In the canon of 9/11 anniversary essays, the “novelty” is a perennial theme: the “unprecedented” changes brought about by an “unprecedented” threat.
Commentators lament America’s “loss of innocence,” wiping the blood of centuries of settler colonization, imperial expansionism, and slavery off America’s historical list.
Experts condemn the spread of mass surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties as “[Osama] “The victory of bin Laden” over American freedoms, eliminating the long genealogy of police, surveillance and counterinsurgency measures used to repress indigenous, black and Latino dissent in the United States.
The writers lament the transformation of airplanes from symbols of “freedom and adventure” into weapons of “fear and suspicion”, forgetting that the use of airplanes as instruments of terror was not invented by al-Qaeda in 2001, but by Italians, French and British. colonizers in Libya, Morocco, Iraq and other laboratories of colonial violence in the early 20th century. The use of “aerial surveillance” and bombing to exercise dominance over the colonized heralded the physical and psychological ravages of drone warfare today.
The September 11 narrative of radical historical rupture is sustained by a radical historical erasure, obscuring the continuities between the extirpated colonial past and the sanitized colonial present.
In fact, the supposedly new paradigm of the post-9/11 war resembles what military historian John Grenier identified as America’s “first avenue of war”: the all-out assault on indigenous nations, found in the genocidal foundations of the American state. From the “Indian Wars” to the “War on Terror”, the claim that targets are too “uncivilized” to obey the (Eurocentric) laws of war has been used to unleash extraordinary violence by “civilizers. ”.
In its infamous series of legal memoranda on the War on Terrorism, the US government’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) invoked an impressive array of colonial precedents from around the world – from the Indian wars to the military occupations of The US in the Philippines and Cuba to authorize the deployment. of the military to combat “terrorist activities” within the US; British colonialism in Kenya, French colonialism in Algeria and apartheid in South Africa to strip captured combatants of the rights of the Geneva Convention; of the Indian Wars again, to legitimize the kangaroo of the Guantanamo military commissions; of the colonial project of Great Britain in Ireland and of Israel in Palestine, to legalize torture disguised as “enhanced interrogation”; and from Israel again, to deny the captives access to the International Red Cross.
In the eyes of Orientalists, the use of precedents in Islamic legal traditions (taqlid) has been pathologized as further evidence of the slavish submission of Muslims to the past. On the other hand, the adherence of Western customary law to precedent, a vehicle for the continued reproduction of colonial reasoning, is celebrated as a hallmark of its exemplary rationality and justice.
The US Army Field Manual for Post-9/11 Counterinsurgency (COIN) openly proclaims that it is “based on the colonial teachings and code of conduct of the US Marines. Latin American nations ”. The glowing introduction was written by the director of the Harvard Human Rights Center: human rights and colonial imperatives function as two sides of the same COIN.
First on the manual’s “classics” recommended reading list is Small Wars, by 19th century British Major General Charles Callwell. Originally subtitled A Tactical Textbook for Imperial Soldiers, it purportedly “provides lessons learned [from Callwell’s military experiences in Afghanistan and South Africa] that are still valuable today ”.
One wonders precisely what “lessons” are to be drawn from Small Wars, which is replete with such observations as “all Easterners have an innate love of deception and deception,” “the Red Indians have gained an evil notoriety for their duplicity and cunning ”,“ In Asia he is the master who ruthlessly grabs the people by the neck, ”and“ fanatics and savages must be driven deep and frightened or they will rise again. ”In total, it contains more than 100 references to“ savages “,” barbarians “and the” uncivilized races “.
Of course, in the contemporary antiterrorist lexicon, “savages” are no longer officially referred to as “savages.” Instead, new terms such as “unlawful enemy combatants” have been devised to justify removals from international humanitarian law protections.
Similarly, societies are no longer openly branded “uncivilized” to rationalize aggression, invasion, and imperial reform. Instead, the targets of such interventions are now described as “failed” or “unwilling or unable” states to eliminate the threats they harbor. The doctrine of “not wanting or not being able”, popularized in the War on Terrorism, was first promoted by the United States and Israel in the 1970s, in an attempt to give a patina of legality to their extraterritorial exercises of military force.
“The very process of affirming novelty [in the wake of 9/11] it is a key political maneuver that allows proponents of radical international reform to justify, more successfully than previously possible, many of their pre-existing imperial ambitions, ”observed legal scholar and UN expert Obiora Okafor.
For example, European colonial jurists like the 16th century Francisco de Vitoria, now commemorated as a liberal defender of human rights, argued that in the so-called “new world” of the Americas, “permanent” total war was “necessary to ensure freedom. peace”. “; centuries before George W. Bush made “humanitarian” aggression great again.
Ironically, the appeal to novelty is itself an old imperial tactic, Okafor recalls: “Novelty and difference were fundamental elements in the absurd series of legal maneuvers of the 16th and 19th centuries that eventually led foreign Europeans to confer to themselves the international legal right to coercively occupy and govern lands [in the Americas, Africa, and Asia]. “
While the terminology has been renamed and the legal framework renewed, the underlying dynamics of differentiation and dominance remain. As in earlier colonial periods, the dominated are not simply excluded from the law, but included to be subjugated.
Labeling this terror regime as “war” is misleading, as war connotes a situation in which both parties have the legal right to use violence and are vulnerable to violence in return. Rather, as in the colonial slaughterhouses and torture chambers of decades past, what the imperial powers seek is a one-way license for brutalization and control.
This is manifested in the demonization and prosecution of Muslim fighters by the United States, such as former Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr, as “terrorists” for killing US soldiers, legitimate military targets, under international laws of war. In contrast, the prolific slaughter of Afghan, Pakistani, Somali and Yemeni civilians by US forces is routinely exonerated, counted as “collateral damage” or “enemies killed in action” if revealed.
“The WAT [War Against Terror] it represents a set of policies and principles that replicates the structure of the civilizing mission, ”warned legal scholar Antony Anghie in his founding book, Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law. “It is precisely by invoking the primordial imperial structures latent in international law that this supposed new initiative seeks to disrupt and transform existing international law … by relying its power on a very old set of ideas – regarding self-defense, humanitarian intervention and conquest. “
Yet colonialism and imperialism are perpetually viewed as an aberration: a response to “their” inherent violence, never a manifestation of “ours.” Colonial violence has been largely removed from legal histories, despite its central formative role, and marginalized as’ little wars’, ‘thus managing to rule out what has in fact been by far the most common form of war. in the modern world, “political theorist Mark Neocleous points out.
The historical “fathers” of international law such as Francisco de Vitoria, Hugo Grotius, Emer de Vattel, Henry Dunant and Friedrich von Martens have been whitewashed from their colonial entanglements and exalted; so are the current architects of imperial atrocities who are being cleansed of their infamy in the present.
The author of the OLC torture memos, John Yoo, is now a law professor at a prestigious school, his boss Jay Bybee is an appeals court judge, and Alberto Gonzales, the White House attorney who adopted his tortured logic. , is dean of the law school. Meanwhile, survivors released from the Guantánamo torture camp are left struggling with physical and psychological disabilities, and overcoming the poverty line; All of his efforts to obtain redress from US government officials have been dismissed by the US courts. Empire means not having to ask for forgiveness.
What we are told to “never forget” and what we are made to “always forget” are two sides of the same power operation. And so the colonial present continues, inscribing each new chapter of violence as if it were the first.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.