In 2012, the most over-worked words in the American vocabulary were ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’. But the meaning of the words has become distorted beyond recognition.
Legislation adopted by various government agencies since 9/11 shows that the ‘war on terror’ is not about territory or resources, but about ideology, More precisely it is about the fear that activists could turn a significant portion of the American population against the system of winner-take-all capitalism.
Section 802 of the Patriot Act signed into law by President Bush in 2006 was expanded on October 26, 2011 by President Obama to include domestic as opposed to international terrorism. A person engages in domestic terrorism if, within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, he/she commits an act “dangerous to human life”, (…) that “appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping’.
The FBI definition also includes the words ‘to intimidate or coerce a government in furtherance of political or social objectives’. And the latest Homeland Security definition refers to any “act that is dangerous to human life or potentially destructive to critical infrastructure or key resources … intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.
If the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack can rightly be called terrorists, groups and individuals whose aspirations and beliefs conflict with those of official America cannot. Yet in the most widely reported example, the deliberately non-violent Occupy movement has been infiltrated, pepper sprayed, clubbed and jailed. At the start of the new year we learned that an August 2011 memo from the F.B.I.’s New York field office describes how its personnel discussed “the planned Anarchist protest titled ‘Occupy Wall Street,’ scheduled for September 17, 2011” with New York Stock Exchange officials. In the United States, ‘terrorist’ is equated with ‘anarchist’.
Though Americans have relatively short historical recall, this coupling harks back to two early twentieth century events: the political assassination that led to the First World War, and the conviction for murder of two Italian immigrants in the 1920‘s widely believed to have been motivated by the men’s anarchist beliefs.
The 1920’s also saw a bloody Jewish campaign to free Mandate Palestine from British rule, carried out by the Haganah and the Irgun. The latter’s motto ‘only thus’ was inscribed beneath a hand holding a rifle against a map of mandatory Palestine, openly suggesting that force was the only way to “liberate the homeland”.
This campaign was echoed by underground movements that thwarted German occupations during the Second World War. As in the case of the Jewish militias, the organizations involved were not called terrorists, but ‘paramilitary’ organizations.
Undeterred by logic, the current government of Israel, along with the United States, Canada, the European Union, Turkey and Japan, calls Hamas a terrorist organization, while the Arab nations, Iran, Russia, Norway, Switzerland, the United Nations and most Latin American countries do not.
America’s fear of outsiders and foreign ideologies did not begin with the 9/11 attack, nor even with the Cold War against Communism. Declaration of Independence states that “…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, ….evinces a design to reduce (men) under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.’ Fear that citizens could attempt to change the United States’ form of government followed almost immediately upon its adoption.
Two decades later, in the 1790s , the United States was on the brink of war with France and the government feared that aliens living in the United States would aid the French side. Congress easily passed four laws, known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts, that raised the residency requirements for citizenship from 5 to 14 years, and permitted the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of aliens during wartime. The Seditions Act made it a crime for American citizens to “print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the Government.
After the attack of 9/11, fear of subversion gave rise to legislation that not only makes a mockery of the Declaration of Independence, but, in the tradition of the Aliens and Seditions Act directly contradicts the judicial guarantees of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Constitution. Confronted with non-state actors with worldwide ambitions, the age-old American fear of foreigners metastasized: Both Bush and Obama cast aside the centuries’ old tradition of British common law known as Habeas Corpus, which protects citizens from unjust imprisonment.
Every American President takes an oath to defend the Constitution, yet the government is now free to read personal emails, listen to our phone conversations, train cameras on us in the street or eavesdrop on public transportation. The mere voicing of dissent qualifies as terrorism and can land any citizen in jail without charge or hearing for the rest of his life. In a typical slight of hand, the increasingly interchangeable use of the term “extremist” – which originally applies to political views – and “terrorist” fosters public acquiescence of these measures in the name of si-called ‘national security’.
In 2011 on New Year’s Eve, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the government to detain Americans without criminal charge or trial. This year, and again on the eve of the New Year, Obama renewed for five years the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that allows the government to keep people locked up for as long as it wants without providing any evidence of wrong-doing, and to assassinate American citizens without trial.
Thus has the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ been transformed into the land of the fearful and the home of the meek.