The world is divided into nations which have defined borders and which collectively acknowledge the authority of international law (consisting of treaties, declarations, conventions etc). Or do they?
Wars can be civil wars (within nations) or between nations or groups thereof. Wars have defined areas of operation. Or do they?
What about former US President Ronald Reagan’s so-called “war on drugs”? Could this be regarded as a real war? Or was “war” used as just a rhetorical device to impress upon Americans how serious he was in imposing a set of law enforcement policies?
What about former US President George W Bush’s “war on terror”? How does one declare war on a pronoun? Drugs at least exist in a material form. Terror if more like something you feel. What does terror look like? Is it fear? If so, common assault can be deemed terror. Domestic violence can be terror. Just about any violent crime in the statute books can be terror.
Is terror defined as a descriptor of a set of actions? Or is it a descriptor of a set of people, whose actions are almost necessarily to be deemed terror?
Or is terror really code for something? Or some people?
Michael Humphrey believes the war on terror is a transnational othering exercise which is in reality an exercise in futility. The word has changed, and our popular notions of war and security are struggling to keep up.
The US ‘war on terror’ declared in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 divides the world into friends and enemies [which] cannot correspond to any geographical and cultural reality in our globalising world. National security is not available through the fantasy of geographical or cultural separation …
The world is getting smaller, and parts of it are sitting in our neighbourhood. Whether we like it our night, we are living in cosmopolitan cities. If terror is to be regarded as a set of religious and/or cultural and/or ideological phenomena and/or of people who subscribe to these phenomena, chances are that it exists within driving distance as much as it exists on the other side of the planet. And if it’s on the other side of the planet, it is just a few keystrokes away.
To be effective, a war on terror has to be fought within all boundaries and without any. Here’s Humphrey again.
International immigration into the cities of … Australia has made them irreversibly transnational and multicultural places. Thus while the war on terrorism rhetorically divides the world, it at the same time declares war everywhere …
Terror is everywhere. All of us can be potential terrorists. And we can also be potential victims. You’d think such a dangerous phenomenon would be easy to define. After all, we have been able to define some of the most complex illnesses and viruses like HIV. Surely we should be able to point the finger at terror, or at least at the terrorists. Humphrey again.
Moreover the war on terrorism is … code for conflict between Islam and the West; and, despite the denials of presidents and prime ministers, the primary targets of the war on terrorism are Muslim individuals, families, communities and societies internationally marked by the September 11 attacks as potentially hostile, a risk.
As the planet is becoming smaller, we need to potentially be afraid of a group representing around a quarter of the population.
M Humphrey, “Australian Islam, The New Global Terrorism And The Limits Of Citizenship” in S Akbaradeh & S Yasmeen, Islam and the West: Reflections from Australia (2005) UNSW Press, p132