The most potent threats to human rights are often birthed out of moments of fear. People and their governments are capable of some of the most heinous atrocities in the name of preserving the state, in the face of real or imagined threats. During times like these, while many are mourning, governments and their adversaries alike can seize the opportunities brought about by the air of death and fear.
The many tragedies at hand – from Paris to Beirut to Baga – are horrid, and chaos abounds. If anything is clear, it’s that there are many mistruths at every turn, and powerful people are seeking to take advantage of the trauma-induced disarray. People with oppressive intentions often take advantage of periods of confusion.
That being said, in these weeks following the attacks in Paris, we should be vigilant and refuse to allow the types of politics and policy that were used to manipulate the public after 9/11 to arise. Violent terror attacks are a threat to one’s physical existence (the freedom to live), but the draconian advances that come afterward threaten societies’ freedoms as a whole in the most intricate of ways. What is life without freedom?
Reactionary patriotism and forgetfulness will solve nothing for the people of France, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria or any country.
In the realms of fearmongering, militarism and xenophobia, the climate in France was similar to those of most global North empires after 9/11. The United States’ implementation of “war on terror” foreign and domestic policies changed the entire planet, including the societal climates of its allies. Though France stood against the United States in the first moments of its now abominably legendary, catastrophic war in Iraq, that did not stop the French from continuing their own exploitative campaigns throughout their former colonies in Africa, nor did it stop them from implementing internationally prevalent, post-9/11, anti-Muslim legislation within their own borders. The year after France announced what has been dubbed the “burqa ban,” anti-Muslim hate crimes in the country occurred at twice the rate that they had the year before – and they increased even more the year after that. The same dramatic increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes has remained true in the United States, Britain and many other countries around the world. Environments of this sort are ripe for extremists who seek to increase their numbers.
Out of alienating politics, societal exclusion and oppressive legislation comes a hopelessness that could possibly lead those who feel alienated to consider engaging in extreme acts. Ironically, this is made plain in the many entrapping schemes that US federal agents use to catch would-be terror suspects. Many recently foiled terror plots across the country were completely manufactured by the federal authorities, who took advantage of the societal exclusion that some Muslims feel in order to catch them in fictional acts dreamed up by federal agents. For example, Mohamed Mohamud was manipulated by the FBI into thinking he was bombing a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, Oregon, in a trap that highlights this US brand of “justice.” Here lies the paradox of this cycle; authorities realize they directly contribute to extremism through oppression – enough to utilize this fact in their entrapment scheme – but this realization has not compelled them to shift away from the global war on Muslims.
Terror groups do not just come out of nowhere. The formation and arming of the group that committed the attacks in Paris, ISIS, is a direct result of the Iraq war and the careless arms dealing of the West throughout the Middle East. As recently as August, in an interview with Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan, Michael Flynn – one of the top generals in the “war on terror” and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency – conceded that the United States knew its actions would result in the establishment of a caliphate by Islamic extremists in eastern Syria. Unfortunately, this damage is done, and now the whole world will have to deal with its consequences – as well as those of future Western military campaigns.
After 9/11, we saw the US military receive significant increases in its funding. With the fervor for warfare and revenge on the rise, the general public overwhelmingly approved of attacking Afghanistan and Iraq. Military enlistment rose in the months after the 9/11 attacks, and it has already increased dramatically in France.
Among other tightenings of “security,” we saw a draconian immigration system birthed out of the post-9/11 creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The system began under President George W. Bush, but under President Barack Obama, it has detained and deported more people than any administration in US history. Similarly, European Union member states are now preparing to tighten their borders and narrow the restrictions that allow people to move freely across Europe.
Then there’s the Transportation Security Agency (TSA): The trouble, profiling and culture of scapegoating that has become normal at airports across the world is directly linked to hyped-up fears around terror. Incidentally, a recent internal investigation revealed that despite its repressive policies, the TSA failed to detect 95 percent of fake weapons and explosives in some of the busiest US airports.
A reflection of the rise in xenophobic security culture can be seen in how states are reacting to the refugee crisis. The US House voted overwhelmingly with bipartisan support to restrict the entry of people fleeing the civil war taking place in Syria. There’s a striking similarity there to the United States’ neglect of people from Mexico and Central and South America who are seeking asylum. The Paris attacks have worked as a launching pad for jingoists and xenophobes alike to justify the vilification of people fleeing terror – portraying them as terrorists themselves. Countries that are not distancing themselves from the refugee crisis – and from compassion – are quickly becoming hard to find. Not only Syrians, but all refugees have the right to asylum and safe haven. Yet, for the most vulnerable, freedom of movement is being further restricted.
One of the most widespread losses of freedom that has recently taken place in the United States was revealed recently via Edward Snowden. The mass spying and metadata collection of the National Security Agency (NSA) renders anyone and everyone expendable. No one is safe and nothing is too sacred when it comes to spying. Along with Snowden, other whistleblowers have revealed the extent of 21st-century spying: NSA whistleblower William Binney gave up a decades-long and legendary career at the NSA after the 9/11 attacks. Speaking at the Hope Conference in 2012, Binney stated that a few days after 9/11, the government decided to start spying on everyone in the country. Binney recently told Business Insider:
I view what our government has been doing since 9/11 as TREASON against the founding principles of our country. This TREASON is a direct violation of their oath of office to protect and defend the constitution – the president also is to preserve it. As things stand now, we should remove any reference to the constitution in the oath of office for the president, Congress, or anyone in national government.
State power is bolstered in moments like these. French members of Parliament have already granted President François Hollande sweeping powers since the recent attacks, and on November 20, they approved a three-month extension of the national state of emergency that curtails civil liberties. As the Guardian has noted, these sweeping powers include:
- Expanded powers to immediately place under house arrest any person if there are “serious reasons to think their behavior is a threat to security or public order.”
- More scope to dissolve groups or associations that participate in, facilitate or incite acts that are a threat to public order. Members of these groups can be placed under house arrest.
- Extended ability to carry out searches without warrants and to copy data from any system found. MPs, lawyers, magistrates and journalists will be exempt.
- Increased capacity to block websites that “encourage” terrorism.
Who’s to say that the French state won’t decide that these emergency powers are needed indefinitely? After all, they bear a very close resemblance to provisions of the US Patriot Act.
We are seeing now how quickly people are instructed to make their identity one with the state – and told that this compliance is a form of solidarity with the victims of violence. However, we must always remember that people – not the state – were the ones who were harmed, and people are now being forced to sacrifice their freedoms. Reactionary patriotism and forgetfulness will solve nothing for the people of France, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria or any country. States have agendas, and if we do not take heed and resist, when it’s all said and done, a lot more will have been lost than the precious lives we mourn.