The consequences of a “war on terror” can't be controlled. The U.S. found that out the hard way. When George W. Bush talked of “war” in the wake of the mass slaughter of 9/11, it didn't benefit the American people. Bush announced that the world would experience an “unprecedented campaign” until “every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” What that would mean couldn't have been predicted at the time.
War, in the classic definition, cannot be waged against organizations that are not a conventional state. Fourteen years after Bush's declaration of war against al-Qaida, the fighting still continues. And in the United States, the government uses eavesdropping equipment that not long ago would have been categorized as science fiction. The National Security Agency has now turned the technology developed to combat foreign enemies on its own citizens as well.
A year and a half after the 9/11 attacks, the Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote a sympathy letter to her neighbors to the south, predicting that the rest of the world “will stop admiring the good things about you. They’ll decide that your city upon the hill is a slum and your democracy is a sham, and therefore you have no business trying to impose your sullied vision on them. They’ll think you’ve abandoned the rule of law.” She made no mention of the Iraq war, choosing to emphasize what America was doing to itself instead, which she described as “gutting the Constitution” by expanding the surveillance state. She was puzzled over when America had become so frightened.
The Elusive Enemy
George W. Bush declared the U.S. was fighting al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden because they were responsible for the terror attacks. Those still beating the drums for “the war on terror” maintain, even today, that they were successful: There were no more attacks on U.S. soil. In a war against an elusive and difficult to identify enemy, values were certainly trampled that should have been defended. This war included torture and secret prisons.
“You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” Bush said in that fateful year 2001.
Either black or white thinking patterns tend to blur the complex. Drone attacks have probably taken out important figures, but at the same time, they motivate the enemy. The Guantanamo prison camp has become a recruiting tool for the Islamist groups. Barack Obama himself warned recently that the prison harms U.S. attempts to defeat terrorism worldwide. And the Islamic State took root and flourished in the soil of the Iraq war.
The Paris attacks have led to calls for increased security. The governors of two dozen states don't want to allow entry to any Syrian refugees. CIA Director John Brennan complained that “hand-wringing” over telephone tapping and “unauthorized release of information” have made it difficult for agencies to identify terrorists.