Ben Debney is a PhD candidate in International Relations at Deakin University, Burwood, Melbourne.
The idea for this article came to me after the shootings in San Bernadino; all it really required was another atrocity to give it legs. A dysfunctional part of me hoped I might get out of having to write it. If the War on Terror was ever meant to be won, by now it must be classed as a monumental failure for the West. Any conventional war that becomes bogged down in a protracted quagmire is generally regarded as a zero sum gain at best.
The roots of the War on Terror in moral panic narratives means that we rarely seem to even ask the question as to whether or not it’s actually getting us anywhere. If we don’t care that it isn’t, that begs the question as to the role War on Terror narratives play in public discourse, whether we care if our ideas mean anything or whether we just care about being right.
Between the rise of Islamic State, the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the second round of Paris attacks, San Bernadino and now Belgium, all prominently displayed in the media because the perpetrators are not on our side and the victims are affluent westerners, it does not seem that terrorism is going away. On the contrary, it seems that it has made more and bolder incursions into the bubbles of apathetic individualism that dominate the safe and conspicuously comfortable existences of those of us safely removed from the consequences of the military adventures instigated by our national governments.
Indeed, the apathy seems almost to extend to each atrocity now, as the ritual outrage from political leaders who have new ideas on how to deal with the problem of non-state terrorism other than to beat their chests and lower themselves to the level of those provoking them precipitates a marked war-weariness. To be sure, Osama Bin Laden and his associates responsible for the original great Atrocity in the West a decade and a half ago achieved their primary goal of provoking the Great Satan into expensive, economically self-destructive wars.
Then there were the useful side effect of polarizing West and Middle East, driving moderates into the arms of fundamentalists on both sides of the fence and enabling radical fundamentalists in Congress, who for their part were more than willing to oblige their Islamic counterparts by dismantling remaining democratic forms in the name of defending them from the loyal opposition who had the same goals.
In this sense the War on Terror was never anything more than therapeutic psychodrama, one in which ‘the emotional release of the protagonists takes precedence over what is actually being said . . . It is an expression of their pain and powerlessness confronted by the decay and dereliction, not only of their familiar environment, but of their own lives too — an expression for which our society provides no outlet’ (Stuart Hall, Policing the Crisis).
Having been cast to this end as a War on Terror, the Western response to the terrorist attacks in the United States of 2001 has displayed characteristics that are far more accurately cast as moral panic. A number of key characteristics points inexorably towards this conclusion.
*The conflation in War on Terror narratives of object and relation, such that terrorism as a relational phenomenon in reality is reified into an object, one that can be demonized, targeted and attacked according to conventional means. The reification of terrorism from relation into object for this purpose also means that, rather than something that can be understood rationally, it functions instead as a propaganda trope — one that can never be defeated, but that nevertheless supplies virtually endless fuel to the fire of perpetual war.
*The reification of terrorism into an object that can be fought and defeated through conventional warfare as a subject of war propaganda necessitates application of the processes known to sociology as the ‘production of deviance’ and social psychology as ‘moral disengagement. In engaging in the production of deviance while giving way to moral disengagement, those responsible for creating War on Terror narratives rendered themselves cause and cure of the same problem, a paradox reflected in their tendency to perpetuate the feared outcomes of enemy success (eg. the destruction of what remains of civil society and democratic rights and freedoms) in the name of combating them.
*The systemic and deep-seated cognitive dissonance characteristic of War on Terror narratives between rhetoric and actions, as its proponents waged state terror utilizing literally the same methods and propaganda tropes that Adolf Hitler used to start World War II abroad, while dismantling what remained of democratic freedoms at home in the name of defending them from evildoers who hated freedom.
The events cast as a War on Terror, then, add up in the real world to a Terror Scare, a moral panic over terrorism. As a characteristic feature of this moral panic, therapeutic psychodrama expressed as War on Terror narratives have served to enable class war waged by the political classes of Western democracies against their own people, for the defense of the vested interests and class privileges of the opulent minorities on whose behalf the system of representative democracy was designed and in whose interests it has always functioned.
This is nothing out of the ordinary, but on the contrary entirely consistent with the prescription of James Madison articulated during the Constitutional Convention to the effect that the primary function of government should be to ‘protect the minority of the opulent from the majority.’ To the extent that that is the case, War on Terror narratives have served the same blame-shifting, scapegoating and generally distracting function that the Domino Theory played for western imperialists during the Cold War.
To the extent that those who have internalized the values, methods and goals of the Terror Scare as their own continue to parrot War on Terror mythologies as their own in militant ignorance of fact and militant defiance of logic and reason for the sake of enabling therapeutic psychodrama, we can assume that they neither expect or desire an end to war. On the contrary, the specter of terrorism reified through the conflation of object and relation into a propaganda motif and a moral panic trope provides an opportunity for perpetual war, a permanent scapegoat to blame for everything wrong with the world.
An ideological crutch of this kind only ever becomes more necessary as the consequences of lowering oneself to the level of those provoking us come home to revisit us, even if it was a convenient way to gain greater control over remaining oil supplies and buttress the petrodollar regime at the time. The destructive dynamic set in place only has one ending, just as there is only one person who really gains from it; no prizes for guessing who.