Tuesday, January 05, 2010

gwot about scaring people, not protecting them

Guardian | So there was no ticking time bomb. No urgent need ever arose to torture anybody who was withholding crucial details, so that civilisation as we know it could be saved in the nick of time. No wires had to be tapped, special prisons erected or international accords violated. No innocent people had to be grabbed off the street in their home country, transported across the globe and waterboarded. Drones, daisy-cutters, invasions, occupations were, it has transpired, not necessary.

Indeed, when it actually came down to it, to forestall a near-calamitous terrorist atrocity in the US the authorities didn't even have to go in search of information or informants. The alleged terrorist's father came to the US embassy in Nigeria of his own free will and warned them that his son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had disappeared and could be in the company of Yemeni terrorists.

Meanwhile the National Security Agency had heard that al-Qaida in Yemen was planning to use an unnamed Nigerian in an attack on the US. If that were not enough, then came Abdulmutallab himself, a 23-year-old Nigerian bound for Detroit who bought his ticket in cash, checked in no bags and left no contact information. For seven years the American state manipulated the public with its multicoloured terror alerts. But when all the warning lights were flashing red, it did nothing.

To brand this near miss a "systemic failure", as Barack Obama has done, is both true and inadequate. It reduces the moral vacuity, political malevolence and enduring strategic recklessness that has been the enduring response to the 9/11 attacks to a question of managerial competence.

"Terror is first of all the terror of the next attack," explains Arjun Appadurai in Fear of Small Numbers. During the Bush years that terror was routinely leveraged for the purposes of social control, military mobilisation and electoral advantage. Meanwhile, the administrative processes that might prevent the next attack were tragically lacking. In short, Bush's anti-terror strategy was not about protecting people but about scaring them.

To galvanise the nation for war abroad and sedate it for repression at home, the previous administration constructed a terror threat that was ubiquitous in character, apocalyptic in scale and imminent in nature. Only then could they counterpose human rights against security as though they were not only contradictory but mutually exclusive.

Al-Qaida was only too happy to oblige. In such a state of perpetual crisis both terrorists and reactionaries thrive. Terrorists successfully create a climate of fear; governments successfully exploit that fear to extend their own powers.

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