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The dangerously convenient ‘T’ term and Pakistan

Islamabad: a reporting journalist being attacked by the police during the state of emergency declared by Musharraf.

These days the term ‘terrorism’ seems to be used by politicians as an all powerful tool that can get them elected, keep them in office and excuse any wrong doing or injustice they may have on their record. The advantage in using this term is that people are likely to listen, as ‘terrorism’ usually equates fear, and fear tends to make many people highly irrational – enough to hinder clear judgment. Its use has been very successful in pushing government agendas that under any other circumstances would never have been able to be implemented.

However, what is the price that society must pay for their government’s use of this terrorizing term? Most recently, Pakistan has been experiencing the rule of tough law under the state of emergency implemented by Pervez Musharraf, who has used ‘terrorism’ as one of the justifications for adhering to such drastic measures.

During the first days of November, while the Supreme Court analyzed the legality of Musharraf’s re-election for another 5-year term as president, the leader suspended the Constitution and called a state of emergency. Chaos emerged at the news and thousands of people took to the streets to speak out against the military measures. They were quickly silenced by police forces, and many ended their protest in jail. Private television stations were forced to shut down, and some attorneys and judges lost their jobs and faced imprisonment. One of the main objectives was to rid the judicial powers of opposing voices that were likely to conclude their sessions by announcing the illegality of Musharraf’s aspiration. The reason given for firing Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was that his presence, and that of other officials, was seen as ‘judicial interference’ in the government’s affairs – above all, it was hindering the process of fighting terrorism.

Musharraf argued that it is essential for him to remain president in order to address the issues he feels no other leader would be able to perform appropriately. So far, he has claimed that his post is crucial if Pakistan is to continue fighting terrorism – a fight in which the US has adamantly insisted on Pakistan’s participation. This has kept Pakistan under the blade of a sharp double-edge sword: being pressured by the US on one side, and on the other by factions of his own military who support the Taliban – which, along with al-Qaeda, continues to thrive inside Pakistan’s borders. Does Musharraf’s desperate attempt to stay in power come from the conviction that he is the only person who could appease both sides, playing into the wishes of those who wage war against the terrorists and the targets of this war? Maybe so; either way, ‘terrorism’ is proving to be a very useful tool, perhaps slightly dangerous and unpredictable, but by all means a powerful one.

However difficult the situation of the Pakistani leader may be – being boxed in between a rock and a very hard place – the disregard for justice cannot be concealed or overlooked so easily. The leader, who conveniently cleared the Supreme Court of opposing voices and replaced them with favorable ones, has now had his re-election legally approved – keeping in mind that the unfavorable judges were fired due to ‘judicial interference’ in the fight against terrorism. The term has thus helped to keep Musharraf in power, at least legally, and only at the cost of justice and civil liberties.

Unfortunately, the power of the term ‘terrorism’ has been tested and proven effective in more places than just Pakistan. This goes without saying for the reasoning behind the invasion of Iraq, which received support thanks to the rhetoric that insisted on using the terms ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD) and ‘terrorism’ in the same sentence. Clinging on to the ‘T’ term, once the claims about the existence of WMD turned out to be void of relevance or truth, the threat has actually been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Until the invasion there was no such threat coming from Iraq, but now, using the term actually makes sense as Iraq has become the breeding ground for terrorists.
In the name of the “war on terror”, the US government has also assured itself the right to monitor its citizen’s lives by introducing certain laws in the context of the Patriot Act, and has maintained the highly controversial detention camp in Guantanamo Bay. These new precautions clearly violate some of the very rights that a strong democracy like the US is founded on. Some of the same ideals that for decades it has attempted to introduce in other parts of the world – like freedom of expression, the right to privacy or the right to a fair trail. Great Britain has also adjusted some of its laws in the name of ‘terrorism’ and is currently engaged in the ongoing debate concerning the extension of the period of time a terrorist suspect can be detained – from the dismissed 90 days proposed by Tony Blair’s government, which never made it into legislature, to the current proposal of doubling the time from 28 to 56 days.

When confronted with accusations of infringement on rights, these governments simply wave the ‘terrorism’ banner and claim its all due to the tough new times we are living. That has been the method so far and, for the most part, has accomplished what it set out to do. The measures taken in hunting down terrorists or protecting the public from further attacks clearly limit the very freedoms that terrorists are supposedly trying to take away from the ‘free’ world – at least according to the rhetoric of the “war on terror”. Terrorists, however, need not to trouble themselves too much, as governments are doing part of the work for them. These are obviously not simple issues to deal with, but through such loose and convenient use of the term ‘terrorism’ – whether used maliciously or in good faith, to gain from it or to truly protect people – governments are helping themselves to more power by altering the rights granted by democracy in order to exercise greater control over their citizens. Taking this into account, the questions which should not fail to arise are: just how much power are states going to exercise in an attempt to limit the freedoms of their citizens and how far are we, the citizens, willing to let them get?

As the events in Pakistan play out – where people are silenced for speaking out against measures they see as unjust, even unlawful, where a leader can cherry-pick the judges who are likely to come up with favorable rulings, and where a state of emergency is equivalent to martial law – we should take the term ‘terrorism’ into serious account. All the while, keeping in mind that there is a very thin line between the terrorism our leaders warn us about and terrorism practiced by some states.

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