On September 20th, 2001 George Bush pulled one of the most brilliant political marketing moves ever attempted modern political history. In a speech before Congress, he layed out what would from then on be known as a “war on terror” saying, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Most people did not realize the significance of those words until years later, after a number of reauthorizations of the Patriot Act and a countless number of lost lives and ruined cities in the Middle East. By this time, war had exploded outwards from the original invasion into Afghanistan unlike anyone could have imagined.
All of this was justified, in practice by the Authorization For Use Of Military Force (AUMF) and in principle by the rhetoric of a “Global War on Terror”, a phrase so vague that it could refer to almost anyone. The text of the AUMF read, “That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” This text combined with the “terrorist” labe was used as a cudgel to browbeat anyone who even had a whiff of impropriety about them, real or imagined into submission. This rhetoric has been used to authorize deployments of troops in almost a dozen countries and allowed for the torture of hundreds of innocent foreign nationals.
All of this happened in the name of fighting against an idea. That idea was terror. The problem though lies in who gets to define what that idea means. Who exactly is a terrorist? Ask the average American up until recently and they might have imagined someone of Middle Eastern descent. Ask someone from the Middle East and the answer is someone more American. It varies depending on who you ask, but the problem comes when the powerful are posed that question. We’ve seen over and over again that the label then starts being applied to anyone who poses a threat to power.
It was brilliant of George Bush to invoke this specific rhetoric that has a long history of being wielded by governments to tar their opponents as evil. He had a war to sell and boy did it work. Now, almost twenty years later, I am fearful we are about to go down this road as a country once more.
Trump just addressed the public after days of hiding out in the White House, firing off one antagonistic tweet after another. I encourage everyone to watch this. You’ll have to scrub to the end to get his full remarks, but please watch it. It’s eery.
Towards the end, you can hear loud pops and snaps that we now know are military police using flash grenades and tear gas to aggressively clear out a group of peaceful protestors near the Rose Garden. As this is going on Trump claims to be a friend to peaceful protestors in his speech. Laughable at first thought, but then it turns ominous as he starts to list a few scattered examples of people who have been beaten up or killed by protestors, conveniently ignoring the hours and hours of footage we have of police aggression and brutality that is evident simply by scrolling through social media.
There’s no mention of David McAtee, who died this week at the hands of police in Louisville, Kentucky. There’s no mention of police nearly running over protesters with their cruisers or the scores of journalists who have been brutally injured by police across the country.
Trump continues by putting the “organizers of this terror on notice” — sound familiar? Sounds like something George Bush would say, because the scary thing is that there are no organizers. It’s blasphemy for the system to realize that but it’s the truth. These protests are organic and fueled by genuine outrage. Politicians have to accept that. Nevertheless, Trump goes with the term “organizers” because this gives him the ability to label anyone he wants as an organizer of terror.
Make no mistake, Trump is no friend to the peaceful protestor or the businesses that have sadly been caught up in the violence. All of this is an act in the same vein as the ruse that was put on us twenty years ago by the Bush administration. There’s a reason Trump fired off a tweet yesterday about designating Antifa a terrorist organization. There’s a reason every conservative uses Antifa as their boogieman.
It’s so they can paint anyone who dares challenge their power as the enemy, because the secret they don’t want you to know is that antifa isn’t actually an organization. Antifa has no headquarters. There are no leaders. There is no formal designation of any kind. Antifa is an idea, like the “war on terror” was a war against an idea. In reality, antifa actually stands for something.
Anti-fascism. Ironic, right?
So as we’re starting to see, asking Trump or the police that question of what does a terrorist look like produces a much different answer. An answer that could easily morph into you or me. How long before journalists are labelled as antifa? Or photographers? Or writers? Or simply Democrats?
At this moment, terrorists to the police and Trump look like peaceful protestors putting their lives on the line to protect the people they love, largely black and brown young people who are at their wit’s end advocating for a more just and fair system.
And if that’s the case, you got to wonder at what point do the police ask themselves, “Are we the bad guys in this story?” How many “Fuck the police” and “All cops are bastards” tags do they have to see before they get the hint. I worry that reckoning won’t come in our lifetime, and in the meantime, a lot of people are going to die.