Race and the War on Terror

From the May/June 2018 PNL #860

By Aly Wane

I still remember watching the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. Emotionally, I was gutted. All I could think about was the tremendous amount of suffering and grief that the victims’ family members would endure for the rest of their lives. I participated in the grief of the country as well. But intellectually I also knew that my life as a Black immigrant was about to change for the worse. I knew that this country’s imperialist foreign policy was going to turn more murderous and that the recipients of that international violence would mostly be Black and Brown bodies. In addition, I knew that the forces of Islamophobia which had already been latent and weaponized in Hollywood imagery of “Middle Eastern terrorists” would be unleashed to justify such international violence. That is because race and militarism walk hand in hand in a country whose early dual sins of Native American genocide and chattel slavery have never been adequately dealt with.

Barbarians at the Gate: Islamophobia and the War on Terror

The “War on Terror” cannot be fully understood without reckoning with the way it particularly targets bodies of color both domestically and abroad. One example of the “War on Terror”’s impact on people of color is how US leaders manipulate fear of “Muslims” which is code for brown Middle Eastern people (when was the last time you saw a picture demonizing a white member of the Muslim faith?). After 9/11, it was maddening to see how poor the level of discourse was in the mainstream media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR. Most articles and news outlets feigned innocence and focused on cultural issues. The early “explanations” for 9/11 mostly relayed arguments that backwards folks from the Middle East simply hated us “because of our freedom”. These racist arguments obscured the foreign policy reasons why Al-Qaeda targeted this country. Anyone even remotely familiar with US foreign policy would have understood the importance of addressing topics such as the US’ involvement with Israel, its positioning of troops in Saudi Arabia to protect its oil interests, and the difference between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, for example. Instead, US leaders counted on the ignorance of the broader public and successfully used Islamophobic language and rhetoric to justify the new “War on Terror”.

The Enemy Within: The Illegal Alien as Potential Terrorist

This “War on Terror” also emboldens racism domestically. One way is that it has become a de facto war on immigrants. Before 9/11, immigration used to be handled by the Immigration and Naturalizations Services. After the attack, immigration got subsumed under the broader Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Levels of screening were added and deportation became much more common. The term “illegal alien” became synonymous with “potential terrorist” in the mainstream political lexicon. Given that DHS’ mandate was to “protect the country”, and that the number of people willing to cause the kind of carnage committed on 9/11 was minuscule, the way to justify funding the agency and creating the illusion of keeping the country safe was to arrest and deport as many immigrants as possible. In the name of “protecting the country”, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was unleashed on low hanging fruit: undocumented workers, visa overstays, service and farm workers, nurses and people with US citizen children and spouses. Not surprisingly the overwhelming majority of the folks targeted were immigrants of color, especially Black and Brown folks. The combination of racism and xenophobia was baked into the anti-immigrant laws that were created, such as Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 which mandated that local law enforcement arrest anyone who “looks illegal.” Numerous police chiefs such as George Gascon (San Francisco) and Samuel Granato (Yakima, Washington) criticized the legislation specifically stating that it would force police officers to racially profile, with Granato plainly stating: “I do not believe that SB 1070 can be enforced in a racially neutral manner.” “Looking like a citizen” really meant “being white.” In fact, so many Puerto Ricans (US citizens) were profiled and questioned during that time period that they became stronger allies to the migrants’ rights movement. It didn’t matter that no link was shown between the presence of undocumented immigrants and terrorism; in the end, mass incarceration and deportation of mostly immigrants of color was sold to the country as a way to keep it “safe.” This rhetoric was deployed to great effect in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

An honest analysis of the War on Terror requires that we look at its disproportionate impact on people of color domestically and abroad. If we ever hope to break the cycle of violence, we have to have an honest conversation about War on Terror’s inherent racism.


Aly is on the Steering Committees of SPC and the Black Immigration Network.