After Terrorism

Photograph Source SchuminWeb Wikicommons

President Trump bashing the free press, F.B.I., allies, human rights, and immigrants illustrates how the national preoccupation with terrorism and the politics of fear has taken a toll on our discourse, civility and a wide range of domestic policies and international relations. Many actions since 9/11 are consistent with a Terrorism Narrative, which justifies extraordinary measures at home and abroad against terrorists and related threats, including torture, kidnapping, civilian casualties, threats to children, as well as expansive domestic surveillance and control. This narrative treats terrorism as an ongoing condition rather than as a tactic used by a definable enemy in a specific country. I suggest that the terrorism narrative will endure after the objective threat of terrorists has subsided.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the terrorism narrative spanned at least three Presidents. In 2004, President George W. Bush used the words terrorism/terrorist 16 times (but did not mention immigration) in his acceptance speech for a second term of office. Under his guidance, the United States authorized use of military force, started two wars, engaged in torture in secret places, killed more civilians, passed the Patriot Act—(H.R.3162) – Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism–and initiated massive warrantless electronic surveillance of U. S. citizens.

A new administration did not fundamentally alter this approach. President Obama sought to delegitimize torture and dialed back civilian surveillance, while expanding military missions against terrorists. More than 500 drone strikes have been carried out in at least 6 countries against avowed enemy agents as well as numerous civilians. Notwithstanding efforts to promote hope and tolerance rather than fear, and reduce gun violence, the Obama administration set records for immigrant detention and deportation, while still supporting those seeking amnesty.

President Trump promoted the politics of fear and based much of his presidential campaign on demonizing immigrants and religious minorities, and expanded drone warfare to include targets that are no longer a “continuing, imminent threat”.  He cleverly connected terrorism support with immigrants,  with the false claim that Muslims rejoiced during the 9/11 attacks: “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. . .And I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.” This was a prelude to his draconian anti-immigrant campaign against Latinos crossing the southern border, who he described as rapists, drug-dealers, and murderers. Partly inspired by the terrorism narrative to “do whatever it takes to keep us safe,” Trump received nearly 63 million votes. Harsher immigrant policies followed, including efforts to curtail immigration from several Muslim countries, as well as caging Latino immigrant children who were separated at the border from their asylum-seeking parents. In just two years the Trump Administration has pledged a Nationalist agenda, shutdown the government in order to obtain funding for a border barrier, broken treaties, increased military expenditures, withdrawn and ridiculed global bodies, including the United Nations, NATO, the International Court of Criminal Justice, and the Paris Climate Accords. His error-laden speech to the country prior to the mid-term elections referred to immigrants 6 times, but nothing about terrorism even though in prior weeks he insisted that there were Middle Eastern terrorists and gang members among the toddlers heading to our border.

Domestically, the terrorism narrative has contributed to reduced civility and more social control, including a massive surveillance system, police monitoring of civilians, and governmental sting operations. Viewing terrorism as a general condition expands prevention efforts.  Harsher treatment extends to public schools that increasingly define and react to routine disruptions as crimes or even terrorist threats. Nurtured by an expanding discourse of fear, this institutional shift toward more formal social control is accompanied by more surveillance of students—their lockers, as well as drug tests for various activities.  The F. B. I. had a short-lived program, “Don’t Be a Puppet,” to encourage students, teachers, and the school police officers, to be on the lookout for suspicious radicalization of Muslim students, who “are on the path to extremism.” This extension of the “Nationwide Suspicious Reporting Initiative”—also known as “If you See Something, Say Something”— ensconces fear-inspired surveillance into our school system, and adds to an uncomfortable atmosphere that Muslim students face in schools.

Discipline is conflated with safety when flicking a rubber band and other minor disciplinary issues increasingly can result in an arrest and a criminal record. And these occur disproportionately to black and minority group children. An example is the treatment of Shakara, a 16-year-old high school student in South Carolina, who was injured when thrown from her seat by a school police officer after refusing to leave her math class when asked to put away her cell phone on October 26, 2015. Shakara was arrested for disturbing the classroom, as was a supporting student, who pleaded for someone to help her. Another student’s video of the violent assault was viewed by millions of viewers on social media as well national and local newscasts, resulting in the officer’s firing. Her attorney stated, “She [Shakara] could have been left alone. . . She wasn’t yelling. She wasn’t disrupting the class. She wasn’t a threat to anyone. . . We don’t treat animals like that, let alone children. What happened was wrong, what you might expect to happen in a Third World country.” Shakara’s treatment foreshadowed the Trump Adminstration’s caging of children who were seeking amnesty in the United States three years later.

A new narrative accompanied the U. S. approach to terrorism.  Fighting terrorism and the politics of fear can have unintended consequences when tough rhetoric and policies become institutionalized to justify harsh treatment in the name of security. The challenge is to not let the terrorism narrative write our future.

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump (2023).