New Internationalist

State of Fear

Issue 376

Richard Swift wonders if we will all end up under occupation

 Photo: Heidi Bradner / Panos Pictures
Eyes of fire - a Chechen rebel fighter. Occupation stokes resistance and fuels terror. Photo: Heidi Bradner / Panos Pictures

‘The army is a poor school for democracy.’ The words are those of the former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. We students took them and plastered them all over the walls of downtown Montreal when Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and sent soldiers into Quebec streets in response to a couple of terrorist kidnappings. It was October 1970 – and an object lesson in the fragility of civil liberties. Hundreds of activists who had nothing to do with the Front du Libération de Québec were rounded up and held without charge. Overnight we lost cherished freedoms that had taken decades of struggle to win. It was, in its way, a minor dress rehearsal for George W Bush’s current War on Terror.

Military occupation – whether in the dusty towns of Iraq’s Sunni triangle, the ruins of the Chechen capital Grozny, the Chinese-controlled Tibetan highlands, or anywhere else for that matter – is never kind to rights and freedoms. Curfews, preventive detention, censorship, checkpoints, informers, interrogations, surprise ‘sweeps’ of local neighbourhoods, official identity documents limiting movement: these are all ways of dealing with a hostile and agitated population. The arbitrary exercise of power is the centrepiece of any occupation. It is hard to imagine it otherwise.

Occupations, at least of the modern variety, are also the seedbeds of terrorism. The Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US in Afghanistan and now Iraq, the Russians in the Caucasus, India and Pakistan parcelling up Kashmir – all of these have made terrorism worse, much worse. It is like throwing a rock into a pool and watching the ripples move out in ever-widening circles. Even the CIA recognizes this: a recent report by their National Intelligence Council thinktank warns that ‘a successor generation’ to al-Qaeda is being created in the cauldron of the Iraqi occupation. The report predicts this new generation will now spread across the world using the internet to stay in touch.

It is by now well known that the killing of a family member or friend, or domicide (the destruction of your home) at the hands of the occupying power are common experiences among those who commit themselves to terror tactics. Others seem more motivated by the humiliation as their national or religious identity is degraded and debased. Both experiences are the products of occupation and domination. The desire for revenge agitates the soul and, as the Sicilian proverb says, ‘it is a terrible dish, best served cold’ – in other words, when least expected.

Photo: Martin Adler / Panos Pictures
Plastic handcuffs in Iraq: an icon of the new era of security from Abu Ghraib to Guantánamo. Photo: Martin Adler / Panos Pictures

Occasionally the real motives of the occupier can be glimpsed through the cant about territorial integrity, democracy, economic stability or finding a ‘proper’ partner for peace. The blunt-speaking Donald Rumsfeld is good for this. According to him the US intervention in the Middle East will end because ‘eventually the Iraqis will get tired of dying’. Israeli Army Chief-of-Staff Moshe Yaalon, another man known for refreshing candour, opined that: ‘The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people.’

Similar sentiments may not reach the lips, at least not on prime-time TV, but they are surely held in the hearts of occupiers everywhere – from the Moroccan general behind his fortified wall in Western Sahara to the Jakarta administrator who presides over Indonesia’s occupation of the far-flung Melanesian territory of West Papua. This is, of course, the occupier’s fantasy and it’s a dangerous one. What the occupier demands most is compliance. To get this, any democratic anti-occupation politics needs to be suppressed in a thousand different ways. Some occupied subjects may react with the desired resignation, but others will take up the weapons of terror and accept the embrace of fundamentalist absolutism. In the absence of democratic possibility, terrorism flourishes.

Increasingly this ‘mentality of occupation’ has taken on a broader application. Security and control are its watchwords. Every policy post-9/11 – aid, immigration, economic development, foreign policy, social policy – must be refracted through its prism. Nothing must be left to chance. Hearts and minds must also be ‘occupied’ by fear to create the political will needed to buttress the national security state. Hence the constant warnings of impending threat – amber alert… red alert…chemical attack… biological attack… nuclear attack… on the subways… in the water supply… at the shopping mall… at the sports stadium – the drumbeat is endless.

Fragile freedoms are under pressure in virtually every corner of the globe

An age-old fear reflex allowed us to escape the Sabre-Tooth Tiger and the Woolly Mammoth. Today when it is triggered, we rush to surrender our democratic agency, turn our tax dollars and rights over to the security forces and become volunteer soldiers in a war against a shadowy enemy ‘other’. Not that the threat isn’t real sometimes, as the innocents of Madrid and Beslan, made to pay such a terrible price last year, would testify. But the threat cannot be separated from its source – the brutal military occupations that grip the world’s ‘trouble spots’ and the occupiers who defend their ‘necessity’.

Occupied world

In a sense the entire world is falling under security occupation – a rapidly expanding network of what are now over 700 US military ‘installations’ circles the globe. It forms part of an increasingly militarized globalization where the stability of the corporate order is ensured by (mostly US) force. Military bases constantly generate tension with local residents over misuse of land, cultural arrogance, base security measures or prostitution. New US military bases post-9/11 have reverted to the old Cold War pattern of propping up autocratic states, as with the Central Asian bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kyrgyz leader Askar Akaev have sordid histories of corruption and suppressing human rights and religious dissent, and are thus ready targets for fundamentalist attack.

Warriors on terror (in the US and elsewhere) have pushed nation-states everywhere to ramp up their security apparatus. Fragile freedoms are under pressure in virtually every corner of the globe. The US Patriot Act, which allows widespread surveillance and preventive detention as well as limiting legal defence, has become the template for similar legislation. Almost everywhere budget resources are being channelled away from food and health security to state security. As usual, the vulnerable – refugees, immigrants, dissenters, heretics, people from minority communities, those that are ‘different’ – are the targets.

The fight over security legislation has become a decisive political issue in dozens of countries since 9/11. Desperate citizens are trying to hold back a tide of arbitrary police power that would allow national security forces to act like occupying powers at home. Zimbabwe, Uganda, Colombia, Morocco, Belarus, Pakistan, Kenya, Russia, Indonesia; and, on slightly different political terrain, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand/Aotearoa, to name but a few: all of these continue to witness a tug-of-war between advocates of civil freedom and those of state security.

In some cases, resistance has been sharp. Two Presidents of the tiny Indian Ocean country of Mauritius resigned rather than sign post-9/11 security legislation. In South Africa and South Korea repressive legislation was beaten back, at least partially, by broad-based coalitions familiar with how such legislation stifles dissent and cripples popular organization. In India there is an ongoing struggle between supporters of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and its ‘reformed’ offspring and those who fear the arbitrary use of such power.

The way the Israeli Defence Force operates in Rafah or the Russian Army in Dagestan is, it is true, qualitatively different from the restraints still imposed on the tactical squads and intelligence units in Western countries. But what we have here is a continuum – at the back of both is a certain zero-tolerance mindset which sees fundamental opposition and difference as a lethal challenge to be met with all necessary force.

A tendency towards social control has always existed across the political spectrum but these days lodges most comfortably in the apparatus of the national security state. The events of 9/11 allowed already existing ‘occupation’ agendas to militarize civilian police and criminalize dissent, solidifying the position of the national security bunker.

The notion of ‘occupation’ has an odd pedigree in the Western imagination. Like much modern Western political folklore, popular memory harks back to the Second World War period. The Nazi occupation of Europe and the resistance fighters from Prague to Paris are the heroic material of script writers and novelists. But rarely is it recognized that this was an unprecedented wave of desperate anti-occupation terrorism that involved bombing trains, executing collaborators, raking cafés and restaurants with machine gunfire and killing not a few civilian bystanders. Terrorism was certainly how the Nazis and their supporters thought about it and described it when taking in their turn a terrible revenge.

Benign occupation myths

Then there is the benign notion of occupation associated with the post-War situation in Germany and Japan. Like the parallel with Munich appeasement frequently cited to justify intervention in Vietnam and now Iraq, this is a history lesson poorly learned and badly applied. The model of a ‘benign’ occupation is one ‘tough-minded’ liberals see as proof people can be occupied ‘for their own good’. But these post-War occupations were anomalous in many ways. For one thing, they were not nearly as unselfish and free from opposition as they are normally held to be. For another, a massive Marshall Plan of economic aid was mobilized to help rebuild the infrastructure and markets of the defeated Axis, thus gaining good will. This was done at least partly out of fear of Soviet influence. Similar Marshall Plans have been suggested to promote an African renaissance, an end to world poverty or a halt to global warming. But circumstances are different and political will absent, so the inadequate monies promised either never turn up or are gobbled up by a bevy of corporate contractors, as with the ‘reconstruction’ funds for Afghanistan and Iraq. The war-exhausted societies of Germany and Japan had no long history of occupation and control by outside colonial powers. Occupation could be seen as a temporary phase. Almost nowhere in the global South, with a history of rapacious colonialism within living memory, can people be convinced that they are being occupied ‘for their own good’.

Enemy creep expands the definition of terrorist so that it fits a much wider circle

The politics of the current ‘global occupation regime’, organized as it is around open markets and national security states, has two key features – enemy creep and political chill.

Enemy creep expands the definition of terrorist so that it fits a much wider circle of opposition and dissenters. Typical is the Oregon law which defines terrorism as any act that ‘disrupts’: 1) the orderly assembly of inhabitants 2) commerce or transportation 3) educational and government institutions. Whole categories of people are put under surveillance and are subject to possible detention. There are now five million people on the US Master Terror Watchlist. So the singer Cat Stevens (now known as Yusuf Islam) gets barred from the US and one of Europe’s best-known Muslim intellectuals, Tariq Ramadan, can’t take up a teaching post at Notre Dame University. Across the globe Bangladesh landmine campaigner Rafique Al Islam is arrested under counter-terrorism charges. Mapuche indigenous activists in Chile face the same fate. So does Liberian independent journalist Hassen Bility, accused of being an ‘illegal combatant’. Yemeni student Jamil Qasim Mohammed is picked up in Pakistan and shipped to Jordan for ‘interrogation.’ Syrian-born Canadian Maher Arar is grabbed while changing planes in New York and bundled off to Damascus.

There are by now thousands of such stories. Some have happy endings. Most don’t. Human Rights Watch reports that at least 11 terror suspects held in US custody have disappeared entirely.

But it is quite unclear that this system of mass surveillance and detention will be at all effective in stopping terrorists. It stands in danger of being swamped by too much data and too many potential suspects. Old fashioned intelligence work gives ground to an obsession with surveillance technologies and social control.

Political chill has the effect of discouraging dissent and debate because of the emergency situation necessitated by the War on Terror. This is what the writers Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt refer to in their book Multitude (available from the NI Australia on-line shop) as a situation of ‘permanent exceptionalism’. States have traditionally reserved for themselves the right to suspend liberties and freedoms in temporary emergencies under martial law or state-of-siege provisions. Hardt and Negri believe these ‘exceptional’ circumstances are hardening into a permanent state of affairs.

Could it be otherwise? The NI has spilt a huge amount of ink over the years to expose the psychotic level of global inequality that leaves some picking through the garbage while others tan by their pools. Not to belabour the point, but Forbes magazine (a voice of big business) tells us that in 2004 the combined wealth of the world’s top 587 family units and individuals added up to $1.9 trillion. That is more than the GDP of the world’s 135 poorest countries. Globalization has not only increased this inequality but also made it more visible. It seems unlikely that the billions of people getting the short end of the straw will just shrug philosophically about it. The human dysfunctions produced by such gross inequality – riots, crime, terrorism, drugs, violence, civil war – are likely to increase.

Call the cops! Where is the army? Occupation time. We are reaching a point when we need to choose between our privileges and our rights. We are unlikely to be able to keep both.

Richard Swift

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