September 11’s Legacy: War as Franchise

August 26th, 2003
By Naomi Klein

The Marriot Hotel in Jakarta was still burning when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political and security affairs, explained the implications of the day’s attack.

“Those who criticize about human rights being breached must understand that all the bombing victims are more important than any human rights issue.”

In a sentence, we got the best summary yet of the philosophy underlying Bush’s so-called “war on terror.” Terrorism doesn’t just blow up buildings; it blasts every other issue off the political map. The spectre of terrorism, real and exaggerated, has become a shield of impunity, protecting governments around the world from scrutiny for their human rights abuses.

Many have argued that the war on terror is the United States government’s thinly veiled excuse for constructing a classic Empire, in the model of Rome or Britain. Two years into the crusade, it’s clear that this is a mistake: the Bush gang doesn’t have the stick-to-it-ness to successfully occupy one country, let alone a dozen.

Bush and the gang do, however, have the hustle of good marketers, and they know how to contract-out. What Bush has created in the WoTâ„¢ is less a “doctrine” for world domination than an easy to assemble tool kit for any mini-empire looking to get rid of the opposition and expand its power.

The war on terror was never a war in the traditional sense, lacking a clear target or a fixed location. It is, instead, a kind of brand an idea that can be easily franchised by any government in the market for an all purpose opposition cleanser.

We already know that the WoTâ„¢ works on domestic groups that use terrorist tactics like Hamas or the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). But that’s only its most basic application. WoTâ„¢ can be used on any liberation or opposition movement. It can also be applied liberally on unwanted immigrants, pesky human rights activists and even on hard to get out investigative journalists.

It was Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who was the first to adopt Bush’s franchise, parroting the White House’s pledges to “pull up these wild plants by the root, smash their infrastructure” as he sent bulldozers into the occupied territories to uproot olive trees and tanks to raze civilian homes. Soon enough, Sharon’s “infrastructure of terror” included human rights observers who were bearing witness to the attacks, as well as aid workers and journalists.

Another franchise soon opened in Spain with Prime Minister José María Aznar extending his WoT â„¢ from the Basque guerrilla group ETA to the Basque separatist movement as a whole, the vast majority of which is entirely peaceful. Aznar has resisted calls to negotiate with the Basque Autonomous Government and banned the political party Batasuna (even though, as the New York Times noted in June “no direct link has been established between Batasuna and terrorist acts”). He has also shut down Basque human rights groups, magazines, and the only entirely Basque language newspaper. Last February the Spanish police raided the Association of Basque Middle Schools, accusing it of having terrorist ties.
This appears to be the true message of Bush’s war franchise: why negotiate with your political opponents when you can annihilate them? In the era of WoTâ„¢, little concerns like war crimes and human rights just don’t register.

Among those who have taken careful note of the new rules is Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze. Last October, while extraditing five Chechens to Russia (without due process) for its WoTâ„¢, he stated that “International human-rights commitments might become pale in comparison with the importance of the anti-terrorist campaign.”

Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri got the same memo. She came to power pledging to clean up Indonesia’s notoriously corrupt and brutal military and bring peace to the fractious country. Instead she has called off talks with the Free Aceh Movement, and in May, invaded the oil rich province in the country’s largest military offensive since the 1975 invasion of East Timor. The Indonesian human rights organization TAPOL describes the situation in Aceh as “a living hell, a daily round up of trauma and extreme fear, of sweeping villages, of the seizure of people at random and, hours later, their bodies left lying by the roadside.”

Why did the Indonesian government think it could get away with the invasion after the international outrage that forced it out of East Timor? Easy: Post September 11, the government cast Aceh’s movement for national liberation as “terrorist” which means human rights concerns no longer apply. Rizal Mallarangeng, a senior advisor to Megawati, called it the “blessing of September 11.”

Philippines president Gloria Arroyo appears to feel similarly blessed. Quick to cast her battle against Islamic separatists in the southern Moro region as part of WoTâ„¢, Arroyo — like Sharon, Aznar and Megawati — abandoned peace negotiations and waged brutal civil war instead, displacing 90,000 people last year.

But she didn’t stop there. Last August, speaking to soldiers at a military academy, Arroyo extended the war beyond terrorists and armed separatists to include “those who terrorize factories that provide jobs”, clear code for trade unions. Labour groups in Philippine free trade zones report that union organizers are facing increased threats and strikes are being broken up with extreme police violence.

In Colombia, the government’s war against leftist guerrillas has long been used as cover to murder anyone with leftist ties, whether union activists or indigenous farmers. But even in Colombia, things have gotten worse since President Alvaro Uribe took office in August 2002 on a WoTâ„¢ platform. Last year, 150 union activists were murdered. Like Sharon, Uribe quickly moved to get rid of the witnesses, expelling foreign observers and playing down the importance of human rights. Only after “terrorist networks are dismantled… will we see full compliance with human rights,” Uribe said in March.

Sometimes WoTâ„¢ is not an excuse to wage war, but to keep one going. Mexican president Vincente Fox came to power in 2000 pledging to settle the Zapatista conflict “in 15 minutes” and to tackle rampant human rights abuses committed by the military and police. Now, post-September 11, Fox has abandoned both projects. The Mexican government has made no moves to reinitiate the Zapatista peace process and last week, Fox closed down the high-profile office of the Under-Secretary of Human Rights.

This is the era ushered in by September 11: war and repression unleashed, not by a single Empire, but by a global franchise of them. In Indonesia, Israel, Spain, Colombia, The Philippines and China, governments have latched on to Bush’s deadly WoTâ„¢ and are using it to erase their opponents and tighten their grip on power.

Last week, another war was in the news. In Argentina, the senate voted to repeal two laws that granted immunity to the sadistic criminals of the 1976-1983 dictatorship. At the time, the generals called their campaign of extermination a “war on terror,” using a series of kidnappings and violent attacks by leftist groups as an excuse to seize power.

But the vast majority of the 30,000 people who were “disappeared” during the dictatorship weren’t terrorists, they were union leaders, artists, teachers, psychiatrists. As with all wars on terror, terrorism wasn’t the target — it was the excuse to wage the real war on people who dared to dissent.