The first time the phrase “war on terror” was used was when George W. Bush linked the same phrase to the word “crusade”. He declared in September 2001: “This crusade — this war on terrorism — is going to take a while…” He was talking about the response of the American administration to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He prepared the ground for the shocked American public for a long war against militant Islamists.
During the Bush era, the war on terror had several trademarks: Guantanamo Bay, the status of enemy combatant, torture, extraordinary rendition, black sites in Poland and Morocco, and of course the devastating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush and his team insisted that “harsh interrogation techniques” (a.k.a. torture) can be justified in those exceptional times.
The “war on terror” was an unconventional war where the enemy was constantly changing, the borders were always widening and the rule of law was never respected. In this new logic of war, the Geneva Convention became obsolete and nonapplicable. The Americans kept repeating, “why would we grant the status of prisoners of war to people who do not even wear military uniforms nor belong to an army?”
The American administration was adamantly convinced of the necessity of this war. American public opinion followed without hesitation. Nevertheless, a few years after the beginning of this “nonconventional war,” the economic and human consequences started slowly to emerge. In 2008, Harvard economist Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, a former Nobel economics laureate, declared that the war would end up costing over $3 trillion. More recently in 2011, a study by academics at Brown University revealed that the total cost of this war is somewhere between $2.3 and $2.7 trillion. The same report points out that the human consequence are equally dramatic. In all, it was estimated that between 225,000 and 258,000 people have died as a result of the war. U.S. military personnel killed on the battlefield represent only some 6,100 soldiers.
Meanwhile, the stories of torture, disappearances and extraordinary renditions became public. Even if they never attracted the attention of average Americans, they kept human rights organizations very concerned and they came to darken the human rights record of the first democracy in the world.
When Obama came to power, many of these human rights organizations were so hopeful that the old tactics by Bush and his administration would be put to rest and that a new era would start. I shared my enthusiasm with them.
Obama very rarely used the phrase “war on terror” and promised that he would close Guantanamo. The expectations were so high, as were later the disappointments.
It became clear that the disappearances were swapped for “targeted killings,” the “war on terror” became “Overseas Contingency Operation,” a sophisticated and smart-sounding phrase that means nothing for the general public but would mean ongoing casualties for people on the ground. Extraordinary rendition slipped under the radar. Obama preserved it but insisted on avoiding its abuses. Never did the “sanitization” of this war reach this high a level in its 11-year history.
The list of countries included in the asepticized war on terror “à la Obama” kept increasing, with Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia added within the last two years. The most remarkable innovation that Obama brought to the table was “the kill list.” Every Tuesday, he would consult with his advisers and strategists about a list of people to kill, including American citizens. Does he really believe in his new strategy or is he doing it to portray himself as a strong president as to avoid the ongoing whispers about his “real” religion and alleged sympathies with Islamists? Nobody knows. The consequences of his new war are nevertheless very tragic.
His administration went even further with a new innovation: it came up with a new formula for counting civilian deaths. Many officials inside the administration believe that it is specially skewed to produce low numbers. When a drone attack is ordered by Obama, all military-age men killed are counted as terrorists. It does not matter if you are a neighbour or a friend who happened to be there visiting. As long as you are a man, your death will be considered a victory over terror. This deadly logic is simply translated as follows: “If you die along with a militant, then you must be one too.” After all, in this war, guilt by association is not a new concept. Thus, the number of innocent victims magically decreases and the number of killed “terrorists” magically increases. That speeds up the victory over a shadowy enemy and, most importantly, it allows Obama to avoid the dilemma of dealing with prisoners who are caught alive (such as sending them to Guantanamo and hence break his promise to shut the notorious facility down).
This strategy seems to find some echoes in our Canada. Recently, Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada wrote recently in an article that, “If you perfect the killing of individuals with drones, you had better confine your acts to bona fide enemies of your state.” Said otherwise, “killing people with a press of a button is OK as long as we make sure that you are killing the right guys.” But in a war where, by the U.S. officials’ own admission, the enemy is fuzzy, who are really the right guys to kill? Unfortunately, this declaration but Ignatieff is not very surprising since it is coming from someone who endorsed the idea of “legal torture” and also supported the illegal invasion of Iraq!
The “war on terror,” under Bush or Obama, has been a disaster all along. The complicity in torture is now haunting many Western democracies. It also showed more than ever before that technological advances are dangerous when used to kill the “other,” no matter how evil the other is. Using a drone instead of a rifle won’t make the crime cleaner and more acceptable. Most importantly, it is a test about our humanity. I am afraid to say that Obama has already lost the war when we look at it from a moral ground. No matter how he justifies his actions down the road, he certainly lost his old constitutional lawyer ideals.
Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and in 2011, a novel in French, Miroirs et mirages.