Anyone Who Interferes with Business as Usual is a “Terrorist.”
Recently I heard on NPR an excellent interview with Will Potter, author of Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege. The NPR story is about the “ag gag” bills and the criminalization of those who are operating in the tradition of muckrakers like Upton Sinclair by exposing the cruel and dangerous practices of agribusinesses in their treatment of animals. People operating as undercover investigators who film these illegal and atrocious practices are being labeled “terrorists” for interfering with the sacrosanct profit-making activities of agribusinesses. As Potter puts it at one point in the interview:
[The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act] and other bills focus on economic loss. And when we start talking about the loss of profits, the most significant threat to those profits in recent years has not been broken windows, it has been activists who have actually been opening windows into how these operations work by creating video footage.
How does someone who is a modern day muckraker become a terrorist?
How does the U.S. President, a man who ran on a platform of hope and change, maintain a “kill list” and declare that he has the right to assassinate anyone he pleases as long as he regards them as “terrorists,” including Americans?
How does Congress pass laws like the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 that allows the military to strip anyone based merely upon an accusation, of their American citizenship if they’re an American citizen, and all of those accused, of any rights at all, including the right to habeas corpus, and subject them to possible indefinite and preventive detention?
How does the Defense Department without a trace of sarcasm or irony, train all of its employees that legal, peaceful protest is “low-level terrorism?”
The answer to these questions can be summarized in two bullet points:
- Free-market fundamentalism (aka neoliberalism) rests upon the logic of depriving the vast majority of the populace of economic and physical security so that big corporations can make more profits;
- Neoliberalism became the ruling doctrine when the one major rival and alternative to capitalism and imperialism, socialism, was erased from the world scene. When the socialist camp disappeared, along with the decline of vibrant unions and powerful insurgent social movements, the capitalists no longer had to make any concessions to the working class or middle class and could dictate the terms as they saw fit. This is why we see as one aspect of the present the re-emergence in increasingly naked form of the most reactionary ideas and practices such as overt, grotesque racism (e.g., Trayvon Martin’s murder because of his color), blatant misogyny, and anti-rationalist know-nothingism.
From my book, Globalization and the Demolition of Society:
Because neoliberalism produces growing disparities within the populace inside nations, between nations, and between regions, it demands and requires the increasingly generous application of force, intimidation, and deception to defend these disparities. Because persuading people to cooperate and follow the rules based on positive incentives is less and less an option since positive incentives themselves are being sharply cut back, negative incentives are necessarily being employed more and more to maintain social control. These negative incentives take two fundamental forms: fearmongering and coercion. Frighten the people about some external and internal enemies and strong-arm them into believing that extraordinary measures must be adopted to deal with these enemies, including unconstitutional and extralegal surveillance, detention, preemptive raids and invasions, rewriting laws to suit an unrestrained state, arrests of demonstrators before they demonstrate and exercise their First Amendment rights and charging them as “terrorists,” beatings, torture, murder, and assassination. These are the new politics, endorsed and employed by both major parties; they are used more explicitly by the GOP, but the distinction between the two parties is only of tone, not overall of kind.
Convincing people that they should support (or at least not actively oppose) public policies that are against their interests via ideological and political stratagems continues to be important, and the ways in which this is being carried out deserve their own chapter (see Chapter Six). But because of the increasing gap between the representation and the actuality, and because the winners in this game grow fewer and fewer relative to the losers (with the winners a fraction of the top one percent and the really big winners almost few enough to fit into a palatial mansion), propaganda can only go so far; coercion and intimidation must assume an increasingly larger burden in the exercise of social control. Moreover, persuasion itself has more and more taken on the form of cynical manipulation through fear-mongering and more extensive lying and censorship. Playing to and feeding the public’s fears fosters people’s primitive emotional states that supplant rational decision-making. When you are aroused by fear, your ability to think rationally is compromised.
Again, from Globalization and the Demolition of Society:
[H]ere is the USA PATRIOT Act’s definition for a new crime dubbed “domestic terrorism”: “acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United State or of any State . . . [that] . . . appear to be intended . . . (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. . . .”[i]
Obviously, by this definition any act of civil disobedience and any political protest could be readily categorized as “domestic terrorism,” since they are all designed to influence government policy… Lobbyists, for their part, obviously intend to influence government policy. The USA PATRIOT Act’s definition for “domestic terrorism” is so broad that it robs the term “terrorism” of all real meaning and makes it instead a catchall label that can be used against any dissenters or advocates of policy disliked by those in power. Environmental or animal rights activists, for example, do not target people. What they engage in might more properly be described as sabotage. Yet because a spray can might blow up while a saboteur is using it to deface a Humvee, for example, the activists could be (and have been) classified as “ecoterrorists” or “domestic terrorists.” If truckers, to use a different example, were to engage in a strike action or demonstration in which they used their trucks to block traffic in DC for an hour or more, this could arguably be seen as dangerous to human life and a form of intimidation or coercion and treated as terrorism. Indeed, a few years ago demonstrators in Salt Lake City were prosecuted as “domestic terrorists” for interfering with the retail sales of commercial businesses on the street where they were demonstrating. Simply put, the USA PATRIOT Act’s definition of terrorism renders the term meaningless except as an amorphous bogeyman.
Magnus Hornqvist observed in the “Birth of Public Order Policy” in 2004:
Over the last twenty years, the nature of the rule of law and the basis on which nation states employ force has been changing fundamentally. The distinction between what is criminal, to be dealt with by the legal and justice system, and what creates a ‘perception of insecurity’—formerly to be dealt with by social policy—is being eroded at both the macro (‘war on terror’) and micro (‘public order’) levels. This paves the way for the unbridled use of state force, in the first instance, and the criminalisation of behaviours that are not necessarily illegal, in the second. Fear becomes a controlling mechanism for the maintenance of the social order and any element of non-conformity is construed as a threat.[ii]
The ratcheting up of social control measures in alleged response to terrorism occurred before 9/11 and the various incidents that are commonly cited as lead-up terrorist incidents to 9/11 (e.g., the February 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center; the October 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole in Yemen; the 2001 suicide bombing murder of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud). The discourse of fear, the criminalization of previously noncriminal behaviors (including constitutionally protected free speech and protest), the massive covert government and private corporate surveillance of lawful activities and persons, and the increasing incarceration rate, all began in earnest before 9/11 and the “War on Terror.”
Why has this happened? [Magnus] Hornqvist argues as follows:
With the end of the cold war, the threat of military invasion disappeared in the prosperous nations of the world; since then, defence analysts have sought new areas in which to carry out their work and have been diagnosing new security risks. They have fastened on to courting catastrophe and sabotaging everyday security.
Muslim fundamentalism, poverty, the narcotics trade, streams of migration and political protest. These phenomena are at once both local and global. The illicit drugs found in every municipality are produced across great stretches of the globe, with the drug trade woven into the world economy. Refugees and asylum seekers may be found in virtually every municipality; at the same time, migration flows follow patterns of global conflict and the demand for cheap labour. As a consequence, it is judged increasingly meaningless to distinguish between internal and external security issues, to distinguish between threats and risks on the basis of whether they come from outside or inside the country.
The risks and threats on which these analyses focus are not military in nature. Neither drugs nor refugees constitute a security threat in any traditional sense. The central factor is not the potential for violence. Instead, the problem is of a more political character. … It is a question of intent.
To determine whether an act is terrorist, one cannot merely look at the act itself; the underlying motive must also be examined.[iii]
Hornqvist makes two main points in the preceding. First, the Cold War’s end required military-related enterprises within and outside of government to find other justifications for their activities and expenditures. Second, the new alleged threats are simultaneously local and global in nature, and defining them as terrorist threats has to do with who and what these people and groups are, not their intent and their actions.
The Cold War’s end has had, it is true, the effect of necessitating that military-related activities find other “threats” to justify their existence. This is in keeping with the customary nature of bureaucracies: bureaucracies do not commit suicide; they find ways to persist even when the original reason for their existence disappears. There is, however, an over-arching, more important and compelling dynamic at work here: capitalism is a system that requires, but also exceeds, the specific demands of its military arm. To pursue profit and profit-making opportunities, military force is necessary, but military expenditures in and of themselves do not nearly account for capitalism’s expansionist nature and aims. Wars, for example, are not waged just because or principally because some military suppliers make a lot of money from selling arms. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not happen mainly because Halliburton stood to gain from the invasion and occupation. Wars, in fact, create tremendous strains upon a nation’s economy as a whole and on the social fabric. (For more on this key point, see Chapter Two.)
As to Hornqvist’s second point—the actors’ intent—his point here would be more accurate if he had made it clear that the definition of terrorism has to do with the definers’ intent. (He states this more clearly later: “It is more a question of who succeeds in establishing their definition of the situation and less one of what the threat really consists of. The security risks may be real or fictitious; it does not matter which—what they actually are or what they were to begin with—since they are what they have been made into and it is in this capacity that they exercise their effect.”)36
The very fact that poor people, migrants, Muslims, drug dealers, and political protestors are all included in this list of potential “terrorists”—justifying surveillance over them all and the rousing of nativist sentiments against them—reveals a momentous and explicit shift in how public officials and opinion-makers govern. In an economy in which some must be poor because capitalism and poverty are co- occurring and mutually reinforcing phenomena—capitalism requires that some be unemployed and therefore willing to work for less in order to survive—and where migrant labor fuels economic activity like arteries keep a person alive, the criminalization of these indispensible groups reflects a deeply troubling facet of our contemporary world. The marginalized groups are told, in effect, “We need you to exist as you do, for you make us rich and comfortable, but the very fact of your existence renders you a suspect, a criminal and a possible terrorist.” The poor and immigrants are therefore equally as indispensible as they are intolerable.
This means, as I further state in GDS:
[A]ttempts to restore the rule of law will not succeed as a strategy separate from a fundamental challenge to the entire logic of the system itself.
We cannot, in other words, reverse these trends short of a challenge to the whole system through (primarily) going outside of the existing channels and processes and dismantling and replacing the entire system with a system that is based on meeting human needs and safeguarding the planet and all of its denizens rather than one based on exploitation and the relentless and ruthless pursuit of profit.
Being “realistic” and choosing the “lesser evil” of the Democrats and Barack Obama has shown what a bankrupt strategy that is. Those who celebrated Obama’s victory over Romney do not realize that the limiting of choices to those who the system will allow to be put forward as “choices” is no choice at all for the people. As long as the people allow themselves to be restricted to the options that authorities grant us – such as elections – we will never be freed from false saviours. Isn’t it time for us to grow up politically and cast aside useless and harmful illusions? When officialdom claims that any of those who speak out against and dare to expose their practices are “terrorists” deserving of death and/or being thrown into the slammer indefinitely, what self-respecting citizen would not rise in passionate opposition to this and where this has been and will take us all as a society? As my website’s slogan puts it: Sometimes asking for the impossible is the only realistic path.
Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is a Harvard honors graduate in Government and received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of “Globalization and the Demolition of Society” and Co-Editor/Author of “Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney”. Website: Dr. Dennis Loo