On 9/11 and the War on "Terror": Names, Numbers and Events
Centuries ago, the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldoun, in his famous work Al-Muqaddimah, cautioned against accepting dominant rhetoric at face value because it could be misleading. According to him, this is because such rhetoric can be a result of scholars wanting to appease those in power and thus, they produce what is needed for the goals of those people in power to be achieved. They can also be misleading because sometimes scholars and commentators confuse the apparent with the essence of the phenomenon. Ibn Khaldoun’s insight remains useful for us today as we try to make sense of 9/11 as an event, how it was explained, and the policies that followed it.
What is in a name?
Categories and names are often misleading, even for those of us who are often wary of the dominant rhetoric. As much as we want to escape it, dominant discourse is only there to shape our ideas and reactions, as is the case of the rhetoric surrounding 9/11; of good and evil, of war, liberation, and of spreading democracy. Here, we write to challenge these slogans and policies hoping that one day they will go away. But they must not be forgotten, because forgetfulness causes the repetition of mistakes, of harmful acts, of acts of war and killing. To forget only, helps maintain the state of amnesia and denial about the past as well as the present that many Americans continue to live in. Worse, it leads to the perversion of history so that acts of killing and aggression continue to be celebrated. This we see in the national holiday of “Thanksgiving,” an observance that obscures the foundational history of genocidal violence against indigenous people in America.
This state of denial continues to shape American culture. Exceptionalism and innocence helped the United States fall into a pathology of projecting onto others accusations of aggression and wars; only to promote a continuation of aggression against peoples at home as well as abroad. The events since 9/11 are best understood in this context -- in a history of continuous wars. Of course, for many Americans, the amnesia about the origins of the United States, and the policies and wars since then are either denied or worse defended as being a "necessary evil of a violent world," where the U.S. role has been all along to “guarantee peace, safety, and progress.“ The rhetoric of U.S. exceptionalism has been having its impact; has been working so well that Americans continue to not only to believe in myths, but produce new ones.
What is in the numbers?
As the event of September the 11th was unfolding, the official number of those killed in the attacks kept changing. It started with hints at “thousands” being killed, to more specific numbers; from 7000 to ending with less than 3000. Of course, the loss of each person, each soul is important at least for relatives and friends. But the exaggeration of the death toll early on did not seem like just an issue of mistaken calculation. It sounded more like a calculated attempt at raising the level of shock and anger so that it would justify the brutal invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq, to allow for "shock and awe" to be used and tolerated in the name of war, gain the support needed from the American (and global) public, and silence dissent.
The hyperbole that accompanied the reporting could have only led to anger about the attacks on American soil and thus provide a carte blanche for the government to pursue its policies of repression at home and aggression abroad. As we learned later, the plan for invasions were already in the works, documented by the Project for the New American Century; but the imperial regime only needed an event to activate them and provide some “legitimacy” for the American empire’s expansion into new territories, new frontiers, regardless of the wishes and well being of people living in these areas. Their lives do not matter. The numbers of Afghans or Iraqis or Pakistanis dead and injured is not the question. U.S. General Tommy Franks once responded when asked by a journalist about the Iraqi casualties in the American war against Iraq, “We don’t do body counts.” The uncounted bodies, of course, were Iraqi bodies.
What is in the event?
Between the omission of names and numbers, history has been brutal to those at the receiving end of Western modernity, Eurocentrism and the continuous restructuring of the world. 9/11 came to overshadow other dates, and historical moments of great loss to other peoples, whose history does not seem to figure in the course of Western modernity from genocide to slavery. The millions of Africans, Asians, and indigeneous people in Latin America, Australia and elsewhere were not important to shape global consciousness and politics. They only matter when they are conjoined with white Europeans. They remain a people without history, objectified by Western saviors. They remain on the margins of Western racist capitalist modernity. They remain othered. They remain present absentees; physically present, yet absent in their economic, political, and cultural marginalization. The notion of the present absentee draws on the painful paradox created by the legal sleight of hand of Zionist settler colonialism and the disappearance of the Palestinians who, according to Zionist founders of Israel, never existed. The genocide of indigenous Palestinians, therefore, simply disappeared as well. The Nakba never happened. Similarly, this is the case for present absentees in other peripheral locations.
It seems that it is only when the white west gets attacked that the whole world has to pay attention to this violence and suffer the consequences or pay the price for their suffering. The entire world after 9/11 became a site of American intervention in the course of the “war on terror” declared by the U.S. Prisons, many of which were secret, and interrogation centers were erected in many places to serve as spaces of American power and hegemony over the bodies of Arabs and Muslims. Ghost planes transported “suspects” across the globe to be investigated and tortured by the United States, and in many cases suspects were sent to other states so that they could be interrogated and tortured on behalf of the United States. Guilt and innocence became mixed categories that not only those arrested had to deal with, but also all those who bear Arabic or Islamic names.
Innocence, projection, and their consequences
As soon as the events of 9/11 unfolded, American leaders and commentators started asking, "Why do they hate us?" This way of framing the event warrants some elaboration. It certainly played into the long tradition of playing “innocent” in American culture. A culture that though it was built on ethnic cleansing, and genocide has always portrayed itself as the victim: a victim of native "savages," of "barbaric terrorists." It is a form of projection onto others what one does oneself. Here, victims of one's own violence become a tool for further aggression, and victims of one's history of killing become guilty of standing in the way of Enlightenment, rationality and modernity. And here is the core of the racist colonialist pathology: double standards, and hypocrisy. This pathology has allowed American and Western discourse in the "war on terror" to claim civility and empathy while devastating the lives of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the name of "liberation;" liberating them from life and devastating the lives of those who survived this "liberation." Liberating came to mean killing scores of Iraqis and Afghans, and others around them. Innocence and accusations thus became entangled. Modern sensibility has allowed those who practice the most devastating forms of violence to feel horrified by particular acts of violence, that kill much smaller numbers of people, while remaining less disturbed by the masses of people killed by their own nation’s military aggression. For many Americans, the bombing scenes of “shock and awe” were like movie scenes. No blood was there to see, only sounds of explosions, and bombing that were like fireworks; scenes of entertainment, but also of affirmation of masculinity.
When news reveals the ugly face of "liberation," it is immediately dismissed as an exception; a work of some perverse individuals, whose childhood repression or personality is an explanatory frame for what they did, as in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Yet, when it comes to others, even without evidence, a collective condemnation, punishment, and war takes place against them. American violence in this context, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere, is not seen or presented as such. It is rather often presented as "self defense." According to this pathology, torture, rather than being constitutive of empire, is framed through linguistic acrobatics as an "interrogation technique,” or an "excessive use of force." This perversion of terminology was only meant to keep the mirror far from one’s face because to bring the mirror too close would force one to see one’s ugliness.
Deceptions and racism of modernity, and the present absent
The events that have been taking place since 9/11 are not something that came out of the blue, but rather they are best understood as a continuation of a long history of deception, racism of Western modernity, and the ways in which those who are not white/westerners have figured into this history. The language of rights and entitlements which at the core is the right to live in dignity and the right to self determination have been more often than not robbed from them by the masters of western modernity. To be non-western has meant so far to be absent, to have no history, no agency, and in the need of constant saving, even through killing, by Western white supremacy since 1492. At the same time, fighting terrorism by native peoples all around the world has been going on since.
Structures and imprisonment
With the advent of Western modernity, the globe has become more and more of a space structured by restrictive frameworks of being. Ideas and thoughts have been restricted by the master narrative and practices of the masters of Western modernity who claimed the right to define and shape the globe and the lives of peoples in it. In it, some continue to be treated as citizens and others as subjects; subjects that need to saved and saved again from their own "barbaric" culture.
This structure of discipline, of punish and control, has been traveling around the world hand in hand with Western colonial adventures and neo-colonial rule, while making its local impact and developing regional manifestations at particular historical moments. After 9/11, for example, the framing of politics as conflict between good and evil, pitting the good versus the bad Arab or Muslim has been imposed by the United States globally and also adopted by various national regimes and elites locally in order to serve their own interests and fit into the global American dominated structure of power and hegemony. Thus, even the victims of a racist global narrative of barbarism versus civilization participate in its perpetuation.
This has become so bizarre that after the Arab revolutions spread to Libya, even Muammar Gaddafi was making use of it in his branding the revolution of the people in Libya as being the work of the "terrorist al-Qa'ida." Or, it can be seen in the new push by the Syrian president to change the forty year long emergency law to laws fighting terror as he attempts to delegitimize the public uprising against his regime. The same also goes for Arab and Muslim communities in the United States and elsewhere in the West, where community leaders also adopted the same dichotomy claiming to be the “good” Arabs/Muslims while branding others as “bad” Arabs/Muslims and distancing themselves from “radicals” in line with state rhetoric.
Of course, these acts of aggression and complicity have not been without resistance, because it is only human to resist. It is only human to fight the terror of guns and oppression. Rather than security in the name of states and empires, the aim of this resistance has been to achieve human security, and to fight the terror of thought with creative forms and ideas of resistance. From the indigenous American to the indigenous Arab, history has been replete with examples of people resisting these structures of oppression. In recent months, Arabs from North Africa to West Asia have started to shake the imperialist ship that was hit hard since 9/11 by the resistance in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine; with people around the world now waiting for it to sink through the uprising of people wanting to live in dignity and freedom; and, of people refusing to continue to be subject to imperial designs aided by local compradors. Humanity's future is going to be written by the objects of Western modernity, once and for all. The next chapter of history will be injected with the indigenous spirit from the "discovered" America to the "rediscovered" Palestine, and of the young people in the Arab world, in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and elsewhere, who want to be free from bondage.
I write this essay as we are witnessing the Arab Revolution and the end of the "war on terror" and the beginning of liberation from the terror of local dictators, Israeli colonial rule and hegemony, and American imperialism. Of course the imperial center is trying to hijack or arrest this wave of Arab revolution. All attempts are being made to contain the spirit that is spreading in the region, the last of which is the foreign intervention in Libya that came not to help the revolution there, but to disrupt it and by doing so, hoping to disrupt its spreading in the region. But, the arrogance of imperialism is blinding it from confronting reality; that the spirit in the region is too strong to be contained. We are truly entering a new chapter of regional and global history; a history that is less dominanted by Western imperialism and the epistemology that has been backing it. There is more of a chance now and the need to replace Western epistemology with something more humanistic and more flexible and tolerant. For Kant, whose work has been central to the ideological knowledge production of Western modernity, to be was to think. Of course he was speaking of the “Western man” as being capable of thought and thus being human and free. But a more important re-framing of this Kantian ontology would be: to be is to think, act and live freely, with justice at the center of being. Thus, what is needed is an alternative to the racist Western modernity, a life of another kind influenced by justice-centered knowledge. This alternative world needs, for example, the value of the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldoun’s thought, where justice to labor is the core measure of life, of a good life. According to this view, the world is seen as a circle bound together by solidarity and justice framed as a circle. Without the circle of justice that exemplifies this "globalized" world -- life as a whole exists in this circle -- it will not only disfigure the metaphor, it will also make the whole circle fall apart. Justice for one is justice for all.
A longer version of this essay is published in The Asian American Literary Review Vol. 2 No. 1.5 (2011).