The myopic terrorism lens
Nov 9, 2011

The myopic terrorism lens

One of the main failures of western understanding of the Middle East and South Asia, and the subsequent failures of actions taken by the west in these regions, stems from viewing these regions through the lens of terrorism. This terrorism-centric view pervades both military and political elites as well as media pundits and the general population. The threats that a country or group gives are the perceived threats of terrorism against western interests. The actions taken are ones perceived to curb terrorism.

Anwar al-Awlaki
Terrorism is a problem; there is a non zero threat from it and pragmatic steps to combat it should be taken. However, it is far from the only problem. There are problems of massive human rights violation, endemic corruption, suppression of political and civic freedoms, oppression of religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities, staggering poverty, unemployment, economic collapse, natural disasters, resource dependency and depletion, internal conflict, disease and death. It isn't exactly a pretty picture. The suffering from, say, the famine in Somalia or the flooding in Pakistan simply dwarf the sum total of all this terrorism on any reasonable scale of caring about human suffering.

Given the sheer magnitude and diversity of the very real problems that exist, to focus solely on the problem of terrorism is not merely misguided but fundamentally inhumane. If we are to maintain any semblance of human solidarity and empathy for the suffering of others, if we think that as members of the greatest nations on the planet we have some responsibility to the world, then we are obligated to take a wider perspective than just focusing on the problems of terrorism.

Even if we are to take the purely western-centric view of only caring about things that happen to the west and western interests, however one might define that, we must still move away from the myopic terrorism focus. That these other problems exists also create problems for us. Partly, because many of them influence terrorism themselves and helping them would help the terrorism problem. But in a far broader way, these other problems lead to instability in the region which can spill over into western interests, causes enormous expenditure on behalf of western partners to go in and fix problems that build to a tipping point, prevent greater economic well being from trade with resource rich, democratic countries, and generally suffer enormous amounts of missed opportunity costs and create legacy costs for the future. While I am speaking broadly, one can see in a more specific way how this occurs in my Afghanistan overview.

In Somalia, US worries over nearly nonexistent terrorism threats led to action that ultimately resulted in the rise of Al Shabab, whose effect has been so devastating on this state in the face of the recent famine where they prevented humanitarian aid from entering parts of the country. In Yemen, which is economically destined to supplant Somalia as the most impoverished country in the region, there are a myriad of economic, population and politics crises which absolutely must be resolved nearly immediately to prevent disaster and yet the status quo regime has been propped up while the US fires Predator drones at a small terrorism problem. The recently killed US citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and, separately, his 16 year old son are examples of the lengths that will be taken to combat very questionable examples of terrorists in Yemen and abroad despite the blatant illegality of it and in flagrant disregard for the very real problems that are occurring in that country. In Afghanistan, the myopic focus on catching Osama bin Laden in the early years really detracted from the many other problems that exist in the country and could have been easily solved yet are not and we have to deal with the fall out of that today. Examples such as these are ubiquitous.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the terrorism-centric lens on the Middle East and South Asia is how it dehumanizes the situation. People we are ostensibly "against" and fighting with get characterized as being terrorists and then it hardly matters what one does, or how illegal it might be, because we are fighting terrorists. After all, who would care about terrorists. The result has been the broad classifying of quite populist movements, and even entire countries and religions, as simply being terrorists and prima facie justifying whatever action occurs against them. It creates an us vs them mentality that is dangerous.

The uprisings accross Northern Africa and the Middle East that started this past spring have, I think, helped to paint a new picture in these regions. The western public was able to really see that there were a vibrant, youthful, democratic movement in many countries that they could empathize with and express their solidarity for. While sources like Al-Jazerra and Democracy Now! were better than the mainstream sources, coverage for the most part was robust across the spectrum and went a long way towards giving us a more human and empathetic view of the middle east, a view expanded outside of the myopic narrative of merely the terrorism lens.

Of course, there are other factors such as the desire for military hegemony and force projection, or the desire to secure oil interests, that are important determinants for US and western actions in these regions. Perhaps they are quite a bit more important as determinants than this business of the terrorism lens which some would say has just been a manufactured focus to provide cover for these deeper issues. I view these as asymmetric factors where there is a fundamental difference between the military and political elites who are engaging in actions and the media and public who perceives them. This terrorism lens, however, is homogenous in that while it may exist in tandem with other factors it certainly is part of the establishment thinking and actions as well as that of the media and the public. Changing the public's view is the first place to start.

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

Share this post:

Tweet It! Facebook Add Feed Reddit! Digg It! Stumble Delicious Follow

Post a Comment

Frequent Topics: