These days in popular conversation anti-terrorism means everything and nothing. Semantically, it means being against the way of thinking ("ism" implies a way of thinking) that supports the use of terror to gain political ends. From the point of view of the administrations in the United States and Israel, it means the elimination of suicide bombers and anyone who supports them. Such supporters are usually spoken of as networks or the infrastructure of terrorism. A network can be a bank account, a mountain hideout or a centre of religious indoctrination. The destruction of any of these parts of the network comes within the scope of anti-terrorism. Meanwhile, anti-terrorism also means nothing since many people perceive it merely as the arbitrary use of force by powerful parties without any principle guiding them. Large sections of society see that they are powerless to prevent such arbitrary use of massive power and can only be passive spectators of a cynical exercise. They feel that they have nothing to contribute and nothing to learn except what they already know from their past experiences in which they have seen how the powerful abuse power.
Differences in Interpreting National Security and Terrorism
The term "national security" is directly linked to the word terrorism and how it is understood. Here there are some serious difficulties of understanding about national security in the liberal democratic framework in the West and those which fall outside of it. National security has a very limited meaning in the United States in terms of foreign policy and some very limited matters related to internal security. It has an even more restricted meaning in other liberal democracies in the West. When the U.S. administration uses the term "national security," obviously the meaning is to be understood in terms of this Western context.
However, national security in most other parts of the world may mean many other things and produce much different outcomes. For example, holding prisoners without trial for three years or more merely on the strength of a certificate issued by the chief executive of the country as is the case now in Malaysia and Singapore and in Suharto’s Indonesia, sanctioning and condoning torture as in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Cambodia, creating and maintaining undeclared detention centres as in Sri Lanka, India and several other countries, causing the disappearance of tens of thousands of people as has occurred in Sri Lanka in both the South and the North, denying all due process rights which was illustrated in recent Malaysian cases, such as those of Anwar Ibrahim and others, extracting slave labour as in Burma and India in terms of bonded labour, prohibiting free speech and association as is the case in almost all countries of Asia, including China and Vietnam, ignoring or suppressing women’s rights as in Pakistan and India and legitimising many forms of discrimination in almost all countries in Asia are all within the concept of national security as practised in far too many parts of the region.
Thus, the differences in understanding of what constitutes national security in democratic discourse and outside of it has a great deal to do with the confusion that prevails at the moment, and this confusion can threaten many struggles taking place in the world for achieving democracy. When the U.S. administration uses the jargon of national security, they cannot expect it to be understood in the same way everywhere in the world. Different mindsets produce a different meaning to the same words.
Given the prominence enjoyed by the United States in the world of communication today, it is possible for the United States to introduce any idea and have it commonly used all over the world. However, what it cannot do is stop a different interpretation of these words by others who live in another context. This means that the very words that the United States forcefully introduces may produce meanings counterproductive to the purpose for which such words are introduced. U.S. leaders speaking to their own domestic audience, for example, may create one type of impression. However, when talking to others who live in another part of the world where the democratic frame of thought has never been deeply ingrained in the political system or political culture, they would be understood differently. In short, they would be understood to be supporting tyranny.
Democracy and National Security
When national security is divorced from democracy, it can, in fact, be used against democracy. Every dictator, right-wing or left-wing, uses the term "national security" to justify repression. Take the Asian examples of Marcos, Suharto, Ne Win, Mahathir, Lee Kuan Yew and others. Now such dictators find the Western discourse on national security quite in their favour, though that may not be the intention of the West. In Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf even asked for a mandate recently to be the supreme ruler of the country for another term through a referendum in order to supposedly ensure national security. It can be argued that U.S. leaders are aware of the way some dictators use the national security doctrines and do, in fact, encourage it. It has been the historical experience since colonial times that each Western country is only concerned with democracy within its own boundaries and behaves quite barbarically in other countries for commercial and other purposes. The West’s commitment to global democracy may be a good idea but not an idea that is being practically pursued. Unfortunately, global democracy is presently just a dream, though quite a lot of rhetoric is made of it.
Thus, anti-terrorism today has seriously undermined the discourse on democracy, particularly in countries outside of the boundaries of Western liberal democracies. Unlike the word anti-communism, which implied the need to defend democracy, anti-terrorism has no positive goal or constructive direction. Friends and enemies are no longer discernible. Anti-democrats appear to be democracies’ best friends. Genuine democrats become democracies’ worst enemies. Thus, in a very ironic way (history is often ironic), anti-terrorism, as it is understood today, attacks the very foundations of democracy. Pakistan may be the most blatant example of this phenomenon. While considered an indispensable ally in the "war against terrorism," it has removed every remaining facet of democracy, such as independence of the judiciary and people’s right to organise through political parties.
Moreover, in the human rights field, the international framework for the defence of human rights is under threat today, more so than ever before since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Israel’s refusal to allow U.N. investigators into the country, U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Western world’s loss of prestige as defenders of human rights and the arrogant cynicism of those once criticised by the international community for their violation of rights have raised valid concerns among those who have made many attempts over the years to strengthen respect for human rights and their observance.
Limitations of Anti-Terrorism Discourse
The implication of this global environment is that anti-terrorism cannot, and should not, become a dominant world ideology. It is too limited a concept to be able to express a way of thinking that can defeat terrorism and strengthen the democratic basis for human relationships and government. The world is very much in need of a way of thinking that can push the people forward in overcoming some of the most terrifying problems that humankind is facing at the present moment. All of the resources of humanism must be harnessed, and not dismissed, in facing these moral dangers.
A suicide bomber may not be anyone’s friend and is least of all a friend to himself or herself. It is not necessary in any way to justify suicide bombings in order to attempt to understand what has caused such a tragic event. For example, John Brown in the United States believed that the liberation of slaves in the middle of the 19th century could only be done through the use of terror. Abraham Lincoln also agreed on the goal of liberating the slaves but disagreed with the means. He fought democratically and did liberate the slaves.
Addressing Global Disparities
The disparities in the world today are such that they create many people for whom living has little meaning. So long as there are such people, there will be those who are capable of manipulating such a mindset. All forms of manipulation today are much more easily realised due to the communication revolution.
The greater communication networks of today are unconcerned with humanism. In fact, these communication networks go a long way toward creating a cynical outlook. Thus, particularly in the more developed West, there is hardly any understanding of the grave problems existing in the world. The compassion-creating function is looked down upon by the media. In fact, in the great media networks of today, there is "compassion hostility." The Western media, which is very much a product of Western affluence after the Second World War, has little interest in confronting its audiences with the misery that exists outside of its boundaries. It might even be the view of such establishments that their audiences do not want to know what is unpleasant. The media may be trying to avoid feelings of guilt that can be aroused if their audiences know the real situations in most parts of the world. Overly comfortable populations may not want to see and hear those who have nothing to eat. The Western media reflects a very decadent mindset. A compassionless world often produces compassionless protests. The world media bears a heavy responsibility in creating this situation.
If the media had played a greater role in calling attention to matters that would have aroused human compassion, much of the world’s most acute problems, such as hunger, severe poverty, the neglect of grave illnesses and the serious problems of women and children, could be resolved by collective efforts.
The creation of suicide bombers is very much related to the avoidable and unnecessary deaths of loved ones. Unreasonable and unjust deaths may happen in manifold ways. A child that dies because their parents are too poor to provide the necessary medical care, those who die due to drinking polluted water, parents who die of treatable diseases, the denial of medical treatment due to poverty or other causes, people who die of police brutality, victims of disappearances, people raped by powerful social groups or government officers, victims of genocide or massacres and many other similar categories fall within this group. In addition, there is yet another group whose lives are often described as "living deaths," people who daily face stark poverty; unalterable forms of discrimination, such as the 240 million Dalits in India and indigenous groups; children who are forced into labour to find something to eat for their families; women of many categories whose marriages are manipulated in ways that leave them little choice; and vast masses of people who are unemployed throughout their lives without any social security—these are among the Les Miserables of our times. The psychological wounds created in them and their survivors bring vast numbers of people to nearly commit suicide. In Sri Lanka alone, the daily suicide rate averages 52 people. Among the large number of people that die in this way, if a few become suicide bombers, it is hardly a surprise.
The fundamental nature of wounds caused to the human psyche and mind by the unreasonable or unjust deaths of loved ones is often not realised. However, those who have deep social links to the societies which have seen the emergence of suicide bombers will not find it difficult to see a connection between these deaths and the creation of the mindset of suicide bombers. A novel that exposes the mindset of survivors who have suffered unreasonable and unjust deaths is Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, who deals in his book with Sri Lankan society, a society in a country which in recent years has come to be known as one of the most violent places on earth.
Eliminate Terrorism by Eliminating Unreasonable and Unjust Deaths and Poverty
Thus, collective efforts to eliminate unreasonable and unjust deaths should be a way of thinking that can eliminate terrorism. Such unreasonable and unjust deaths are too plentiful today due to "natural" or political reasons. When some die in this way, others remain wounded.
Such collective efforts more than anything else require positive media strategies aimed at such purposes. As a media leader, the U.S. administration has not taken this approach. In fact, it has taken the opposite approach. It has portrayed itself as a compassionless giant, which prides itself on being compassionless. Thus, the overall impact of its words and deeds has been self-defeating.
The burden has shifted to the ordinary citizens of the West and East to espouse the cause of compassion. One advantage such people have in the present age is the unlimited possibilities that the existing media, particularly electronic media, offer. This cost-effective media can be mobilised to create a way of thinking that can create a compassionate outlook in all aspects of life. The organisations of the people, even small groups, the churches and other groups can today play a role that they may have not been able to play during any other time in history. Freedom can be achieved from the media giants which control huge communication systems through privately created networks, and thus, ordinary people can create their own conversations globally. This is yet an unexplored area. Many experiments are under way, and they do produce amazing results. A bottom-up movement committed to a compassionate approach to resolve human problems is now possible.
The Asian views on national security laws are very draconian, judging from the national and internal security laws prevailing in many countries in the region. In fact, what was once called "Asian values" were merely a justification for ruthlessly repressive laws.
What is needed today is a global alliance of all democratically minded people in order to resist repression that is being universalised in the name of anti-terrorism and national security. Such an alliance is now possible due to enormous possibilities in global communication systems. Asia’s democratically minded people must take the initiative to advance this alliance and not wait for outside initiatives.