Anti-American mural adorning the former US embassy, Tehran. Demotix/Phil McElhinney. All rights reserved.The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture programme has sparked renewed debate concerning the ‘war on terror’ and its tactics. From the right to the left, torture is once again at the centre of US and international politics. The sheer brutality of these ‘excesses’ has shocked many Americans and those around the world.
Much of this discussion remains fixated on the morality and efficacy of using torture to fight Islamic fundamentalism. Many have sought to merely ascribe the use of these ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ to the past. They argue that they were done in a time following 9/11 that called for extreme measures to fight an existential terrorist threat. Others have used this event as a flashpoint to question the present policies of the US in its continued fight against Islamic radicalism.
Yet these debates ignore a potentially larger and more dangerous issue. Namely, the western brand of fundamentalism based on the unquestioned goodness of ‘free markets’ and liberal democracy continuing to drive this war.
The rise of western fundamentalism
The ‘war on terror’ has largely been framed as a 'clash of civilizations' between a freedom-loving west and its radical Islamic foes. It is, at least rhetorically, the fight of open societies against closed ideologies fuelled by unadorned fundamentalism.
However, from the beginning, the west displayed an almost religious fervour in the sanctity of its own beliefs. As the then US President George W. Bush declared: “This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization”.
The war was necessary not only to root out Islamic fundamentalism but also to spread the gospel of ‘free markets’ and liberal democracy. Enemies of these ideals were part of an ominous “axis of evil” primed “to threaten the peace of the world”. This “common danger” was “erasing old rivalries” for “in every region”, Bush gushed, “free markets and free trade and free societies are proving their power to lift lives.”
These early efforts by the Bush administration were linked to an explicitly religious language. God was with America – a sentiment witnessed in Congress members of all parties joining together to sing 'God Bless America' on the steps of the Capitol directly following the 9/11 attacks. Many, both in the US and in Islamic societies, envisioned a modern crusade being fought for the very soul of the world. Bush himself was supposedly under divine instruction: “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”.
The fanatical commitment to ‘western ideals' has persisted up to the present, even if after Bush it has been largely shorn of its religious rhetoric. President Obama has repeatedly embraced the unquestioned righteousness of the cause and its foundational beliefs. Even as he has attempted to “narrow the war" he has had to tread an almost impossible balance between remaining a committed zealot of American ideals on the one hand and trying to wage a less extremist war in the name of these beliefs on the other.
This fundamentalism has led the US and its allies to justify terror-based strategies. Enhanced interrogation, invasion and drone attacks have all been done in the name of realizing these larger ideals.
It is a zealotry that permits almost any action as long it serves this higher cause. The Senate CIA report is littered with incidents that would make even the most staunch terror opponent blush. The ‘rectal feeding’ of detainees, the threatening of their children, the ice baths followed by days of sleep deprivation and the pre-emptive use of torture as a matter of course makes for very sobering reading.
These should not be cast aside as being relics of a previous era. Guantanamo Bay remains open. The costly invasion of Iraq of a decade ago has turned into a present day call to arms against ISIS. And beneath all of this remains an even more deadly policy, literally, of drone attacks which are regularly responsible for civilian casualties in Pakistan.
Just as troubling is the use of the threat of terror to legitimate these policies domestically and internationally. The US message from the beginning of the war was one of being ‘with us or against us’. This has created a network of allies kept in place, at least in part, by the fear of an aggressive superpower.
At home, western governments – notably the US and the UK – have promoted the need for increasingly Big Brother-styled measures to protect the population against terrorism. The NSA collected information on American citizens and foreign leaders. In this spirit, the new director of Britain’s surveillance agency GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, recently declared that privacy is now not an ‘absolute right’.
Fighting fundamentalism at home
The twenty-first century has been marked by a perpetual struggle against competing fundamentalist forces willing to use almost any means necessary to achieve victory. If the purpose of the ‘war on terror’ was to eradicate the terrible human and social costs associated with ideological extremism, the west would do well to look inward as well as outward.
Crucially, this fanaticism has been a mask for elite self-interest. The uncritical association of liberation with ‘free markets’ reveals the financial motivations that have been at play. The corporate profits reaped by companies such as Haliburton, directly linked to US leaders like Dick Cheney, speak to this truth. Even the recent ISIS threat has not only been a battle of beliefs, but also one of oil fields.
The unsatiable desire for the elimination of terrorists has been a project carried out in the name of liberty for the benefit of a global economic and political elite. As inequality and economic insecurity grow internationally, it is increasingly necessary to question the sacred ideals of those in power and the lengths they are willing to go to achieve them. This would open up the space for breaking down the ‘with us or against us’ discourses on both sides and permit for less dogmatic and more constructive dialogues regarding how to achieve common prosperity and freedom.
If, as it seems, America and the world are willing to progressively unite to reject torture, they must also be willing to let go of the radical zeal fueling these excesses. In order to triumph over terror, it is necessary to first eliminate the fundamentalism giving it birth at home.