Creating Enemies, Defining Terror, and Justifying Anything

We are known by the enemies we keep creating. Of course, one can point almost anywhere and find barbarism, now and in the past, there and also here. The dictionary definition of “Terrorism” is “government by intimidation.” It most recently devolved in the U.S. lexicon of endless war “on terror” – since 9/11– as any violence by those the ‘patriotic’ U.S. speaker perceives as a threat to U.S. “interests” anywhere in the world. Anyone who may object to U.S. military incursions into his/her country is not a “patriot” or “freedom fighter,” but a “terrorist.” In its recent usage, the term “terrorist” has become loaded with emotional content.

The term has pretty much lost its traditional meaning. It is now so widely used to refer to anyone the speaker hates or opposes that it means little more than to designate an evil other. Someone who protests the clear cutting of old growth timber in the Northwest is now called an “eco-terrorist.” The term has simply devolved into a symbol of hatred — regardless of whether the hatred is ‘justified’ by specific behavior — especially when the speaker, as is typical, represents the interests of the global business elite. The terrorism meme has become an effective tool in maintaining endless wars by fanning the fires of hatred of the evil other. Hence, the growing number of hate crimes directed at anyone who appears to the ignorant observer to look ‘Islamic.’

Empires of Terror

So-called “non-Western cultures” have experienced localized terror for centuries. Afghans suffered British attempts to colonize and later Soviet attempts to install puppet governments. The Mujahideen fought off the Russians, ran drugs, took millions of dollars in cash delivered by CIA operatives, killed villagers and became the Taliban. The U.S. has also attempted to govern the Afghans by intimidation (and bribes) ever since its first bungled attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, and has continued to do so since killing him.

Governments everywhere are corrupt, but some have more technical ‘fire power’ while others have an unfamiliar fanaticism. Taliban brutality is more than matched by the techno-terror reigned down upon wedding parties, villages, and even “insurgents,” via CIA drones. Indiscriminant murder-at-a-distance can easily be just as brutal as by those ISIS fighters who would more directly behead innocents. But one can maintain a psychological distance from one’s own brutal acts by the lexicon of “targeting” in the detached mode of video games. A person’s willingness to invoke the term “terrorist” seems mostly based on whose side executes the terrifying acts of ruthless violence. It is also an easy means of dehumanizing the ‘object’ targeted by the killing machine’s operator. Beheading is barbaric and maybe even insane, but it is as brutally honest as it is physically direct.

What, exactly, is so special about Western culture that it’s violence escapes the label of terror? Is it merely that it perfected more powerful technologies of violence and deployed them on other cultures before anyone else? That resulted in colonialism, imperialism, and now economic ‘globalization’ – global financial domination supported by military intervention wherever thought useful to retain economic control. Is that more rational or less brutal than tribal fighters resisting U.S. invasions?

Cultural one-upmanship is pointless. Those with more power can invent and deploy more clever technologies. But remember: technology is simply a material way to do something. But, what is to be done? Well, since most money for “innovation” in technological development is spent for military purposes, death and destruction are its primary purpose. In any case, the globalized war machine continues to inflict more damage on the planet as well as its people, than any other institution – even Wall Street. But of course, Wall Street is one of the prime movers of the military-industrial-political complex and its drive for endless billions in contracts for esoteric often unworkable technologies of warfare, which cost billions to operate, and are inappropriate for the military operations they are supposed to enhance.

Justifying Terror by Creating Enemies

Does the U.S. incarcerate more people than any other nation because over the last few decades we have produced more and more evil people who must be arrested and imprisoned? The so called drug war has criminalized a huge segment of society by targeting vulnerable Black and Brown youth in neighborhoods, ignoring the white college and working classes that uses drugs at about the same rates. Is that not a form of governing by intimidation? The growing chorus of reports of police killings of Black and Brown young men on America’s streets reflects the governing of those neighborhoods by intimidation. Yet the “terrorist” meme is reserved for those others who are on the other side of the authoritarian mission of the corporate state.

The Kill Team,” a recent production of PBS’s Independent Lens, documents a platoon of U.S. soldiers some of whom participated in gratuitous killings of Afghan civilians. In their naïve boot-camp brainwashed minds, they felt the need to do what they had been trained to do: kill people. It is hard to not be stunned by the mindless dehumanization of The Other by these barely past teenage boys. Officially sanctioned night raids of civilian homes, excused by the flimsiest ‘intelligence’ are not really that different.

We know of many incidents and patterns of practice in the military from Abu Graeb to Guantanamo that are at least as irrational and brutal. Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, chronicles the covert wars of intimidation waged around the world in the name of “the War on Terror.” These wars on diverse peoples only breed resentment and hatred for those who have invaded their countries. The terrorism meme has worked as domestic propaganda, even though the intimidation of the peoples of Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond, cannot salvage the empire.

Mohamedou Slahi has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, despite being cleared by multiple courts of any wrong doing. Even with heavy blacking out of major portions, his Guantanamo Diary reveals much more than what is widely known about the torture that goes on there. It also expresses the power of the human spirit in the face of incalculable suffering, torture, and intimidation. His enduring humanity cannot be destroyed by the terrorist meme. Can our humanity survive it too?

Always at a Distance: The Decline and Fall of Direct Human Relations

The other day, I called around to find the best deal in town for getting my cracked windshield replaced.  I had been given a couple of recommendations, one form a friend and one from my mechanic.  So, of course, I did an internet search for windshield replacement shops nearby.  I picked three the two that had been recommended and a third that was a larger corporate operation.

I looked at customer reviews and saw a very bad one for the shop my reliable mechanic had recommended.  I always look at internet reviews with a skeptical eye, since some can be either self-serving in all the wrong ways, or spiteful for questionable reasons.  With windshield repair shops, you don’t find large numbers of reviews such as you might for books on Amazon.com.  So, I called all three and found a wide range of prices, from around $150- to $225-.  But something more interesting and annoying happened.

When I called “Safe-Shield” at its 888 number, it turned out to be a national corporate telemarketing site, tho the local shop.  I should have known.  When I told the woman on the other end of the line that I wanted a quote, she began asking all sorts of demographic and identifying information about me.

Finally, I said, “you don’t need my life story to give me the price quote I asked for.”  That was not what she wanted to hear.  She attempted to get through her scripted marketing pitch on all the reasons “Safe-Shield” was a better choice.  When I finally insisted on and got a price from her, I was shocked that it was nearly $75- more than the price my friend’s recommended shop had quoted.  That’s a third more!

I had finally gotten that quote after having run through a long automated menu tree before being subjected to the tedious sales pitch.  Why?  Because the local shop that is either a franchise or a wholly owned subsidiary entity had no control over its own relationships with its local customers.

Fact is, auto windshield repair and replacement is an inherently local transaction.  Each shop does not produce its own product or have its own supply chain.  They all draw needed parts from the same wholesale distributors of auto glass.

Later, I had a conversation with the owner of the locally owned shop, which I had chosen for the job.  He had the best price and had quoted it to me immediately without asking me for any information other than the make and model of my vehicle.  I could not resist telling him that the corporate shop’s telemarketer had quoted about $75- more than he had.  He simply replied that he could not understand how people could charge so much.  This man sells and installs products for people in his own town, with whom he may have other relations as well.  His responsibility is personal not merely a matter of being employed by a largely anonymous organization headquartered in some other state.

The implication I took was that an honest man would be embarrassed to be known to overcharge his neighbors like that.  Such a man does not objectify his business relationships with others as a distant telemarketer would.  He views them with human respect and makes a good living in the process.  Whoever runs that local shop for the corporation probably makes much less money than an honest shop owner.  The corporation, of course, makes more.

The point here is not how much anyone makes, but how humans relate to one another in an economic context.  As complex modern economies have “integrated” and corporations merged and consolidated, less and less room has been left for immediate interaction between two individuals, each of which has a personal stake in the interaction.  “When Corporations Rule the World,” as David Korten puts it, humans interact at greater and greater social distance from one another.  Their mutual indifference to their mutual humanity is correspondingly greater.

A lot of people are starting to get it.  They realize that the way things have become organized, nothing human matters any more in the conduct of business, except the pretense of human caring.  They [we] want to engage with other people in real transactions close up, as actual persons — not just actors in a scripted business ritual.  This is part of what the “buy local” movement, as well as the “slow food,” the “farm to table,” and the local and public banking and finance movements are about.  People in communities are doing business with their neighbors instead of being subjected to distant corporate criteria for economic transactions about which no negotiation is possible.

It is important to note that reducing distances in economic exchanges is a critical element in transforming the corporate growth economy into many local ecological economies.  Only by breaking the cycle of growth addiction and financial centralization will there be a chance to transform our failing economic systems to make them both humane and compatible with the earth systems upon which they depend.

Solutions to seemingly diverse problems appear to converge.  A recent and growing body of research on happiness and human well being is informative.  Beyond the basics, happiness and subjective wellbeing do not increase with greater wealth and power.  Happiness is greater in nations with lesser GDP [gross domestic product] than in the economically “advanced” nations.*

Both happiness and survival of the human species is now dependent upon reorganizing social relations.  We need steady-state local economies where transactions occur primarily among  people who engage with each other, not at a distance,, but in good old face-to-face interaction.

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* James Speth provides a good summary of the research fields of happiness and well-being in chapter 6 of The Bridge to the Edge of the World (Caravan Books, 2008).