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The War against Terrorism: Invisible but Permanent “Collateral Damage”

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - Oct 10, 2013, 9:21 am

As we all know, the so-called war against terrorism began on September 11, 2001. However, according to an old saying, everyone knows when a war starts, but no one knows when it will end.

In my previous article, I discussed the “war on drugs,” which I — together with many other analysts — consider to be unwinnable. I am very much afraid that, in the case of the war on terrorism, due to several circumstances, we might again be at a dead end, involved in a fight without any foreseeable end and where no definitive victory is possible.

One reason for this is that, when it comes to terrorism, the enemy cannot be defined or isolated in any precise way: there are powerful terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda or the Colombian FARC, but there are also small and medium-sized autonomous groups that can organize or dissolve with extreme ease. Even one lone individual, without any logistical support and using over-the-counter materials, can carry out unpredictable, terribly destructive attacks.

This is why we can never be sure that all of the members of known groups have been eliminated or neutralized, that newly formed organizations will not come into existence, or that deranged individuals are not planning new attacks. We are not fighting against a formal army deployed over a specific territory, but against incredibly flexible organizations — able to hide among civil populations and motivated by very diverse and always dangerous fanaticisms.

In order to effectively control all of these threats, both real and potential, governments would have to impose highly rigorous and constant controls on the whole of the population, establishing in practice what we might call totalitarian states and rejecting every principle of liberal democracy. Evidently, this is neither possible nor desirable, although it is reasonable for the population to wish governments to adopt radical, effective measures to fight terrorist threats. Therefore, solutions to this problem have been located in a middle ground: individual rights are not fully protected but we do not reach the terrible extremes that would be necessary for — maybe — defeating terrorism.

Most governments, in practice, have resorted to generic control methods: we cannot take even a nail clipper or a perfume bottle on a plane, and we must take off our shoes while guards register us before we may board; we cannot withdraw more than a certain sum of cash from our bank accounts, and our mail and electronic communications are doubtlessly reviewed by dozens of security agencies around the world. But, even so, these unfortunate and invasive controls are only minimally effective: it is impossible to control every single passenger transport in the planet, every park and public space, every sports event, every cultural and religious venue that attracts a large crowd. To make things worse, terrorists appear to be diabolically ingenious: they are always coming up with new ways and methods, and, even more unsettling, they are often willing to sacrifice their own lives to harm innocent people.

In the context of all the measures that have been adopted, we are rapidly losing our right to privacy, although there are still a few of us who protest these invasions into our daily lives. The ordinary citizen feels these constant and growing interventions and resents them a little, but he wants most of all to be protected against potential and unpredicted attacks. We are trapped between two aspirations, each of them completely legitimate in itself, that together have become a contradiction in terms.

The real problem is that now governments feel entitled to do anything in the name of terrorism: everything is done “for security reasons,” as if we should yield our personal freedoms in the name of security and surrender to the measures — often wrongly — taken by any apparent expert who claims to protect us.

We should not take lightly the way in which our freedoms are being cut short, even with the best intentions: these are not temporary measures, as they were presented originally, but the beginning of a way of life that will lead us to being under constant state vigilance and monitoring, as if we were the terrorists. This is why I believe this issue should be debated thoroughly; that each of these measures should be considered carefully and revised, modified, or repealed as necessary.

We should not remain passive regarding terrorism, of course, but also regarding the actions of governments or entities of any kind that affect us all. In short, I believe that it would be a very poor deal to hand over our freedom in exchange for a kind of protection that will turn governments into a sort of benevolent but deeply intrusive, impossible-to-control despotism.

Carlos Sabino Carlos Sabino

Sociologist, writer, and university professor, Sabino is director of the masters and doctoral programs in history at the University of Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. Follow him @Sabino2324