More repression and fear aren’t the answers

December 7, 2015

In the wake of the attack in San Bernardino, political leaders are offering "solutions" that are certain to feed violence and terrorism, write Nicole Colson and Alan Maass.

EVEN AS he warned his audience not to "give into fear" or blame all Muslims for terrorist acts, Barack Obama's televised address on Sunday re-committed the U.S. government to the same war policies in the Middle East that gave rise to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)--and to stepped-up repressive measures that will fuel the fires of racism and Islamophobia.

Obama's Republican opponents predictably denounced the president for failing to propose "decisive action for victory over evil," as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz fumed. But the partisan volleys in Washington obscure the fact that the bipartisan reaction to spasms of horrific violence is only more violence--but on a far greater and more devastating scale.

No one who cares about peace and justice can tolerate war, repression and scaremongering as answers. We need to speak out against Islamophobia and bigotry, whatever its source--and explain, even if it isn't popular, that the violence and repression of the "war on terror" has made the world more dangerous and deadly, including within the U.S. itself.

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama (

OBAMA'S SPEECH was prompted by the terrible massacre at a government services facility in San Bernardino, California, last week, carried out by a married couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.

The exact motives of the shooters are unknown--unlike other mass shootings, no manifesto has emerged. But the FBI publicly classified the killings as an act of terrorism after learning that one of the shooters, Tashfeen Malik, had apparently declared her allegiance to ISIS on social media.

The authorities don't believe that Malik or Farook met with a representative of ISIS, but rather that the two were "inspired" by the group. A search of the couple's home revealed a large number of pipe bombs and thousands of rounds of spare ammunition, raising the possibility that they had been planning more or larger attacks.

That was enough to set off the professional Islamophobes. The tabloid New York Post hit a typical low point with its screaming next-day headline "Muslim killers."

By comparison, Obama's Sunday speech will be seen by many as a welcome challenge to the right's knee-jerk scapegoating of Muslims. But as carefully calculated as the rhetoric was, the themes of Obama's speech were directed toward building support for the same policies that produced ISIS's rise to power in the Middle East--and that have stoked bitterness and anger toward the U.S. around the world.

For example, Obama began his speech by describing the San Bernardino victims as people who "were taken from family and friends who loved them deeply." The same ought to be said about the victims of U.S. wars in the Middle East, including the drone strikes that have become a new and expanded front in the "war on terror" during the Obama years. But Obama didn't say this.

Indeed, the Obama administration claims its drone wars have been more effective in "hunting down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary," as the president put it in his speech. But as reports published at the Intercept website and corroborated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have documented, scores of civilians have been "collateral damage" in these strikes. As many as 90 percent of those killed by drone strikes are not the intended targets, according to the Intercept.

"As the Internet erases the distance between countries," Obama said in his speech, "we see growing efforts by terrorists to poison the minds of people like the Boston Marathon bombers and the San Bernardino killers." But the war crimes committed by the U.S. in the name of fighting terrorism are a far more effective recruiter to ISIS's cause than any website.

The violence of empire--like the October air strike by the U.S. on a Doctors Without Borders-run hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which took the lives of 23 people--is no less traumatic or devastating if the leader of that empire claims to oppose tyranny and oppression.

The killings in San Bernardino were a sickening and senseless loss, but the carnage caused by the U.S. war machine in the Middle East since 9/11 has been incomparably greater, and Obama is proposing to escalate the war on ISIS now. This will only feed hatred and violence that will "blow back" within the U.S. in some form.

George W. Bush's infamous statement that "they hate us" for our freedoms is as fraudulent today, nearly 15 years into the "war on terror," as the day it was first uttered. "They" hate "us" most of all because of the misery and death inflicted on many millions of people halfway around the world.

EVEN AS the San Bernardino massacre was still taking place, conservatives were blaming gun control laws for the deaths. Why? Supposedly because gun ownership restrictions in California meant that no "good guys" had access to weapons to stop the shooters.

It later turned out that all the weapons used in the San Bernardino killings had been legally purchased. But by that point, the right had moved on to blaming Islam.

One of the most bloodcurdling moments among many came from Religious Right leader Jerry Falwell Jr., who called for Christians to carry guns to "end those Muslims" at a convocation of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world:

If some of those people in that community center had what I have in my back pocket right now...Is it illegal to pull it out? I don't know...I've always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in...

I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course. Let's teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.

Falwell later insisted that he was talking about "ending" the "terrorists"--though he didn't express similar sentiments about the Christian terrorist who days earlier carried out a massacre at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic.

On Fox News, host Sean Hannity's first response, before anything was known about Farook and Malik, was that the couple didn't have "normal-sounding" names. Others pointed to Malik's wearing of a headscarf and Farook's decision to grow out his beard as supposed "signs" of "radicalization."'s Andrew O'Hehir took the media to task for its double standards:

If the San Bernardino shootings had been carried out by a white man named John Smith, he would be considered a lone nut, even if he were a whacked-out evangelical Christian who thought he was doing the Lord's work. But if Syed Farook is a crazy Muslim dude who looked at crazy Muslim websites, then he winds up on the front page of the New York Post as a "MUSLIM KILLER," who represents the tip of a deadly iceberg of terror, and cannot possibly be a lone nut.

Fourteen years after George W. Bush assured us that we were not at war with Islam, it has become entirely normal for mainstream politicians and media commentators to suggest that, in effect, we are.

Hannity's Fox colleague Jeanine Pirro, a New York suburbanite who identifies as a moderate Republican, said on Thursday that since Farook and his wife "looked like Muslims" and were seen carrying boxes into their house, the only possible reason the neighbors didn't call the cops was a desire to avoid being "politically incorrect." Pirro has been a judge and a district attorney; she is supposed to know the law. Her clear implication is that Muslims, or people who look like Muslims, are not entitled to the same zone of privacy as the rest of us, and are inherently more likely to be carrying boxes full of bomb-making materials than, say, bowling balls or KitchenAid mixers.

DURING HIS speech, Obama listed several actions that Congress could take to help strengthen the "war on terrorism."

Among them was a proposal to make it harder to purchase assault weapons. But this is a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Guns of all kinds, including high-powered assault weapons, are easy to obtain, both legally and illegally. The San Bernardino massacre is the 352nd mass shooting (defined as an incident in which four or more people are injured by gunfire) to take place in 2015.

Likewise, Obama's promise to seek a tougher screening process for people coming to the U.S. is nothing but pandering that will strengthen the anti-refugee and anti-immigrant right. All of the identified assailants in the November attacks in Paris were European nationals. Farook was born in the U.S., and Malik had a visa--after being subjected to an already difficult screening process.

With no evidence of any connection outside the U.S., the media began obsessing once again about "homegrown" terrorism. But few if any outlets acknowledged that the true source of "homegrown" terror comes from the right-wing Christian and racist varieties.

In his speech, Obama warned against Islamophobia: "We cannot turn against one another by letting this fight be defined as a war between America and Islam. That, too, is what groups like [ISIS] want."

Indeed, part of ISIS's strategy is to reinforce and expand the same "clash of civilizations" rhetoric embraced by the cheerleaders for war and empire in the U.S. after 9/11. As Murtazza Hussein wrote at the Intercept in November, ISIS has stated openly that attacks like the ones carried out this year in Paris were designed to drive a wedge between Muslims and Western societies and to underscore that escape to the West from a country like Syria, wracked by civil war, is not an option.

But this makes it all the more imperative to resist scapegoating and the underlying "war on terror." That would do far more to dispel the idea that there is no hope for an alternative to ISIS. By contrast, Obama's plans for more drone strikes, more restrictive policies toward refugees and immigrants, and more war in the Middle East will do the opposite.

Thus, Obama's lecture to the Muslim community in his speech--warning that "Muslims must confront without excuse" the threat of extremist ideology and "speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect and human dignity"--rings hollow.

Before lecturing U.S. Muslims about fighting "radicalism," Obama should remember Martin Luther King Jr.'s words that those in the U.S. who want to challenge oppression must, first and foremost, "speak out against...the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government."

To this end, there are many policies that could be implemented to confront the spread of terrorism connected to ISIS. But they won't make Obama's list--or that of any other U.S. politician--because they don't dovetail with U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Step one would be the withdrawal of all forces from U.S. wars in Afghanistan and around the Middle East. The Pentagon's war machine has sown the seeds of violence that has spread around the world. Ramping up the "war on terror" will only increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, not lessen them.

Another step: End U.S. funding and support for Israel's crimes against Palestine. And another: Stop Washington's support for other repressive regimes in the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime and its allies are a brake on the development of an independent force in the region.

Without our voices raised against the political manipulation of horrors like San Bernardino, the answers from political leaders about "fighting terrorism" will only fuel more of the same.

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