Why do they hate us? A critical look at the war on terror


Twenty-one years ago, in the aftermath of the deadliest attack on American soil and the most successful act of terrorism in modern history, the United States government, with bipartisan support, declared a “war on terror.” This would be waged not only against the perpetrators of the attack, but in the words of George W. Bush, against all terrorism, a war that would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach [had] been found, stopped and defeated,” and that would make no distinction between terrorists and those that harbor them. 

As one would expect from such lofty aims, this war has not ended, and the American efforts have been largely unsuccessful. In August of last year, the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan. In the wake of this development, one cannot help but think of the various offers made by the Taliban to surrender and turn over Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the attacks, to be tried in international court, offers that were made when America began bombing the country prior to the invasion. (At the time the bombings began, the U.S possessed no substantial evidence to imply his guilt in the attacks.) All offers were rejected by the Bush administration, as, in the words of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “the United States [was] not inclined to negotiate surrenders.” 

In 2003, the United States and allies invaded Iraq, presenting two primary pretenses to the public. The first was that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction, and the second that his regime had ties to those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It soon became apparent that both were blatant lies. Ironically, Saddam’s Iraq, while a brutal dictatorship (supported by the U.S and allies throughout the worst of his crimes), was, for the most part, secular. Since his deposition, Islamic fundamentalist groups such as ISIS have arisen. In Libya, after a rise in anti-Gaddafi protests, NATO, an international alliance of which the U.S. is a part, began a bombing campaign, described by UN official Ian Martin as being “deliberately concealed” from the security council. This was followed by Gaddafi’s torture and murder by NATO-backed rebels. Since his deposition, Libya has remained in a state of political, economic, and social turmoil. Importantly, in June of 2011, Gaddafi and his son made offers to the west to hold free elections, open to any international observers, and that he would step down if defeated. The U.S rejected this offer, and continued bombing the country. 

In order to understand and critically analyze the failures of the war on terror, it is important to first answer the question: what is terror? The United States is at war with an nonentity, a faceless, indescribable evil that, to quote Bush, “hate[s] our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Like many wars throughout American history, the war on terror was declared with an unclear sketch of an enemy in mind, and if no enemy was found through the bombing and pillaging of defenseless countries, one would have to be invented. Luckily, in this instance, an enemy presented himself readily, the Frankenstein’s monster of the United States: Osama bin Laden. One of the many the U.S funded millions to during the Soviet-Afghan war, bin Laden was supported by the U.S., a move that, along with decades of American foreign policy, would eventually contribute to the deaths of nearly three thousand American civilians.

Title 18 of the United States criminal code essentially defines international terrorism as any violent acts that would be considered illegal in any state that appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, or to influence the policy or conduct of a government through intimidation, coercion, or mass destruction. By this definition, America is guilty of international terrorism. When al-Qaeda, furious with American atrocities against Muslims (including, but not limited to, their unwavering support of Israel, the Iraq sanctions, the military prescense in Saudi Arabia), commits a terrorist act murdering innocent Americans, it is agreed upon by all as a criminal act (as it should be). But when the United States, furious with the atrocities committed against Americans, bombs Afghanistan in order to influence the conduct of the Taliban through intimidation and mass destruction, it is agreed upon as just. What happens to the innocent Afghan people killed in the process? They’re mere collateral damage. In this way, the wars waged by bin Laden and Bush are quite similar. To bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the terrorists committing atrocities against the Islamic world (themselves excluded) can only be extinguished with more terror. To Bush and the United States, the terrorists commit atrocities against the entire world (themselves excluded) can only be extinguished with more terror—the just kind of terror.  

With this, I do not mean to say that George W. Bush was solely to blame for the war on terror; he was merely the face of a broader effort supported by various powers in the American government. I also do not intend to imply that the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and the Taliban are defendable in any way. They are undoubtedly criminals and tyrants, but it is important to acknowledge that the power that waged war against them is also a tyrant. Finally, I do not wish to minimize the collective loss and trauma our country felt after the 9/11 attacks. They were an indefensible act, and the wounds they opened still bleed today. However, the way to fight terror and suffering is not by perpetrating terror and suffering in return. It is important for us to understand and acknowledge our atrocities in order to put an end to atrocities committed by others. Otherwise, there is no moral integrity. If we want to uphold and spread American values, we must start with following them ourselves.