One down - but there's always one more to go

June 16, 2006

As Bush strikes al-Zarqawi off his list and adds a new name, he deliberately perpetuates his endless war, says David Keen

Identifiable and immobile, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's battered face frozen within a picture frame was the antithesis of the elusive terrorist.

Even his tattoos were scrutinised. The publicity and ritual around his killing been intense. And through it, the fantasy that the answer to terrorism is to use superior technology to kill each individual terrorist was kept alive, a fantasy of finite evil that is seductive precisely because it is wrong.

Terrorism is an evasive, diverse and decentralised opponent. Furthermore, the much-favoured shield of deterrence is redundant when the murderer actively courts death. The fantasy, however, makes the world more controllable and comprehensible by giving us a clearly identified enemy, providing an apparent if arbitrary solution to the problem.

As the political philosopher Hannah Arendt noted in relation to the scapegoating of the Jews after the First World War, when people do not understand the social, economic or physical insecurity that oppresses them, being certain about the source of the threat may be more alluring than being right.

President George W. Bush and Tony Blair operate as if theirs is an enemy who mirrors their own military and even political hierarchies and they face a finite number of evil individuals whose elimination will make the world safer. Within the fantasy, the "demon du jour " mutates rapidly from Osama bin Laden to Mullah Mohammad Omar, from Saddam Hussein to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, of course, al-Zarqawi. But the belief that we are just one killing away from safety - one war away from perpetual peace - has proved remarkably resilient. Bush has favoured crossing off the "most wanted", one by one, from a list in his Oval Office.

The fantasy is frightening but functional. First, it identifies an elusive enemy. Second, it wards off the shameful realisation that Western governments' actions have played a major part in generating the anger and humiliation that feeds into terrorism. Third, it underpins a violent approach to counter-terror that helps to maintain the threat by creating ever more enemies. My research suggests that prolonging a war - whether civil or global - can be more important than winning it. In terms of the War on Terror, the military-industrial complexes of the Cold War are neatly maintained while political opposition in the US and its allies can be stigmatised for having "sympathy for the devil".

The endless search for "evil ones" projects US government power globally as well as within its borders. As Arthur Miller shows in The Crucible , he who questions the witch-hunt risks being accused of being a witch himself (or, in the modern parlance, "anti-American").

This counterproductive approach also gives you the perverse satisfaction of being right after the event. It is always tempting to exclaim: "Look, the enemy is indeed as aggressive, powerful and pervasive as we claimed - Iraq, which we said was a key source of terrorism, is evidently just that."

Crucially, this use of what Arendt called "action-as-propaganda" is a tactic used by both the terrorist and those waging a War on Terror. And as in earlier witch-hunts, when a particular act of violence fails to eliminate the threat, the conclusion is not that the exercise was ill-conceived. Rather, it is that more witches must be found.

Those who sell us the War on Terror must first sell us the fear. Their failure to make us safer may, paradoxically, increase our demand for their bogus solutions. Thus, failure magically transforms into success. Just as consumerism has not been defeated by its inability to fulfil the promises of advertising, so it is with the War on Terror. If skilfully manipulated, frustrated desires can be encouraged to focus on some new product, some new pledge that is also unlikely to be fulfilled. It all hinges on forgetting.

But then it was Donald Rumsfeld who gleefully observed (with a little exaggeration) that the American media had "the attention span of gnats".

While US technology proved worse than useless on September 11, 2001, the pictures of al-Zarqawi's meeting house - aim, fire and now let's watch it again - seemed designed to show that technology can still provide victory.

Yet even Bush and Blair now seem wary of triumphalism. Perhaps the mounting casualties in Iraq and the revival of the Taleban are prompting a rethink.

But I doubt it. The trouble is that failure can always be accommodated and a new enemy is always conveniently on the horizon. In this endless (but not aimless) war, we must always be seen to be winning. But we can never be seen to have won.

David Keen is reader of complex emergencies at the London School of Economics and author of Endless War? Hidden Functions of the 'War on Terror' , published by Pluto, £18.99.

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