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Katrina vanden HeuvelBack to OpinionKatrina vanden Heuvel

It’s time to end the ‘war on terror’

In a dramatic, yet sober, Sunday night address to the American people, President Obama announced the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. He reminded us of the horror, the grief, the tragedy and senseless slaughter of September 11, 2001. He reminded us of how, in those grim days, “we reaffirmed our unity as one American family…and our resolve to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice.”

President Barack Obama walks back down the Cross Hall after making a televised statement on the death of Osama bin Laden from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Sunday, May 1, 2011. Photo: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The president spoke of how the capture and killing of bin Laden was the “most significant effort to date in our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda.” And he reaffirmed that this country will never wage a war against Islam. For that reason, Obama said, bin Laden’s “demise should be welcomed by all those who welcome peace and human dignity.”

His call to Americans to remember what unifies us, to remember that “justice has been done,” is a defining opening to seize. It is time to end the “global war on terror” we have lived with for this last decade. It is time to stop defining the post 9/11 struggle against stateless terrorists a “war.” And it is time to bring an end to the senseless war in Afghanistan that has cost this nation so much in lives and money.

Framing the fight against terror as a war was a conscious decision made by Bush and Karl Rove and others in those first days after 9/11 — a decision which destroyed the unity President Obama spoke of tonight.

Rove understood that if the indefinite struggle against terror was generally framed as a “war,” it would become the master narrative of American politics-bringing with it the collateral damage we have witnessed in these last ten years.

The “war” metaphor — as retired American Ambassador Ronald Spiers wrote in a provocative piece in March 2004 in Vermont’s Rutland Herald, “is neither accurate nor innocuous, implying as it does that there is an end point of either victory or defeat…. A ‘war on terrorism’ is a war without an end in sight, without an exit strategy, with enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics…. The president has found this ‘war’ useful as an all-purpose justification for almost anything he wants or doesn’t want to do; fuzziness serves the administration politically. It brings to mind Big Brother’s vague and never-ending war in Orwell’s ’1984.’ A war on terrorism is a permanent engagement against an always-available tool.”

The Bush Administration and, sadly, too often the Obama Administration, used the “war” as justification for undermining the best of America’s principles. We have witnessed the abuse of international human rights standards, the unlawful detention of thousands of women and men, and the condoning of torture.

I remember watching the celebration of Washington’s WWII memorial just two years after 9/11, and how I was reminded of how, during the despair of World War II, a greater threat to the existence of our country than what we face today, President Roosevelt gave America a vision of hope — not fear. Just a decade earlier, during the Great Depression, another grave threat to the country’s spirit and unity, Roosevelt told a fearful nation that we had nothing to fear but fear itself. In President Bush and his team we saw people working overtime to convince the American people — through a barrage of historically inaccurate analogies — that there is nothing to fear but the end of fear itself. Today, President Obama and his team have a chance to reset our fight against terrorism.

Yes, we all live in the shadow of September 11 — a crime of monumental magnitude. But terrorism is not an enemy that threatens the existence of our nation; our response should not undermine the very values that define America for ourselves and the rest of the world.

The Bush Administration shamelessly exploited America’s fear of terrorism for political purposes. But as we have learned, a hyper-militarized war without end will do more to weaken our democracy, and foster a new national security state, than seriously address the threats ahead. After all, what we are engaged in is not primarily a military operation. It’s an intelligence-gathering operation, a law-enforcement, public-diplomacy effort.

President Obama spoke in humane and sober terms tonight. It was a relief to hear in his words reminders of those (too brief) post -9/11 days when the idea of shared sacrifice, respect for the work of public servants, firefighters, first responders and a sense of a larger common good pervaded our society and politics. Yet after the capture and killing of bin Laden, will political leaders have the courage to say that what we face is not a “war” on terrorism?

President Obama has tragically continued too many of the Bush era’s national security policies. Yet he is also a president who understands how wars threaten to undo reform presidencies and also undermine the best values of this country. If we as citizens challenge the “war” framing, if we refuse, a decade after the savagery of 9/11’s attacks, to allow “war” framing to define the national psyche and our politics, if we demand our representatives stop couching virtually all foreign policy discussion in terms of terrorism, we have a chance to build a new and more effective security template.

As Shirin Ebadi, a champion of women and children’s rights, the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and someone who has stood up to the fundamentalists in her native land of Iran, said almost a decade ago: “Governments don’t just repress people with false interpretations of religion; sometimes they do it with false cant about national security.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel is the editor of The Nation.

This article first appeared at the website of The Nation.


  • Chrlshill

    Yes, we all live in the shadow of September 11 — a crime of monumental magnitude. But terrorism is not an enemy that threatens the existence of our nation; our response should not undermine the very values that define America for ourselves and the rest of the world.

    Terrorism does not threaten our country,………REALLY ?? are you f’n blind ?? You talk about our abuse of human rights standards,…..THESE PEOPLE WANT TO KILL YOU !! and they don’t mind cutting your head off with a kitchen knife to get it done.
    Senless war in Afghanistan ,.sensless to oppose those supporters of people who want to bring the terror way of life to our shores.Your thinking represent’s paralysis by analysis, that “let’s not do anything till it has already happened ” frame of mind.Pull your head outta your ass !!

  • Guest 5

    Yes,I totally agree with the head line ” It’s time to end the war on terror.”
    The problem is where does one define “where the war on terror” is??
    Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan even… you can then add Hizbollah, Hamas, Alqaeda + Alqaeda in the Arab Peninsula and the etc etc list goes on and on…. and on.
    There is one common thread ( if you ignore sectarian or sect beliefs) and the List that goes on and on… and on is that they are all either Islamic states or huge majority Islamic states albeit with Shiite, Sunni, Wahabbi, or Talabanic leanings ( a Misnomer the Taliban have a strictish interpretation of Sunni interpretations of the Qu’ran.)
    We have as Americans in the eyes of Islam declared a “War on Islam” QED Jihad is the correct response. Lets have it clear Jihad = defending our right to our faith, and that includes religious beliefs at varaince with UN charter of human rights written with virtually zero input (tolerance more to the point) from Islamic nations beliefs.
    The heading should be “Its time to end all wars fought against Islamic nations” and should be a Un resolution, Jihadism and Terror attacks then become globally indefensible.
    Naive? Methinks not there Are Billions of muslims who would stop the extremists and Jihadists, and suicide bombers.
    Guest 5.

  • S2ndegree

    We will never be free from any middle eastern or Islamic terrorism.We bought
    into a lifetime membership when this country as the aggressor,trashed the wrong country and killed Saddam.All while our fourth estate,the three or four
    owners of our current media enterprises world wide had changed how,who and
    what we would hear from their news outlets.It basically turned what used to be
    the freedom of the press into the most biased and manipulated institutions.
       Osama  itself said,”We’ll fight the infidels until they are defeated or broke.”
    He had a pretty astute observation on the financial reference in his statement.
    So while we shove democracy down the throats of those that don’t have the
    back bone to tell us or sadly enough the fire power to tell us to go home and
    fix our own misguided interpretation of democracy in this country.We’ll keep
    sending the youth of this country into harms way.We have the best technology
    and the most heinous ordnance to feed these people.Yet we’re still trying to keep our head above water.While these hate breeders are killing us with
    crap they find around the house.
         They’re over there so that we can go on text messaging useless information
    back and forth while driving our cars.That statement and the idea behind it no longer is what our people are doing over there.Thanks for your service!Who
    are we kidding?Besides those there serving.We need to get the hell out of
    there and put our money or whats left of our money where our mouth is.
        I wonder if those in the military would mind guarding our borders here.
    they at least  could be closer to home.We would most likely see more people
    consider military service.People might go out and start spending money
    with a little more of a sense of security.It really wouldn’t be that difficult.I think
    to start  righting this listing ship ,America.We need to get more involved at
    home.If we hear our local governments constant cry of we just don’t have the manpower to correct this or that problem.We all should say “REALLY?
      How about us,we’ll volunteer.
            We out here in the west would much rather go back to screaming
    YeHaw!Not jeeeeeehad!