“The new war on terror is going to be a different war,” announced George W. Bush to the world just after that fateful day in September 2001. As events began to unfold, however, it became clear that there was little that was all that “different” about this war.
For once, Bush chose his words carefully. He called it the new War on Terror, because, as many have since pointed out, the Reagan Administration had actually made the declaration of a “War on Terror” 20 years before in reference to the Soviet Union’s alleged support of an international “terrorist” network. Ironically, it was during the Reagan years that Washington itself sponsored and directed terrorist acts with ferocious precision.
It was the “Reagan Doctrine” that vowed Washington’s support to armed anti-Communist groups from Latin America to Central Asia. Latin America’s Dirty Wars present a telling example of Washington’s open support of terrorist acts. In the case of Nicaragua, writes Noam Chomsky, the Contras “were directed by their CIA and Pentagon commanders to attack ‘soft targets,’ that is, barely defended civilian targets. The State Department specifically authorized attacks on agricultural cooperatives.” This scourge of state terrorism is still fresh in the memories of Latin Americans.
It is easy to notice all the trappings of the region’s Dirty Wars in the current War on Terror. There’s the shadowy, faceless enemy ready to strike at any moment, an enemy that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. There’s the torture and disappearance—euphemistically described as “rendering” and “ghost detainees” by the Administration—of those detained under the dubious legal and ethical grounds of their constituting a perceived future threat. There’s the persecution and criminalization of dissent and legitimate protest. And, finally, there’s the principle of placing “safety” and “national security” as absolute priorities at the expense of human rights, social development and civil liberties.
The Administration’s indefinite detention of detainees in various secretive prisons worldwide and its turning over of detainees to third-party countries for torture by proxy stand as the most flagrant violations of national and international norms. One author dubbed the network of U.S. detention facilities an “American gulag,” evoking Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, a book that describes the island chain of Soviet prison camps under Stalin, and the Stalin regime’s routine use of terror against its citizens.
Indeed, many aspects of the War on Terror have been practiced before, especially in Latin America. It is already evident that the “terrorist” trope is being indiscriminately applied to groups in the region as disparate as insurgent rebel groups, teachers’ unions and undocumented immigrants; this is similar to the way “Communist” was the all-purpose label for the “internal enemy” of the Dirty Wars.
Colombia is only the most glaring example of how the War on Terror threatens to further devastate the region by making a bad situation worse. With sleight of hand, the Administration has quietly shifted its policy in the region to fight the “new” war. The supposed security threat emerging from the south is not just from extremist international terror cells, says the Bush team, but also from “radical populists,” “porous borders” and “ungoverned spaces” that lack “effective sovereignty.”
This report analyzes these changes and looks at some of the effects on countries that have internalized the War on Terror. This war is a decentralized and pervasive phenomenon that sucks in everything and everyone in its path. “You may not be interested in war,” warned Leon Trotsky in another context, “but war is interested in you.”