The Turf War on Terror

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Perhaps the Global War on Terror would not seem such a mutant if it had emerged spontaneously, and not by Caesarian delivery under a government whose steps to nourish terrorism have proven as convincing as its steps to eliminate it. But then, campaigns of the GWOT sort are doomed from the start to mutate into meaningless slogans fronting motivations and realities far removed from those declared. Thus, there are wars on terror, drugs, waste, children left behind, poverty, and corruption — and in their wake, reinvigorated strains of corruption, poverty, children left behind, waste, drugs, and terror.

Inasmuch as our wars on abstractions tend to backfire, why don’t we exploit the tendency? One wonders why it has never occurred to Those Who Know Best to decree a war on peace, prosperity, or freedom, in a backhand effort to promote peace, prosperity, and freedom. Had the Bush Government, for instance, declared War on Democracy and gone into Iraq for the express purpose of Enslaving the Iraqi People, with a declared aim to trigger a New Dawn of Totalitarianism across the Middle East…. Who knows, Iraq might actually have become the democratic haven some of the masterminds behind its Liberation said they were yearning for all along.

gwx = x (Government Wars on Whatever lead to more of Whatever): the unfortunate equation is rarely proven wrong. Apart from a measure of good intentions and genuine concern, government is such a tangle of hidden motives, base intentions, false fronts, forked tongues, hypocrisy, greed, self-interest, self-promotion, inefficiency, ineptitude, cynicism, and general rascality that it is a wonder the equation is ever proven wrong. It would be wonderful to believe, as I grew up believing, that governments are largely composed of the Good and the Wise — people who selflessly channel their thought, spirit, and energies into Making the World a Better Place. I am still enough of a child to believe that now and then such individuals really do venture into government, and that their good will and sense of responsibility really do matter.

Such innocence, however, is frequently undercut by experience. Years ago, some friends and I were just getting comfortable on an isolated stretch of beach north of Rabat, Morocco. It was nearly midnight, the tent and moon were up, the meat was grilling, the bottle was open, the silence was sublime, and then a horn started to honk, persistently. Aware of only one car in the area (ours), we went off to investigate.

Our car had been appropriated by four grinning, smoking gendarmes, one of whom was still trying the horn. The rest of the story is predictable, and I’ll try to make it short. We were asked (told) to pack up and follow our rescuers to a police station, where we sat through hours of questioning and paperwork. We were released after paying for the services of a phantom tow truck. The truck, the police said, had had to turn back once notified that the rogue car’s owners had materialized, and 200 dirhams ($20) was needed to compensate the inconvenience and emotional anguish borne by the driver.

The claim may have been true, though it sounded about as sincere as the parting words of the policeman who saw us off, the horn-honker. "You’re very lucky," he said, with a look that failed somehow to enlist one’s sense of good fortune. "Imagine what might have happened if we hadn’t come along." (The gendarmes had spent a lot of time insisting that the remote beach we’d chosen was a magnet for thieves. This claim too may have been true, though it didn’t sound or feel true. Our chances of getting hit by thieves that night were on par with our chances of getting hit by meteorites. True, the car was broken into and a fair chunk of our money had vanished — but servants of the state had arranged these losses on our behalf.)

If my friends and I were painfully aware of the fleecing we’d endured, we were at least grateful for a free illustration of the way governments sometimes operate. The worst, like mobsters, offer protection (often to cover threats of their own devising), and collect their cut. Every so often, a War on Racketeering is declared to give the public something to chew on.

How strange that the architects of the War on Terror seem more closely aligned to the bad guys than to the people whose security they bill as their top priority. A Dick Cheney has more in common with a Saddam Hussein than with either the Iraqi people he claims to be liberating or the American people he claims to be protecting. Birds of a feather, mobster elements understand each other, look after each other, and occasionally bump each other off. We slip our protection money into plain envelopes, meanwhile, and hope our homes, livelihoods, and loved ones escape the turf wars and drive-by shootings. Whether it goes by democracy, autocracy or theocracy, government by extortion is dismally familiar worldwide.

John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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