Learning to Listen to Voices from the War on Terror

Over the course of the fall 2017 semester, I had the privilege of participating in Professor Megan Brankley Abbas’s directed study titled “Voices from the War on Terror.” In this course, my classmates and I engaged in multiple conversations regarding the origins as well as the consequences of the so-called “War on Terror.” While the effects of this “war” can be felt across the globe, the ultimate goal of the course was to gain insight into how this long standing U.S. policy affects the lives of various individuals in the Geneseo community. In order to accomplish this feat, we set out to interview those who we felt would be able to provide a valuable snapshot of how a global phenomenon can leave lasting imprints on even a small community such as Geneseo.

Each student in the course took on a different sub-set of the Geneseo community. I had a particular interest in speaking with Geneseo students who took an extra-curricular interest in politics and current events. Hence, I began the process of emailing the heads of various politically oriented student organized clubs and reaching out to classmates who I knew took an interest in politics. I conducted three interviews. My first interview was with Joshua, an international relations major in his junior year and president of Geneseo’s College Republicans. Then, I interviewed Rohan, a Political Science and Communications double major who holds a leadership position in both the Geneseo College Democrats as well as in Geneseo’s South Asian Student Association. Finally, I interviewed a fellow student who wished to remain anonymous. Through these interviews, I wanted to explore the role of human emotions like fear, anger, apathy, and empathy in students’ understanding of this conflict. In other words, how did some of my classmates not only think about but also feel about this “war?”

Graffiti denouncing strikes by US drones in Yemen. (Photo: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

During our interview, Joshua made his disdain for “the war on terror” very clear. His opposition to the policies and attitudes that came with this U.S. policy is deeply rooted in his self-described “libertarian-esque” values. In general, Joshua feels that people are scared of terrorism, which “…isn’t as prominent as they think it is.” Joshua feels that this fear is the driving force behind what he sees to be the American people surrendering their rights in hopes that the government can keep them safe. In addition to his fundamental objections to “the War on Terror,” Joshua also weighed in on what he saw as the cause and unnecessary perpetuation of this U.S. policy. Joshua pointed out that a large part of why we’re involved in “the War on Terror” is due to the actions of the United States long before 9/11. He points out that if you had asked the average American who Bin Laden was before 9/11…they could[‘nt] have told you.” That being said, one could argue that “…our continuing interference in the Middle East…could be the genesis of this entire War on Terror.”

Furthermore, when I asked him about civilian deaths in the Middle East as a result of our military involvement in the region, he pointed out that when American military action results someone’s death, this creates “…a very logical reason [for] why…” those who were close to this person would want to “…join a terrorist organization.” Oftentimes, people are quick to blame terrorism on the ideologies of fundamentalist Islam. Muslims who join jihadi movements are often viewed as faceless puppets of a supposedly controlling and political religion. However, Joshua recognizes that, while violence is always a tragic occurrence, much of the anger that some jihadist have towards the United States comes from a place of loss, pain, and the very human desire for vengeance. To recognize this is not to condone the violent acts that jihadi groups are often involved in, it is simply a recognition that the United States has an important role to play in ending a senseless cycle of violence.

During my interview with Rohan, he expressed his concerns that the “War on Terror” has long since reached its expiration date. Rohan stated that

The ‘War on Terror’ started basically…after 9/11. Bush started it. So I think it was a rallying call and a propaganda piece to start all these wars. I think what the war on terror meant to people at the time who were very patriotic was America’s gonna get revenge for all this stuff, basically 9/11. I think it’s basically morphed into this thing where we just keep bombing people. It’s this whole big thing and it should really end overall, I think it’s just too far gone. The ‘War on Terror’ to me is something that maybe started with some noble intentions, but at this point it’s over, it’s just too destructive.

U.S. troops from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division build a base in Parwan Province, Afghanistan in 2010. Photo: U.S. Army

When our discussion moved to the victims of American military action in the “Middle East,” Rohan expressed a similar concern to one that Joshua had mentioned. Rohan spoke about an article he had read.

They were surveying people in Afghanistan in this major province, I don’t remember the name of it it was a few years ago but only like 5% of them knew what 9/11 was. To them, we just came in there and started killing people and doing all those atrocities, so they’re just gonna hate us for that reason. And I think especially if you drone strike someone, like you kill some kid’s mom or dad, he’s just going to grow up hating America.

Rohan also expressed concern that “the War on Terror” has been going on for so long because people have become apathetic to it. He pointed out that this may be in part due to the dehumanization of the victims American military action in the Middle East, suggesting that

People generally don’t care anymore. I think we see it a lot with our generation too. I think also a lot of people have become desensitized to violence in general. Especially people in our generation…I think they’ve grown up in an age…where they’re used to seeing these headlines, like 20 people dead, 30 people dead, they’re like whatever who cares anymore.

During our interview, I felt that Rohan had really highlighted perhaps the greatest pitfall of “the War on Terror;” it began in a moment of intense anger and fear, but the American public has since become apathetic to its effects, allowing the atrocities it causes to pile up, unscrutinized.

A political cartoon about the War on Terror from the Baltimore Sun newspaper.

My last interview was with a student who wished to remain anonymous. When I asked him to weigh in on the United States’ decision to take military action in the “Middle East,” he seemed reluctant to embrace certain aspects of our military strategy, but overall felt that military action in that region was necessary. He expressed his contention that

When these groups [violent jihadi organizations] act up, when they’re posing direct threats to the U.S. is when it’s worth going in because the only way to destroy the terrorist organizations would be to destroy the very ideology that its founded on which is impossible to do. I mean the best comparison I could use is of course Nazism with the whole movement in Germany during the second world war. Over there that the best job you can do in destroying an ideology, for the most part. And it took a world war to accomplish that, and it’s still not dead. You hear neo-Nazi groups popping up in various parts of the world…to destroy an ideology is impossible.

This student felt that we should take military action because he saw violent acts from extremist groups as being founded on an ideology that can not be destroyed. Furthermore, this student described himself as someone who is very pro-America and very pro-Israel, and he expressed a great concern for the anti-Semitic sentiment he feels is making a comeback in recent years. With these fears being his justification for American military action, he saw much of the death and destruction in the “Middle East” as being an unfortunate but unavoidable aspect of a necessary war. He explained: “when there is a threat, it’s unfortunate to say, this is a war- people die. It’s a sad truth, civilian deaths are part of war.” At this point, it was clear that this student saw “the War on Terror” through a different lens than Joshua and Rohan did.

An incoming SUNY Geneseo class forming a giant ‘G’ on the quad to celebrate their arrival.

Overall, the interviews made me reflect on how the principles of humanism in particular affected the thoughts of these three Geneseo students. I learned how humanization can lead to empathy and how even a passive dehumanization of Muslim or Arab individuals can lead some to become desensitized to the suffering of others. In the realm of politics, one’s worldview – complete with all of one’s fears, values, and experiences – ultimately has the final say on issues such as “the War on Terror.” Today, the United States is so politically polarized. Candidates on both the right and the left sing the praises of bipartisan compromise, but the idea of cooperation between those who operate in contradictory paradigms seems nearly impossible. In a perfect world however, there should be a core philosophy on which all people can agree: the concept of humanism or that all human beings are inherently valuable. As a nation, we should actively seek to extend our concern for ourselves to a concern for all human beings. I believe that one’s inability to recognize the humanity of others is a direct indicator of our own worth.

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