The Damage To Society From Our “War On Terror”

One of the constant themes I point out in the War on (Some) Drugs is that the cure is worse than the disease. Nobody will claim that drugs haven’t been a catalyst for people to ruin their lives, and often dramatically alter the lives of those around them. However, the fact is that the methods we’ve used to prosecute the War on (Some) Drugs have damaged the rule of law and the relationship between an individual and government. Further, for all the cost, the no-knock raids, the destruction of 4th Amendment rights, we’re no closer to winning the War On (Some) Drugs than we were at day 1. In fact, it’s quite likely that if we had at once accepted the existence of drugs and focused our efforts on education and treatment, that we’d have a much better prognosis today?

Is it possible that we have the same problem in the War On Terror? Now, to some extent, the analogy is strained. After all, drug use is a victimless crime, terrorism is not. But I think it’s quite possible that the methods we use to fight the War On Terror are counterproductive, extremely costly with little return on investment, and will prove in the long run to be more destructive to American society than the terrorism it’s fighting. The Washington Post’s Zbigniew Brzezinski deftly argued this point in an op-ed yesterday.

But the little secret here may be that the vagueness of the phrase was deliberately (or instinctively) calculated by its sponsors. Constant reference to a “war on terror” did accomplish one major objective: It stimulated the emergence of a culture of fear. Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.

Fear is a tool of control. It is one thing to ask a person to do what you wish. It is another to demand it. But pushing a person into fear is a way to make him eagerly do what you wish, thinking it was his idea all along. Through fear, you need not worry how a man carries the shackles you put on him, because he’ll volunteer to wear them. To be sure, there are things in this world worth fearing. But fear is not an excuse to suspend your rational ability. The man who asks you to cede your freedom in exchange for “freedom” is not to be trusted.

Fear has become the name of the political game, and the stakes are high. Unlike World War II, we’re not asked to ration sugar or observe meatless meals. Instead, we’re asked to suspend habeas corpus, willingly submit to National Security Letters and warrantless domestic wiretapping. Of course, we’re asked to provide implicit trust to the government to faithfully protect us, while acting as watchdogs to snitch on our untrustworthy family, friends, and neighbors at the first sign of wrongdoing. We’re watching as crucial controls on government, going back to the Magna Carta in 1215, are being removed.

The record is even more troubling in the general area of civil rights. The culture of fear has bred intolerance, suspicion of foreigners and the adoption of legal procedures that undermine fundamental notions of justice. Innocent until proven guilty has been diluted if not undone, with some — even U.S. citizens — incarcerated for lengthy periods of time without effective and prompt access to due process. There is no known, hard evidence that such excess has prevented significant acts of terrorism, and convictions for would-be terrorists of any kind have been few and far between. Someday Americans will be as ashamed of this record as they now have become of the earlier instances in U.S. history of panic by the many prompting intolerance against the few.

The time comes that I have to ask myself a simple question: Is it worth it?

What level of uncertainty of a terrorist attack should we allow in our lives in order to be certain that we’re not subjects of a police state? It has become a sad state of affairs when I’m more concerned that the actions of my own government will cause me trouble than the actions of extremists who have sworn an intent to kill me. In a world where we’re asked to submit to intrusive surveillance on a daily basis, and further to do so gladly and “for our own protection”, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to simply take my chances without their blanket of security?

Might there be better ways of reducing terrorism than turning our own country into a prison, while engaging in a foreign policy which causes those who didn’t hate us 5 years ago to start? Nearly 40 years of effort have proven that our tactics in fighting a war on drugs have proven futile and counterproductive, while damaging American society in the process. Should we take a step back and evaluate whether our tactics fighting international terrorism have been futile and counterproductive, while damaging American society in the process?