The “War on Terror” and Undefeated Despair

By Yousef K.B.

I heard the news when my brother called me as I was getting home after a long drive, “are you watching the news? Obama is about to announce that they killed Bin Laden.” Surprised, I told him I’ll call him back, and hurried to unpack my luggage from my car, turn my computer on and search for streaming coverage of Obama’s statement online.  My heart started to beat faster, and I was filled with emotions, but I couldn’t understand them. I kept asking myself how I was feeling, but I couldn’t make it out. Was I sad? No, I despised Bin Laden and what he stood for. Was I happy? No. I sure wasn’t indifferent to the news. As always my mind had to work hard to catch up to my heart. I listened attentively to Obama’s speech. His detailing of the mission, his effort to take credit for the operation in anticipation of his electoral bid, the invocation of the 9/11 attacks, remembering the sacrifices of American military, their families, and the families of those who died in 9/11, and his complete silence on the misery felt by the rest of humanity that had suffered as his government waged the “war on terror.” After the speech, the coverage turned to pictures of a thousand or so, mostly young people who had gathered outside the White House enthusiastically jumping up and down, shouting “USA! USA! USA!” I sat back on my chair, and realized that what I had been feeling was undefeated despair.

I had been here before. I felt the same way when Saddam was caught and later executed. That hit even closer home for me. Saddam Hussein was responsible for the death of six family members (whose bodies have never been recovered), and the fleeing of half of my family including both of my parents in fear for their lives.  I never met the other half of my family that stayed behind until last year. And this is only my story. I know of countless other people with similar or more tragic stories. Yet as he was hung, I felt the same feeling I felt listening to the news of Bin Laden’s death–an undefeated despair. A coming to terms with the grim realities of the world, where life is present where it can’t be imagined to exist.

These men didn’t rise and fall on their own. Their political career can only be understood through their relationship with the United States government. Saddam and Bin Laden were initially tools for US foreign policy interest. Saddam was needed to bring down Abdel Karim Qasim in Iraq and prevent Socialism from taking root there, and Bin Laden needed to push back the Soviets from Afghanistan. All of a sudden, the relationship sours around 1991. Saddam invades Kuwait and threatens global business interests, and is met with a swift US response. The US invaded Kuwait and used Saudi Arabia as one of their main bases. This was the final straw for Bin Laden who quickly replaced the Soviets with Americans as his target. Since 1991 these two figures became for American policy makers symbols and markers around which key foreign policy campaigns were argued and sold to the masses both in the US and around Western Europe. The 2001 attacks in New York made these two the face of the “war on terror,” with their death serving as milestones, or victories in battles in the long “war.”  Along the way, millions of Iraqis suffered through four regime changes and one of the most brutal dictatorships in the past century, and Afghans suffered through three decades of un-yielding war leaving one to wonder, where they find the strength to still be present? The trajectory of Saddam and Bin Laden and their love-hate relationship with the United States is a story of misery, tragedy, death, and despair.

As Bin Laden, a criminal and a murderer, was shot in the head and thrown into the sea, I dare to say that there was nothing to celebrate. Naïve American Muslim leaders stumbled on each other, each yelling louder than the other “we’re relieved.” I ask them, where do you find this relief? All I feel is grief for the misery of those who suffered and continue to suffer for Obama to be able to announce his success so you can announce your relief.

Bin Laden’s death was a process that included a war in Afghanistan and a war in Iraq. It took bombs being dropped over Somalia and Sudan, and drone attacks over Pakistan. His death required the killing of an unknown number of people (there is no figures for these people, as their life is cheap), and the imprisonment, torture, and harassment of countless others. But to understand the true process of Bin Laden’s death, we must go further than the most obvious parts of the “war on terror.” In this war, American allies were Ali Abdel Salih of Yemen, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia, King Abdullah of Jordan, King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz of Saudi Arabia, King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, just to name a few.  In the name of fighting terrorism, dictators, kings, and tyrants were propped up, supported, given military aid, and diplomatic cover. These rulers were supported, because the supposed alternative was Bin Laden-like-extremists.

The “war on terror” needed Bin Laden, an amorphous figure whose reach seemed to stretch everywhere, but whose presence could not be pinned down to anywhere. A figure who lacked a coherent ideology outside of a confused and over-encompassing hate for the US, Europe, and what he saw as western intrusion into the Mid East in the form of Israel.   An ideology that lacked a nuanced and complex understanding of the political economic and cultural problems that faced the people of Mid East, Muslims, and the humanity in general. The ideology was vague enough for the proponents of the “war on terror” to collapse any critique of their war into this ideology and call the critics as either allies, harbingers, or unknowing accomplices of Bin Laden and his kind.

The “war on terror” has built an emotional and political infrastructure that is now strong enough to exist without Bin Laden. The language of “terrorism” and irrational fear of it, the use of the term by states globally to label their opposition, the linking of “terror” and Islam and Muslim, the undermining of legitimate uses of armed resistance against armies of occupation and repression, have all become built into an extensive infrastructure that is repeatedly tapped into by state actors worldwide. The “war on terror” is part of our “common sense” understanding of the world.

Bin Laden’s death is not the end of this war, as some hope, but rather a justification for the continuation of the war itself. His killing is now given as an indication of the success of vigilantism, increased militarization, and extra-legal (i.e. assassinations, torture, etc.) tactics in waging the “war on terror.” Now it is argued that given that terrorism still exists, then the “war on terror” needs to continue, and given that the way it has been fought so far resulted in the death of Bin Laden as it did Saddam, it needs to continue unabated and unchanged.  Let’s not get it twisted; the differences between Obama and Bush in foreign policy are differences in presentation of these policies, rather than the policies themselves.

But why despair?

As people jump to patriotic celebration in the United States and elsewhere, we cannot ignore the lives of those who were and remain present as this “war on terror” bulldozed/s through their countries, cities, neighborhoods, and living rooms.

The “war on terror” is not a war being fought by the United States. It is a political and cultural infrastructure that governments, especially in the West tap into as they face violence, protests, riots, and immigration. Terrorism is now the prism through which migrants are seen, feared, scapegoated, and as a result assaulted, exploited, and repressed.  Terrorism is the emotional infrastructure, the common sense that is tapped into to justify patriot-act-type laws, increased surveillance, and the demonization of protesters and rioters.

Across the world inequality is increasing at greater speed. More of land, services, and resources that used to be public are enclosed and privatized. Even genuine relationships between people are morphed into calculated interactions for personal gain. As the global economy continues to expand and deepen, economic growth no longer refers to better living conditions for people, but rather better profit making opportunities for those who own capital. As the global economy builds taller and taller skyscrapers in former colonized cities, it sweeps up with it a new class of transnational capitalists from amongst the colonized peoples, leaving millions behind scavenging for a livelihood in ever expanding slums surrounding these cities.

Privatization transformed social services globally, to sectors of profit making. As governments sold their responsibility to serve, they invested in their coercive role, building more prisons, buying more policing equipment, developing more sophisticated riot control protocol. They prepared themselves to counter the resistance and anger of their populations against these changes. As governments retreated from helping their people, they re-emerged as bigger institutions of policing. Avery Gordon reminds us “when the state abandons you, it never leaves you a lone.”

The last decade of the 20th century was marked by a revamped consciousness and mobilization against neo-liberalism and its economic, political, and military brutality. The Zapatista uprising in 1994, protests against various transnational financial institutions such as the Seattle protests of 1999, the spread of the “pink tide” in Latin America, and the inauguration of the first World Social Forum in April 2001 are only some visible manifestations of the intensification of resistance in that time.  This was the context under which the “war on terror” emerged.  The “war on terror” pushed these other movements outside of the public imaginary. Instead what emerged was a fight between “good and evil,” “democracy and religious extremism,” “Jihad and McWorld,” “the West and the rest (notably Muslims).” Osama Bin Laden was the convenient face of this global “war.”

Bin Laden and his terrorism became the tool states used to legitimate ratcheting up repression across the globe. It was the reason given when Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Boutelfika of Algeria amongst others gave for continuing their emergency laws, which were used to repress movements with political and economic demands. The untold and invisible story is that of the humanity that bears the brunt of the shrinking welfare state and the expanding police state, the victims of neo-liberal development and the “war on terror.”

Bin Laden’s death is proclaimed as a victory for all people in every country. We are supposed to celebrate the ability of a country to assassinate another person in another country because they deem them to be an enemy. Are the ramifications of this precedent not clear?  Apparently not clear to a bamboozled public in the west who cheer, and in their applause reinstate legitimacy for increased militarization across the globe.

To come to terms with how to feel and what position to take at these times, I find it helpful to refer to John Berger’s reflections on a trip he made to Occupied Palestine, which he observed and called for a stance of undefeated despair.

Palestinians, Iraqis, and Afghanis don’t celebrate. They exist with a profound “familiarity … with every sort of rubble, including the rubble of words,” as witnesses to the brutal contradictions of the 21st century. They don’t see any reason to celebrate in the face of death. Rather they grieve. Egyptians who for years suffered under Mubarak and his “anti-terrorism” policies don’t celebrate. They are too busy, yet again struggling to make sure their revolution isn’t stolen as transnational interests pours into their country in the form of aid money to their military, civil society organizations, etc.  And everyday, this humanity goes home to wake up to another day of struggle and undefeated despair invisible to the rest of us in the West, blinded by our celebrations of death.

“Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat…” This is the position of undefeated despair. “It is to carve out a life when everything is organized to prevent you from living.” The struggle of those Fanon called the wretched of the earth is one to achieve the simple requirements of life, the very ordinary. It is not a struggle for a new happiness, but rather a struggle for an old and ordinary one.

John Berger explains:

“In the stance I keep referring to, there is something special, a quality which no postmodern or political vocabulary today can find a word for. The quality of a way of sharing which disarms the leading question of: why was one born into this life?

This way of sharing disarms and answers the question not with a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance–these forms of rhetoric are for the small or large leaders who make History–and this way disarmingly answers the question despite history. Its answer is brief, brief but perpetual. One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments: the time of Becoming, before Being risks to confront one yet again with undefeated despair.”

Our stance is of undefeated despair and our politics is the politics of presence.



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7 responses to “The “War on Terror” and Undefeated Despair

  1. Tomas Madrigal

    Well done.

  2. jesse t.

    Very informative…great work.

  3. omar khan

    nice piece.

  4. Nosheen Ali

    one of the most poignant reads on obl and the war on terror. many thanks for writing this.

  5. Aziz ur Rehman

    Thanks. You have shown all faces of the story.

  6. Brett


  7. Pingback: Despair war | Brooza

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