Submitted by Janet Jobson

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a defining point for our generation, one of those “where were you when …” moments that will be discussed around dinner tables for decades to come.

Looking back over the global shifts that have occurred in response to 9/11 and subsequent attacks, I feel we might just have missed the point of it all. The self-indulgent “they hate us and our way of life” rhetoric that has filled our newspapers, movies and TV screens completely overlooks what’s really going on.

“What the United States tastes today is a very small thing compared to what we have tasted for tens of years. Our nation has been tasting this humiliation and contempt for more than 80 years.”

This, Osama bin Laden’s post-9/11 statement, reveals what we actually should be talking about — the fact that we have created a global system that methodically disenfranchises, degrades and humiliates millions of people on a daily basis. As Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatista movement in Mexico notes: “The new distribution of the world excludes the ‘minorities’. The indigenous, youth, women, homosexuals, lesbians, people of colour, immigrants, workers, peasants; the majority who make up the world basements are presented, for power, as disposable. The distribution of the world excludes the majorities.”

This exclusion — social, economic, cultural, and political — is not simply a fact of life; it is an active and systematic process that is based on the unacknowledged premise that not all human life is equal and therefore some people (or, rather, most people) are disposable or inconsequential; a premise frighteningly similar to that of the apartheid state.

Sitting here in South Africa, we should not then be surprised that “terrorists” have used violence to respond to these processes of humiliation and degradation — after all, didn’t our people take up arms to struggle for our liberation (weren’t they the “terrorists” of the 1980s?). Yet, it seems, even the most liberal of us — those who shake their heads at US military policies, those who decry the evils of neoliberal capitalism over their cappuccinos, those who eloquently call for the recognition of the rights of Palestinians — find the idea of violence unpalatable. “It’s all just a little too uncivilised,” we mutter, “they’re going too far.”

What if, for a moment, I agree that “they’re going too far” — what options are there in the current context to voice dissent, to reject the global system, to make change actively? Popular protest is in vogue and has reached new heights of participation: 60 000 people protesting against the WTO in Seattle in 1999; the approximately 100 000 people who attended the 2004 World Social Forum; the almost 15-million people that took to the streets worldwide to protest the war in Iraq in 2003, and the 26-million people worldwide that in 2006 set a new record by standing up against poverty.

But what did these protests achieve? The WTO still treats the global South as its personal punching bag, the US still invaded Iraq, and little concerted action has been taken by the rich world to reduce poverty in a meaningful way. In fact, the most common response to these protests has been tear gas, riot police, brutal crackdowns and a closing of the space for dissent. The EU Council, for instance, passed a “Framework Decision on Combating Terrorism” that broadened the definition of terrorism to include: “any acts that are aimed at: ‘destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional or social structures of a country or international organisation'”. So, for instance, me passing out flyers calling for a reformulation of the “fundamental global political system” could quite easily be a terrorist act. Hang on; this blog post is probably “terrorism” in our new hyper-paranoid society.

Before I am charged with being a violence-advocating, terrorist sympathiser, I should get to the point of this whole post. I do not believe in violence. I do not believe that violence is the way that our society will fundamentally change. I believe that any loss of human life through conflict is a travesty and a tragedy. I do, however, realise that in this global system terrorism is inevitable and so we have to figure out how best to respond to it. The “War on Terror” — a process of violently going after degraded, humiliated, disenfranchised people — only reinforces the rationale for terrorism. The only effective means by which to end terrorism is to end the humiliation that creates it. The way to win the war on terror is to radically change the global system — to work actively towards ending poverty; to create economic, political and social systems that encourage, respect and value all human beings; to instil a sense of interconnectedness between all people. To sum it all up: bring on the revolution!

* Thanks to Frantz Fanon, the critical theorist of decolonisation in Africa and active participant in Algeria’s struggle for independence, for the inspiration.

Janet likes to think of herself as a social activist, but in her spare time dreams of being a playwright/documentary filmmaker/jazz-club owner and general revolutionary. Until she figures out how to do all that, she is studying a master’s degree in development studies at Oxford University. Her main areas of interest and research grapple with the complexities of reconciliation, violence, crime and transitional justice. Janet is an idealist who believes that another world is possible in her lifetime.


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