Politics / World

Protesting ≠ terrorism

The attacks on September 11th had profound and far-reaching effects throughout the world, not only in terms of the wars that followed, but also in domestic security policy and rhetoric. While religious terrorism seems to be a declining threat to the West (I’m by no means an expert as to how high the threat was before), extreme government actions are still being justified in the name of security against terrorist organisations and individuals.

Image: Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Nevit Dilmen via Wikimedia Commons

In light of continued anti-government demonstrations Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, has repeatedly sought to demonise protesters, claiming that they walk “arm-in-arm with terrorism”. Additionally he told protestors to leave their primary place of protest, Gezi Park, so that authorities could “deal with the fringe terrorist” groups that were allegedly conspiring there.

“From now on the state will unfortunately have to consider everyone who remains there a supporter or member of a terror organization,” stated Turkey’s European Union Minister.

It doesn’t need to be explained why there are issues with classifying a whole group of people as terrorists just because of the area they inhabit. Interestingly Turkey’s protesters are fighting against religious rule in favour of restoring Turkey to its historically secular state, but the government’s statements nonetheless fit into the security context of the post-9/11 world.

But while some European Union members are critical of Turkey, it seems likely that they are throwing around the terrorist label to justify their own brutal responses to protests. Whether or not Erdogan is trying to garner sympathy from other countries or simply to intimidate his own people is beyond my judgement, but the fact remains that there has been no evidence of terrorist activity within the protests.

While being largely overshadowed by the events in Turkey, Brazil has also faced large protests in recent weeks. Poor health care and education, public transportation price hikes, and widespread corruption have angered many in the country, leading to peaceful protest and eventual violent clashes between protesters and police in several cities. Frustration over the heavy cost of building new stadiums for the upcoming World Cup has also lead to protests.

Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, has reacted in a similar manner to Erdogan in condemning and misrepresenting the actions of her own people.

“Everyone has to be humble and accept criticism, but not terrorism,” she says.

Once again the t-word is thrown recklessly at political dissidents, unhappy with the policies of their elected officials. Police brutality in response to these protests has been widely reported.

Government responses to terrorism have again become relevant in the US context, where the National Security Agency’s PRISM program was recently exposed. Introduced in 2007, it continues to see the agency collect data on millions of regular Americans’ phone calls, emails and other private information, with due process left to deal with this information when it’s expressly required.

Head of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, has since argued that this mass surveillance provided vital information in stopping “dozens” of terror plots, including Najibullah Zazi’s plot to bomb New York’s subway system. While The Guardian argued that cases like this were resolved largely due to conventional intelligence methods, Alexander is adamant that PRISM has a place in the US.

“If we tell the terrorists every way that we’re going to track them, they will get through and Americans will die,” he says.

I can’t think of another country where the rights of its people are celebrated more emphatically than the US, but perhaps it is a combination of exceptionalism and the increased influence of the intelligence and military sectors that has let government officials get away with undermining their constitution time and time again after 9/11.

Remember the Occupy protests that swept the US? Turns out the department of Homeland Security was working in conjunction with counter-terrorism units of police forces to spy on and coordinate responses to Occupy protesters. Considering the US Department of Defence outlined protests as “low-level terrorism” in its training manuals until 2009, such examples are demonstrative of the shift of terminology used to classify political activists around the world.

In all these cases it is impossible to prove that no protesters wanted to overthrow their governments. But having rebellious aspirations, be them romanticised or genuine, is worlds away from being part of an organised terrorist group that aims to bring about political change through violence and intimidation.

While what we could now call terrorism has been a mainstay of many societies for centuries, the fact that governments are so willing to cheapen the term in order to shield themselves from judgement is troubling and irresponsible.

It’s difficult to say when, if ever, the real or perceived threat of terror will diminish to the point where it fails to legitimise government violence and policy overreach against citizens. Given the democratic movements of the last few years and the escalating tension in countries around the world, protesters may continue to be labelled as terrorists for some time. Such actions may help political leaders in the short term, but at the end of the day they are ultimately beholden to the people they represent, and you would hope that they will be held to account one way or another.

Follow me on twitter @timviney2

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