Questioning crime: social harms and global issues
Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

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Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

4.4 Counting the costs of the ‘War on Terror’: a social harm analysis

From a social harm perspective, significant harms of the ‘War or Terror’ have arisen by justifying and legitimating a set of new policies and practices which in part flow from the way in which the issue has been framed. The discourse of ‘security’ has been particularly prevalent. While ‘security’ is emphasised on the one hand as being for protective purposes, it has also been associated in relation to the ‘War on Terror’ with increasingly restrictive and repressive policies.

This discourse on security and resultant policies and practices is of interest to zemiologists since, in Western states, most of the media have focused largely on the harms arising from actions associated with ‘Islamist terror’, but have given little consideration to harms resulting from new security policies. For example, from a social harm perspective, the loss of freedoms that these ‘security’ responses have brought about could be seen as producing social, political harms, and even physical harms. It is notable that the harms that the security policy brings are not borne equally by every section of the population.

While terrorism itself of course causes great harm, responses to terrorism can also cause great harm and potentially they may even be more harmful than the phenomenon they are supposed to be addressing. By applying a social harm approach to the case study of the ‘War on Terror’ and the policies and responses to which it gives rise, you can explore further some of the claims that social harm theorists have made, specifically:

  1. That the criminalisation and punishment of marginalised and relatively powerless groups who are often seen as being associated with terrorism because of their ethnicity, inflicts further harm on these groups and increases inequality.
  2. That the discourse of terrorism gives legitimacy to the expansion of crime control and other security measures.
  3. That the framing of issues as ‘crime’ or ‘terrorism’ serves to maintain power relations.

In the following sections you will consider the harms that have arguably resulted from the ‘War on Terror’ and consider the question of whether the measures intended to protect people from harm can themselves create further harms.

Activity 8 Do some deaths count more than others?

Watch this clip from the documentary Truth and lies in the War on Terror by the journalist John Pilger, made in 2003 about the military response to the events of 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, under the banner of ‘Operation enduring Freedom’. In this film Pilger outlines some of the harms that have resulted from these interventions by Western states. Can you identify four or more harms this film clip illustrates?


Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
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Transcript: Video 1

As we and our coalition partners are doing in Afghanistan, we will bring to the Iraqi people food and medicines and supplies and freedom.
So I believe that this is a fight for freedom. And I want to make it a fight for justice, too.
We have shown freedom's power. And in this great conflict, my fellow Americans, we will see freedom's victory.
September the 11th, 2001 dominates almost everything we watch, read, and hear. We're fighting a war on terror, say George Bush and Tony Blair, a noble war against evil itself. But what are the real aims of this war? And who are the most threatening terrorists? Indeed, who is responsible for far greater acts of violence than those committed by the fanatics of al-Qaeda, crimes that have claimed many more lives than September the 11th and always in poor, devastated, far away places from Latin America to Southeast Asia? The answer to these questions is to be found here in the United States, where those now in power speak openly of their conquests and of endless war. Afghanistan, Iraq, these, they say, are just the beginning. Look out North Korea, Iran, even China. This film is about the rise and rise of rapacious, imperial power and a terrorism that never speaks its name because it is our terrorism. This is Afghanistan. And this woman's name is Orifa. In October, 2001, an American plane dropped a 500-pound bomb on her mud and stone house. Eight members of her family were killed, including six children. Two children died next door. Afghanistan was claimed as the first victory in America's War on Terror against Islamic fundamentalists known as al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the attacks of September the 11th. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan had given Osama bin Laden a base. But bin Laden and the Taliban leader were never caught. Instead, more than 3000 innocent people were bombed to death. That's more than were killed on September the 11th. President Bush calls this Operation Enduring Freedom. A world away, in New York, this is Rita Lasar and her brother Abe. Abe was killed in the Twin Towers on September the 11th. He might have saved himself but chose to help a disabled friend.
My view does not look out on the World Trade Centre but I'm on the 15th floor, in lower Manhattan. And I ran across the hall to my friend's apartment and her windows looked out on the World Trade Centre. And I got there in time to see the second plane hit the second building. And strangely enough, it was only then that I said, "Oh, my god, my brother's in that building". Danny, my son's best friend, called and said, "Can I come over?" And we said, "Sure". And he said, "Did you watch the president's speech"? And we said, "No". And he said, "He mentioned your brother". And I looked at him and I said, "What are you talking about?" And then I thought, gee, there must have been a lot of people who stayed behind with their friends in wheelchairs. You know, you don't think that it's your own brother. You just don't think that. But it was my brother. And immediately-- immediately-- I knew that my country was going to use my brother's death to justify killing innocent people in Afghanistan and wherever else they would look.
Rita decided to go to Afghanistan to comfort the victims of the American bombing. She met Orifa and took her to the American embassy in Kabul to seek compensation for the killing of her family.
I'll tell you about Orifa. She had taken a translated description of what had happened to her and her family to the American embassy to ask for help and had been turned away and told, "Go away. You're a beggar".
The oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies. As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan. The United States of America is a friend to the Afghan people.
Such a friend that out of $10 billion spent in Afghanistan in the last two years, the majority has been spent on the military. Of all the great humanitarian disasters, few countries have been helped less than Afghanistan. Only 3% of all international aid has been for reconstruction. Such a friend that the United States has yet to clear these unexploded cluster bombs it dropped in the Centre of Kabul where children play in the lethal rubble.
And children are supposed to learn in this devastation.
The Afghan government gets less than 20% of the aid that is delivered. Omar Zakhilwal is a government official in Kabul.
Well, 20% is about 300 million.
300 million? You're meant to rebuild the country basically with 300 million?
Oh, no. The government does not have its own resources for the ordinary budget. The 300 million becomes salaries and electricity and those. No, those are not for reconstruction.
That sounds like you're left with almost nothing then.
The government has no money for reconstruction, period.
End transcript: Video 1
Video 1
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You may have listed some of the following harms:

  • Physical harms:
    • Death of innocent civilians
    • Destruction of property and infrastructure, including basic utilities
  • Psychological and emotional harms:
    • Psychological impact of the War on Terror on civilians who are the target of these policies
  • Financial and economic harms:
    • Failure to provide compensation or financial aid for reconstruction
  • Cultural and relational harms:
    • Mistrust of U.S. government by both U.S. citizens following their use of civilian deaths in 9/11 to justify overseas interventions and Afghan citizens following deaths and destruction in Afghanistan

In this film, Pilger uses the speeches by George W. Bush and Tony Blair who draw on the language of freedom and justice, juxtaposing them against images of violence and harms these policies inflict on ordinary civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A range of recent scholarship and media analysis has sought to measure the harms of the ‘War on Terror’, and it has attempted to compare the immediate costs of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with those of the military action that emerged in response to them. For example, whilst just under 3,000 people lost their lives in the United States in the events of September 11 2001 (Malley and Finer, 2018), the estimates discussed below suggest that this number was far exceeded by the civilian casualties which resulted from U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, launched as part of the ‘War on Terror’.

Mortality data is highly contested in conflict contexts. It is notable also that the U.S. government does not keep official data on civilian deaths resulting from the U.S. led War on Terror. Some unofficial reports however, estimate up to 31,419 civilian deaths in Afghanistan as a direct result of the military action between October 2001 and July 2016 (Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, 2016).

In Iraq, the NGO Iraq Body Count project recorded between 180,093 and 201,873 civilian deaths from violence since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and February 2017 (Iraq Body Count, 2018). Some of the wider harms of the ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq are also revealed in a 2013 public health study (Hagopian et al., 2013). This report documented almost half a million direct and indirect deaths between 2003 and 2011, including deaths caused by failures of heath, sanitation, transportation and other basic systems and wider infrastructure as a result of the ‘War on Terror’. This evidence suggests that taking an approach which focuses only on harms resulting from ‘crimes’ (such as ‘terrorist’ acts) might overlook significant and extensive harms resulting from security measures and state responses to terrorism.


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