In its simplest sense, terrorism is the use of fear to force an individual or a community to act in a way contrary to reason. It is the opposite of debate, argument, or persuasion.
You cannot argue with a terrorist. He is not interested in dialogue or discussion. His mind is closed. He feels superior in every way to his victims. This sense of superiority comes not only from the feeling of an immense power to destroy or to inflict great injury on others; it also springs from an imagined special access to the truth, to God’s will, or to the future.
Today’s most notorious and most dangerous terrorists are the Islamist crusaders like Osama bin Laden, who would do anything to destroy modern civilization because they see in it the very antithesis of God’s will. In their eyes, America represents everything that is evil about the modern way of life. This view of the world is archaic, and until Bin Laden came along, few people took this quaint fanaticism seriously.
The American CIA took notice of Bin Laden’s Islamism as a potential threat, but this did not prevent it from using him to drive away America’s old foe, the Soviet Union, from Afghanistan, and to hold at bay another pet peeve, the Shi’ite Islamic regime in Iran. To the Americans, Osama bin Laden, a Sunni Muslim, was a madman they could control. The same strategic thinking also provides the reason why from 1994 to 1997 the US was content to watch Pakistan and Saudi Arabia provide support to the Taliban, whom they saw as a countervailing force against Iran’s ambitions in Central Asia.
This picture of the world changed drastically in August 1998, after the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The monster they helped to create was finally thinking on its own. The September 11 attacks on the centers of US power finally showed America the face of the enemy, Osama bin Laden, its old friend.
The images of 9/11 are so powerful that one would be led to think that history began only on that day. The past is blurred. Events that cannot be assimilated into the paradigm of the American crusade against global terrorism are suddenly beyond recall. Only the future is real, and President George Bush Jr. defines that future in these ringing words: “My hope is that all nations will heed our call and eliminate the terrorist parasites who threaten their countries and our own. Many nations are acting forcefully…. But some governments will be timid in the face of terror. And make no mistake about it: If they do not act, America will.”
How quickly America has forgotten that it once played parasite to these same terrorists! The righteous rhetoric that Bush now deploys against terrorism would make it seem as if terrorists wore a single face, and that all that one needed to do was open one’s eyes, recognize the evil, and erase it from the face of the earth.
The truth is that beneath the black-and-white map of the world that America paints is a pragmatic perspective that allows its government to exploit situations anywhere in the pursuit of long-term and broader geo-strategic interests. This may all seem cynical especially against the backdrop of genuine horror and grief in the US today, but it is not the first time that righteous indignation is mobilized to achieve broader goals than justice. Events lend themselves to varied uses. They may provide the legitimacy for certain actions, but they are often not the motive behind national policy.
That is why I think we are posing the wrong question when we ask: Who is the enemy — the Abu Sayyaf or America? Such questions are debate-stoppers; they are not questions that would encourage any role for reason. Of course, the Abu Sayyaf is the enemy, but America is not exactly the harmless altruistic ally we think it is. We want America to be our friend, but such friendship can only mature and endure if it is based on mutual respect and a clear recognition of each other’s national interests.
If we want to stop the proliferation of the Bin Ladens of this world, we must first begin to understand the complex situations that breed them. If we want to stamp out the Abu Sayyaf and its ilk, we must try to understand their origins and the functions they played and continue to play in Philippine political life. These are not monsters that emerged overnight from some dark and forgotten world. They were bred in the resentful settings of poverty-stricken communities, and were trained and armed in the interstices of the same global and domestic power games that decide the winners and losers of this world.
One does not have to be cynical to presume that it is not out of love for the Filipino people or purely out of a desire to terminate one more threat to the US that the Americans are here to help fight the Abu Sayyaf. Mindanao is a crucial link to the rest of Southeast Asia. US economic interests in oil-rich Indonesia are enormous. The sea-lanes running through this region are vital to global commerce; the largely unexplored oil and gas deposits in the area are legendary in the oil business. In short, American interests in Mindanao go beyond the Abu Sayyaf.
If we must allow American forces to fight in Mindanao, let us do so in full consciousness of our country’s long-term interests and the larger dangers we face. That is what America is doing, and we should do no less.
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