot be understood in terms of a rational response to a specific threat. Even in 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks, a person in the USA was more likely to die from a car accident or even lightning strike than from an act of terrorism. Foreign policy guru John Mueller made this argument pointedly in Foreign Affairs last year:

It is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000 - about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor. Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two hundredths of a percent (or one in 5,000) (Mueller 2006).

These statistics are public knowledge, though often ignored. Yet even those who do pay them attention tend to take the wrong lesson from them.

Some, like Mueller, believe they can defeat the war on terror, or at least the more hysterical versions of it, just by rolling out the facts. These critics believe that any attempt to exaggerate the threat of terrorism for political purposes is doomed to collapse under the sheer weight of evidence. Thus the most effective tool of criticism is cold, hard facts combined with a dose of clear, simple logic. Yet not only has evidence alone been powerless to combat over-reaction and fear-mongering, it has been met with what social critic Slavoj Zizek has called the ‘will not to know’. When confronted with seemingly simple arguments about the threat of terrorism relative to other threats, many seem ignorant or indifferent, or are unwilling to absorb it politically and modify their opinions.

This ‘will not to know’ is sometimes confused with the idea that the public is easily manipulated. Critics are often surprised that, after lies have been exposed, ‘sexed up’ dossiers dressed down, and the true facts delivered, the public remains passive, or fails to reach an adequately fevered pitch of moral outrage. From this apathy, critics conclude that citizens are easily swayed by propaganda, especially when the government plays on private fears. What else could explain indifference to deception and irrationality?

A quote from Michael Moore, whose shock-docs are enthusiastically embraced by liberals and the left, expresses this sentiment clearly. He described his movie Fahrenheit 9/11 as: ‘about the Iraq war and the war on terrorism and the use of fear to manipulate the public’ (Ramsay 27.12.2004). Libertarian critics have tended towards the same quasi-conspiracy, manipulation theory. On one of the most popular libertarian antiwar websites, a commentator compared the Bush administration’s attempt to ‘manufacture a permanent state of war’ to the movie Brazil in which ‘the threat of terrorism is manipulated by the state as a means of political control over the population’ (Blumen 28.5.2003).

Attacking the government for manipulating public fears has the colour of a democratic protest and serious political criticism. It appears to take the side of the people against the leadership. But there are at least three problems with this way of criticising anti-terrorism policy. First, it is at heart a cynical critique of anti-terrorism measures and the war on terror. A political argument that presupposes the pure gullibility of the public might place little trust in government, but it has less faith in the capacities of democratic citizens, rendered automatons by propaganda and fear-mongering. To be sure, fear-mongering has become a staple of the terrorism debate. But a ‘progressive’ view that believes people are so easily fooled by the official story undermines itself. If that is the case, why would more reason and democracy be the answer to political irrationality and paternalism? Why place one’s trust in the rational capacities of a public so easily swayed?

Another dispiriting aspect of the conspiratorial argument that the public is being manipulated by ulterior motives, is that it places the real operations of power beyond any possibility of control in the first place. If sinister interests and hidden forces are so effective at getting what they want, then the real exercise of power is beyond the reach of democratic majorities. So not only can we not really trust the public, but democratic action seems to be an exercise in futility.

Finally, the manipulation argument is an abandonment of responsibility by critics themselves because it implicitly blames the public for its willingness to be manipulated. It gives the appearance that the critics have exhausted their duties by exposing bad arguments and outright lies to the harsh light of truth, logic and basic common sense. If there are no further arguments for the critic to make, someone else must be responsible for the absence of political progress. This line of argument fails to consider the alternative possibility: that the critics have failed to muster the right kinds of arguments. With regard to the terrorism issue, this is where public criticism has fallen short.

Logical refutation of arguments may be necessary, but it is not a sufficient way of criticising one’s opponent. It presumes that the only thing at stake, or the only aspect of public arguments that should be taken seriously, are empirical claims (‘the terrorist threat is imminent’) and not political principles (‘security is the first principle of politics’). The war on terror is not accepted (or at least acquiesced to) only because people are convinced of the existence of a threat. In fact, the everyday behaviour of most people - riding the subway, going to work, living in tall buildings, visiting crowded public places, getting on planes - suggests that at some level the public is not overly worried. What the public does seem to accept, or at least does not object to, is the political principle that the government should protect its citizens from any threat, however small. (Of course, the politicians never ask the public to decide whether it should support this or some other role for government). That is to say, the real problem is not the weakness of the public mind, but the insubstantial character of the counter-arguments. It may very well be true that death by lightning strike is more common than death by terrorism, but what does that mean politically? What about the argument that, no matter how small the threat, the government should protect us from it?

After all, no matter how many ulterior motives, sinister interests, and lies are involved in the terrorism issue, or any issue, there is also a serious political argument. The supporters of a war or collective struggle against terrorism claim a certain kind of role for government - that of protector - and seek to place the struggle to survive at the heart of politics. A serious engagement with the terrorism issue cannot stop at the question of threat scenarios and damage assessments. One must face the question of political principle head on. Is security really the issue that should drive government?

The issue of principle becomes more vivid if we look at another commonly voiced complaint about official efforts to fight terrorism. In the United Kingdom, it is frequently argued that the invasion of Iraq has created the very terrorism the British public now fears. Similarly, some commentators have objected that President Bush’s policies are misguided because they have made the United States less safe. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser under President Carter, has argued that the use of the phrase ‘war on terror’ has ‘undermined our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us’. Widening the scope of this line of criticism, former vice-president Al Gore claims the war on terror has led us to ignore more imminent threats, stating ‘global warming is a threat greater than terrorism’ (Gore 17.4.2006). One way or another, for these critics the problem with the war on terror is that it makes us less safe, either by producing more terrorism or by distracting us from real threats.

There is a kernel of truth in these arguments. There are more serious problems facing society than terrorism. But in the form they take, these criticisms only reinforce the premise of the war on terror because they accept security is the primary consideration. If there is a political principle underlying the war on terror it is that security is the prime object of politics, and that all other values are relative to the ability of the government to protect individuals from harm. That is why even the smallest threat is taken so seriously. It is also why the easiest, most opportunistic criticism of the war on terror adopts the same principle against official policy. It takes the least amount of independent thought and political effort to accept the dominant political ideas and try to use them for one’s own purposes, as, for instance, the Democrats have tried to do when they criticise the Republicans for making Americans less safe.

So, we must ask, what is the problem with making security the first principle of politics, and what does it mean in the first place? The answer requires some historical perspective. This is not the first time that security has been a political issue, or that fear has been a dominant force in politics; but there is something distinctive about the way we think about security now. First of all, today perceptions of insecurity matter as much as the threat itself. It is not just that politicians have discovered that managing public opinion is an important part of any successful political campaign for a given objective. Rather, it is that managing public opinion has become an objective in its own right. Assuaging public fears, regardless of threats or consequences, is understood to be a legitimate task of politicians, and politicians that fail to respect public fears, or challenge them, lose legitimacy, at least in the short-run.

An American example helps illustrate what the politics of security means in our society. While playing on and managing fears is often associated with a conservative politics that prefers order over change, it is now so mainstream that we can find a vivid justification for it from a well-known, liberal public intellectual and legal scholar. Bruce Ackerman, law professor at Yale University, has recently written that the Constitution should be rewritten to allow the government to perform a ‘reassurance’ function during emergencies. Regardless of the effectiveness, rationality, or appropriateness of the specific powers exercised, Ackerman thinks that, for a short time, suspensions of normal civil liberties are justified so long as they reassure the public and calm feeling of insecurity. This ‘reassurance rationale’, as Ackerman (2004: 1031) calls it, is an extraordinary departure from a long-standing, centuries old argument that, if extraordinary suspensions of normal liberties are legitimate at all, they are so only if they address a real threat and are limited to doing what is necessary to eliminate the threat itself.

Ackerman did not come up with this ‘reassurance’ function of government out of thin air. He took the idea that the first purpose of government is to reassure the public, and to treat citizens as if they cannot make a distinction between a serious and a marginal threat, from our contemporary political culture. The idea that political leaders can establish their power and authority by making us feel safe is shared by those who have made the terrorism threat into an organising principle for politics. The war on terror is organised around defending this role for government, as much as it is about dealing with actual terrorism.

Thus, what is wrong with this security-based politics is the way it endorses a quasi-authoritarian role for government even as it imposes limits on political life and public expectations. By exalting security, it turns merely surviving into an achievement, and transforms the preservation of mere life into an epochal, civilisation-defining struggle. For example, when Gordon Brown said, after the botched car bombings in July, that ‘we will not back down’, he was not responding to any actual demand to ‘back down’ or to any substantial threat to British political and social institutions - there is no possibility that terrorists themselves can bring down the government or subvert the social order. Rather, Brown was using this overwrought, self-important language to try and make the banal activity of keeping the public safe the raison d’etre of British politics.

This elevation of security is at the same time the evacuation of meaning from politics. It reduces political discussion from a debate over lofty ideals to a technical question over how best to make people safe. In the process, it forgets or actively avoids asking why we seek security in the first place - security itself is made an end rather than a means to higher ends. The political philosopher Corey Robin reminds us that one of the oldest lessons in politics is that we cannot really know what to fear before we know what we value - ‘what made something fearful, in other words, was morality, and behind morality, politics’ (Robin 2004: xvii). Any attempt to place a discussion of safety before a discussion of higher ideals - in contemporary parlance, of putting security before liberty - short circuits an absolutely necessary and prior political discussion.

This is what happens with the terrorism issue, and the liberty and security debate that surrounds it. Either because they have no inspiring ideas about what makes us free, or because they wish to avoid such a discussion, our leaders focus political debate and decisions on how best to achieve security. In the absence of a political debate over what institutions might make us free - be it a society based on property ownership, or a redistributive state, or collective ownership - there is no basis on which we can assess which threats matter more and which less. Without a sense of which institutions or relationships take priority, there is no way to distinguish and prioritise threats; perceptions of threat can seem as valid as real threats.

That is why I believe that the most important thing isn’t just to muster facts that refute claims about this or that threat. We must reject the idea that security comes first and that survival is the highest goal of politics. Indeed, the very question of what security means cannot be answered until we decide what kind of life should be secured. And a society that makes improving security its central aim tends to limit those spaces and activities that are open-ended, experimental and uncertain - in a word, free. It should be acceptable to say that there is a small, dispersed threat of terrorism, that does not require a war or new curbs on civil liberties because without these liberties we are not truly alive or secure in the first place. Moreover, instead of organizing political debate around what measures do and don’t make us secure, politics needs first to rediscover its real purpose: the organisation and realisation of freedom. This requires a different kind of discussion, one that places at its centre those forgotten and ignored but fundamental questions about what kinds of institutions allow human beings to fully realise their potential. Only then can we think about what needs to be secured - and what is worth letting pass away.

Alex Gourevitch is a researcher in political science at Columbia University. He is editor of the anti-war on terror website and a member of the NY Salon.


Ackerman, B. (2004). ‘The emergency constitution’. Yale Law Journal 113: 1029.

Blumen, R. (28.5.2003). ‘Brazil and Bush’s war on terror’.

Brzezinski, Z. (25.3.2007). ‘Terrorized by “war on terror”’. Washington Post.

Gore, A. (17.4.2006). ‘The moment of truth’. Vanity Fair.

Mueller, J. (2006). ‘Is there still a terrorist threat?: The myth of the omnipresent enemy’. Foreign Affairs Sep/Oct.

Ramsay, N. (27.12.2004). ‘Politically inclined filmmakers say there is life after the election’. The New York Times.

Robin, C. (2004). Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 Festival Buzz

Fora TV logo Each to his iPod or Great Music For All

Each to his iPod or Great Music For All [Opens in new window]

"…the most interesting, diverse, serious and argumentative audience imaginable."
Prof Sir Bernard Crick