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The War on Terror in Our Communities

Let’s make visible the domestic war on terror and work to end it once and for all.

A woman participates in a demonstration against President Trump's travel ban as protesters gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court following a court-issued immigration ruling on June 26, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

As an anti-war activist and mother, for many years I’ve been acutely aware that we have been at war my teenage daughter’s entire life. March 20 is the 16th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We are now living in a time when an entire generation of young people — including new Marine recruits and newly registered voters — have grown up with war as a routine condition. And most of the public is unaware that more than 244,000 civilians have been killed and that the U.S. continues to conduct “counter-terror” activities in 80 countries.

The endless “war on terror” has multiple fronts, no clear conditions for ending, and has become so normalized as to be almost invisible. Yet perhaps even more obscured is the war on terror within the U.S., that targets and criminalizes entire communities – particularly Muslims, immigrants, and Black and brown people. As Deepa Kumar, professor of media studies at Rutgers University, has written, when the U.S. goes to war, “the end goal is to win consent for an imperial agenda through a process that orchestrates fear of the enemy within and preempts criticisms of empire-building.”

Learning from targeted U.S. communities experiencing the war on terror every day, I believe we must shed light on these policies of state violence and advocate for their end.

What Is the War on Terror Framework?

The war on terror writ large rests on the foundational belief that Islam is inherently violent, contrary to “Western values,” and that all Muslims should be viewed with fear and suspicion. These racist and damaging narratives have led to the creation of dangerous policies that are not based on facts or science. But by stoking Islamophobia, the government has successfully convinced many in the U.S. to trade our rights – including our rights to privacy, free speech, and equal protection — for the promise of “security.”

These policies are both foreign and domestic, from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) – which allows for war without congressional approval — and the PATRIOT Act, which allows for surveillance based upon protected First Amendment activity, such as the books people read or letters to the editor they’ve written. Not incidentally, many war on terror policies benefit private companies, such as military contractors, defense contractors, private prisons, and tech companies that spend millions each year lobbying elected officials.

How Is the War on Terror Showing Up in Communities Across the U.S.?

Sixteen years ago, anti-war organizing drew millions of people worldwide to the streets to protest the impending invasion of Iraq. But the movement started to weaken once President Obama was elected, with many believing that the candidate who ran in opposition to the Iraq War would counter Bush-era policies.

That’s not what happened. As scholar Arun Kundnani writes, Obama “failed to take the U.S. in a fundamentally different direction … and made permanent what had been a ‘state of emergency.’” I would add that Obama also made it less visible.

One prime example is the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which the Obama administration created as a “soft” approach to counter-terrorism. Previous administrations had deployed law enforcement to infiltrate mosques and Muslim student organizations. In contrast, CVE recruits trusted community members (imams, teachers, mental health providers) to identify individuals within the community and report them to law enforcement as suspected terrorists based on questionable indicators, including mundane activities and characteristics, such as facial hair, critique of U.S. foreign policy, or attending a mosque.

Remember how fears about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – based on faulty intelligence – helped the Bush administration justify pre-emptive war and the U.S. invasion of Iraq? Similarly, CVE relies on racialized and dubious indicators to identify those in the “pre-criminal” space, reporting them to law enforcement when no crime has been committed. As a result, almost all Muslim political or even religious activity can be viewed as a “national security” risk by the government, and young people in particular, are criminalized.

CVE programs have come under intense criticism from civil rights organizations nationwide. Because of this, the government constantly rebrands and obscures CVE programs in each city. It calls the Boston program PEACE, the Maryland program BRAVE, and in Chicago it’s the Targeted Violence Prevention Program.

In our increasingly authoritarian atmosphere, the pretexts of national security will be increasingly used to criminalize dissent. CVE has already been expanded to also focus on “Black-identity extremists (BIE),” or Black Lives Matter activists. In Denver, the recent roll out of CVE focuses not only the Muslim community, but refugee/immigrant, BIE, and LGBTQ communities, as well.

What Can We Do About It?

Communities impacted by CVE have been organizing on the local level. In cities like Los Angeles, and Minneapolis groups have successfully pressured city governments and community organizations to return CVE funds.

StopCVE Chicago, a community coalition supported by AFSC, recently released a report identifying local implementation through training mental health providers, social media monitoring, and focus groups at local libraries. These are facts that were only discovered through rigorous research and FOIA requests.

Local groups are working toward a national campaign. But in the meantime, here are ways that we can all shed light on CVE and its impact on our community members:

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