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The Violence That Empire Engenders


On May 1, a naturalized Pakistani-American left the United States a smoking surprise in Times Square meant to maim and murder indiscriminately. Fortunately the car bomb failed because a Senegalese Muslim T-shirt vendor sounded the alarm and because the bomb was ineptly designed. But as all acts of violence warrant, we should ask why. Was homegrown terrorist Faisal Shahzad’s hatred of the United States a product of its liberalism, its belief that any person who works hard enough can get ahead and should? Was his complaint that the United States is a libertine culture that allows homosexuality and abortion? Was it that the United States loves freedom and the pursuit of happiness more than other cultures?

No, Shahzad’s reported complaints had to do with state violence: the Iraq war and the American government’s deployment of drones to deliver death from above and without risk.

Since four planes struck from out of the blue on 9/11, the U.S. government has misdiagnosed the cause of jihadist insurgency as religious fanaticism rather than territorial ambition or as revan-chism consecrated by religious justification and often legitimate grievances that resonate among Muslims. But the last few months have left a few bloody crumbs dropped across our territory, as some unlikely characters have heeded the call to jihad, many of them Americans. Dare we dip our finger into that darkness and follow the trail toward its true cause?

No doubt, the United States faces a dangerous enemy, but a weak enemy, one it has consistently pumped full of righteous rage and allowed to metastasize into an idea, far harder to kill. Ever since 9/11, American society has had the self-destructive tendency of primarily seeing jihadist terrorists as monsters intent on devouring its social experiment in human liberty and popular rule. Rather than listen to what motivates the individual terrorists who have attacked the United States here and abroad, Americans hear only a convenient narrative left over from the Bush years: “They hate our freedoms.” This belief, however, is nothing more than a collective delusion that continually feeds a foreign policy destructive of our homeland security and steadily erodes our most cherished liberties. Nothing proves that more than the motivations of Shahzad and three other men who have punctured Americans’ sense of security over the past year.

Why they hate us

In September, federal authorities arrested 25-year-old Najibullah Zazi, a legal permanent resident from Afghanistan, who was planning a suicide attack on the New York subway system. The Afghan immigrant recently pled guilty to conspiring to murder innocent commuters. According to the New York Times, he rationalized his motive to kill innocents this way: “I would sacrifice myself to bring attention to what the United States military was doing to civilians in Afghanistan by sacrificing my soul for the sake of saving other souls.”

A little more than two months later, Americans were shocked when Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a Muslim American army psychiatrist, murdered 13 people — 12 military and 1 civilian — at the military base at Fort Hood, Texas. Much as Zazi’s, Hasan’s motivation to massacre his comrades seems to have arisen from his horror at U.S. foreign policy, a policy he was entrusted to carry out. Two years before his crime, Hasan lectured colleagues that American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were an assault on Islam. “It’s getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims,” he said in a self-fulfilling Power-Point presentation. And while he didn’t blow himself up at Fort Hood, there seems little doubt that he never intended to walk away from his attack. And he didn’t; an officer’s bullet left him paralyzed.

On Christmas Day, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a rich kid from Nigeria, stashed powdered explosives in his underwear and attempted to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on its way to Detroit. Fortunately, he failed. After his botched attack, National Public Radio investigated why the son of a prominent banker would choose the path of a suicide bomber. One reason, it seems, was the treatment of Muslim detainees at Guantánamo. NPR’s West African correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, said the anger motivating Abdul-mutallab was unique in its violence but not in its sentiment. “I have to say that a lot of people I spoke to in northern Nigeria, if it wasn’t specifically Guantánamo, were also talking about the fact of U.S. foreign policy, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Palestinian-Israeli crisis, how they felt so personally that the U.S. was attacking not only Muslims, as they felt, but even Nigerian Muslims.”

Interesting enough, both Hasan and Abdulmutallab had communicated with radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen living in Yemen. Many believe he helped fan the embers of radicalization into a violent conflagration inside those two angry, disaffected men. In a message to Americans after Fort Hood and the botched Christmas attack, al-Awlaki explained his violent hatred of the United States:

We are not against Americans for just being Americans. We are against evil and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil. What we see from America is the invasion of … countries, we see Abu Ghraib, Baghram and Guantanamo Bay, we see cruise missiles and cluster bombs, and we have just seen in Yemen the death of 23 children and 17 women. We cannot sit idly in the face of such aggression and we will fight back and incite others to do the same.

It didn’t take long thereafter for Shahzad to park his murderous deposit on West 45th St, just off Broadway. Unlike the other three jihadists above, Shahzad chose not to die in the attack. Aside from his opposition to the Iraq War, his anger seemed to boil over because of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, a country with which the United States is not at war but in which the United States had carried out 114 reported drone strikes between 2004 and February 2010, according to New America Foundation’s Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedermann. Much like the jihadists and insurgents the United States fights, these drone operators, a UN report recently concluded, are unprivileged belligerents not recognized as combatants under the laws of war (i.e., they can be prosecuted under the domestic laws of a detaining state). As such, the CIA personnel involved can be prosecuted for murder either by the United States or by the state in which the attack occurred. And if an attack ends up killing civilians, as some drone attacks certainly have, the civilian drone operators responsible could be charged with war crimes, says Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions.

Rather than investigate the rational motivations that moved those men to kill innocent Americans, government officials and much of the intelligentsia want to focus their attention only on an almost mythically powerful opponent, al-Qaeda, a bunkered organization estimated to have approximately 100 to 150 members. No one is more guilty of this than Prof. Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown. In a recent National Interest article reviewing the spike in homegrown jihadists, Hoffman makes an incredible and frightening claim: “It is hard to be complacent when al-Qaeda and its Pakistani, Somali, and Yemeni allies arguably have been able to accomplish the unthinkable — establishing at least an embryonic terrorist recruitment, radicalization, and operational infrastructure in the United States with effects both at home and abroad.” That’s a striking claim that calls for at least some evidence. But Hoffman cites none for his scary claim and that’s because there isn’t any, unless he has privileged access to intelligence the rest of us don’t. Whether it’s Zazi, Hasan, or Shahzad, these men weren’t made jihadists through the influence of others, but were self-radicalized malcontents who volunteered to kill for jihad. They went looking for al-Qaeda and its comrades, not the other way around.

Radical Islam and the American empire

It’s time for the American people to realize that jihadist suicidal terrorism isn’t primarily the product of religious fanaticism, but an understandable response to U.S. imperialism. “The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland,” Robert Papes, the preeminent U.S. expert on suicidal terrorists, told The American Conservative Magazine in 2005. Religion, according to this author of Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism, factors into suicide terrorism only when the occupying power is of another confession. Say hello to the U.S.-led invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Research done by Eli Berman came to a similar, albeit more frightening, conclusion when researching jihadist suicide bombers. “In short,” he concludes, “attaching a psychological profile to a suicide attacker is not difficult: He lacks empathy for the victims, is altruistic toward his own cause or side, and is a little deluded about his importance in the grand scheme of things.”

Recently, terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins of RAND said at a congressional hearing that most jihadists aren’t waging a spiritual struggle that has violently crashed into the real world. “Although recruitment may involve the rhetoric of religious belief, turning to violent jihad does not seem to result from profound religious discernment,” he testified. “Few jihadists appear to have more than a superficial knowledge of Islam.”

That should not be surprising, because religion is not the primary recruiting device used by bin Laden or al-Qaeda to justify insurgency and terrorism. It’s geopolitics. In 1998, bin Laden, along with his current number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the emir of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, and other regional jihadist leaders, signed their declaration that all Muslims should rise up in “Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders.” Aside from appeals to Allah, the World Islamic Front’s rationale for butchering Americans is simple:

[For] over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.

A recent study done by the Minaret of Freedom Institute seems to prove bin Laden’s focus on American imperialism. (It’s important to remind readers that being an enemy of American imperialism does not a freedom fighter make. Bin Laden is an imperialist who would plunge most of the Muslim world into a Salafi dungeon if he could.) Analyzing bin Laden’s publicly available statements from 1996 to 2009, Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad and Alejandro Beutel find that the terrorist leader disproportionately relies on anti-imperial arguments to justify terrorist strikes against the West and the United States.

Even when directed at Muslims, the majority of bin Laden’s words focus on policy grievances. We find that he speaks about policy grievances 33 percent of the time, followed by religious appeal at 20 percent and religious justification at 15 percent.

While the debate persists about whether bin Laden is even alive, al-Awlaki has made a bid to supplant him as jihad’s spokesman. It is no surprise that he uses the same arguments to radicalize new Muslims — and Americans — for jihad: “America refuses to admit that its foreign policies are the reason behind a man like Nidal Hasan born and raised in the U.S. turning his guns against American soldiers,” he says in his message. “And the more crimes America commits, the more mujahideen will be recruited to fight against it,” adding that Abdulmutallab’s failed attack was in retaliation for a U.S. attack on Yemen that killed women and children.

The tragedy of it all is that the bin Ladens and al-Awlakis of the jihadist world bet the United States would take their bait and lash out in revenge and hubris. By invading and occupying predominantly Muslim countries, undermining the rule of law through preventive detention and torture, and delivering death by drone, the United States proved bin Laden’s narrative of Christian crusaders and holy war. That accomplished two necessary goals for al-Qaeda: it manufactured more jihadists and it economically and militarily weakened history’s greatest hegemon.

Destroying ourselves to save ourselves

This positive-feedback cycle of imperialism and jihadism leaves Americans poorer, less secure, and more afraid. But rather than dig for the root, Americans continue to address the sprouts. Zazi’s plot draws congressional calls for more mass-transit security spending. Hasan’s massacre leads the Pentagon to develop policies to identify and address violent extremism. Abdulmutallab’s underwear bomb leads to rapid deployment of full body scanners critics call “virtual strip searches.” Shahzad’s inept attack leads to the same bill from Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Penn.) to strip an American of his citizenship if the State Department declares that he has affiliated with a foreign terrorist organization.

In a statement accompanying the introduction to Lieberman’s bill, it is important to note the justification for this act. “As many of you know, it has been reported that President Obama has signed an order authorizing the assassination of al-Awlaki,” Lieberman stated. “That has not been confirmed — but no one argues that a President doesn’t have the right to issue such an order. If the President can authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen who fights for a foreign terrorist organization — in this case al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — we can also have a law that allows the U.S. government to revoke al-Awlaki’s citizenship.”

Obama’s assassination policies reflect how mutated executive power has eviscerated our natural rights as human beings, not just American citizens. After 9/11, the White House and the national security state could torture and indefinitely detain foreigners without due process. Now, in the age of Obama, the White House can even mark for death an American citizen far from any battlefield without due process or accountability and, if Lieberman is successful, strip Americans of their citizenship.

Almost nine years after 9/11, the United States has spent approximately a trillion dollars to fight its global “war on terrorism” as well as hundreds of billions in dollars of escalating expenditures on homeland security. In return, American taxpayers continue to jeopardize their economic future for an imperium few benefit from and which brings the war to American shores while simultaneously eating up cherished liberties.

What is most maddening is that the two men who have slid under American beds know this best. In a video aired by Al Jazeera, bin Laden bragged that 9/11 cost half a million dollars and ended up costing the United States $500 billion. “America is a superpower, with enormous military strength and vast economic power,” he said, “but all this is built on foundations of straw. So it is possible to target those foundations and focus on their weakest points, which, even if you strike only one-tenth of them, then the whole edifice will totter and sway.”

Now al-Awaki taunts, “And since [9/11] America has not been safe and nine years after 9/11, nine years of spending, and nine years of beefing up security you are still unsafe even in the holiest and most sacred of days to you, Christmas Day.”

The United States, however, has an easy and moral way to rip out the root, make itself more secure and fiscally sound in the process, and end the schizophrenia of democratic empire. It should immediately begin to draw down its imperium by withdrawing from Afghanistan and Iraq, shuttering its worldwide archipelago of military installations, and bringing its military home. That will help dampen the allure of the jihadist narrative the likes of Abdulmutallab, Hasan, and Zazi latched onto, cut runaway defense spending, and reimpose sanity on an ultraviolent foreign policy.

If it does not adopt a solution that approximates that, the United States will continue the self-perpetuating cycle of violence empire engenders. The aftermath won’t be pretty. The United States will continue to spend ever more on security but continue to feel less and less safe, farther and farther into the future, and lash out ever more savagely, its soil fertile for everything but freedom, democracy, and individual rights.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Matthew Harwood is a writer living in northern New Jersey. His work has appeared at The American Conservative, the Guardian, Reason, TomDispatch, among others. He is senior writer/editor at the American Civil Liberties Union.