Last week, three Yale students were arrested for setting fire to an American flag hanging from someone else’s front porch. The rest of Yale wearily braced for the backlash from the right-wing pundits, who predictably trumpeted the incident as a confirmation of their fantasy of elite, academic support for anti-American terrorism. The flag-burning incident was but one small flare-up in the symbolic battles that are the corollary to the so-called “war on terrorism.” The verbal attacks and counterattacks around the incident seem tired because they are relics of five and a half years of anti-political fear and anxiety. The events of last week underscore the need to revoke this open-ended war, both its rhetoric and its physical violence.
The editorial board of this paper admirably took a stand against the “xenophobia” of right-wing calls for the students involved in the flag-burning to be deported. Given the relative institutional power of the News, it was courageous for them to take such a controversial position, potentially earning them the ire of Michael Ruben, the National Review and the rest of the conservative punditocracy.
A close reading of the editorial, however, shows how much the language and logic of the war has come to frame our thinking on events such as this. The editors of the paper contrasted the record of Yale senior Hyder Akbar to that of special student and former Taliban official Rahmatullah Hashemi, the difference being that the former had helped American troops as a translator in Afghanistan, while the latter “had actually once been anti-American.” This is a meaningful political contrast in the sense that the two men might have once found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict. Is the relevant distinction that one can be seen as “anti-American,” while the other is presumably “pro-American”? To deploy these categories is to flatten each person as a political actor, and to reproduce the logic that the right will use in its smears: that there are only two political camps in this world.
The idiocy of the “with us or against us” paradigm is only the discursive dimension of the reality of the worldwide “war on terrorism.” This weekend’s headlines provided new evidence for the sinister effects of this campaign. Somalia is experiencing the worst fighting in 15 years, in part because of the destabilizing effects of the war. United States Special Forces launched two airstrikes on Somalia in January. The attacks were presented as an attempt to assassinate al-Qaida leaders, but The New York Times reported that no such figures were killed. More likely, the strikes were intended to support Ethiopian military forces that entered Somalia, without United Nations authorization, to oust the Islamic Courts Union, which had been governing Mogadishu since last summer. This weekend, The Times reported that the State Department consented to an arms shipment to Ethiopia from North Korea in violation of the U.N. sanctions that the Bush government had demanded in October.
And that’s not all. The Associated Press reported last week that the CIA and FBI have been illegally detaining in Ethiopia, Guantanamo-style, “hundreds” of prisoners captured throughout the Horn of Africa. In short, we helped violate the sanctions against North Korea, in the process worsening the chaos in Somalia. Between January and March, 96,000 people fled their homes in Somalia. We are not formally at war with Somalia. Americans never even had the chance to debate what is being done in their name there.
The upshot is this: The mandate of the “war on terrorism” places no restrictions on the war in space, time or legal latitude. Though they violate international law, the government’s actions in Africa are legitimated by United States Public Law 107-40, the “Authorization for Use of Military Force” passed Sept. 18, 2001. The law gives the president the power to “use all necessary and appropriate force” to prevent “any future acts of international terrorism against the United States.” This provides legal justification, along with the fact that the Somalian Islamic Courts happen to be Islamic, and therefore can be identified with terrorism. Despite the Bush administration’s assurances to the contrary, events such as those in Somalia suggest that the campaign is not, in fact, directed at all forms of terrorism, but rather singles out Muslims.
Terrorists, no matter their religion or nationality, must be brought to justice. Everyone is in agreement about this. The way to accomplish this is through the reinstatement of the rule of law, carefully targeted operations and analysis unbiased by the discussion of a specific “Islamic” terrorism, not through a boundless, ambiguously defined war. From New Haven to Somalia, let us revoke this war and retire its rhetoric.
Jared Malsin is a senior in Berkeley College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.