Americans were shocked to learn former South African President and human rights icon Nelson Mandela was on the US terror watch list til 2008. This revelation should prompt us to ask: what is "terror" and how do we address it?
A decade spent fighting and funding, with over $1 trillion, the Global War on Terror destabilized the world and left us more vulnerable. Ironically just after President Obama abandoned that term, Edward Snowden revealed a vast, costly telecommunications infrastructure representing its hidden counterpart. The National Security Agency created a dragnet that gathered the communications of world leaders and millions worldwide. Information on citizens' phone calls, e-mails, and web activity was swept up, frequently with no evidence of violent plans. In fact, spying by the American government on protestors who objected to inequality or by our "Five Eyes" partner Canada on organizations engaged in environmental activism seems to portend action against those who threaten state or corporate interests.
Despite such manipulation of "terror", we should examine overpowering fear and create templates for action. Five systemic causes of terror rarely discussed in these terms include asthma attacks, climate change, medical crises, rape and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp:
Terror Cause #1: Asthma Attacks -- Any parent who has tried to comfort a child in the throes of an asthma attack has experienced a desperation almost worse than her child's. Each year about 4 million attacks torment kids who comprise part of the 8 percent of America suffering from the growing chronic disease. The overall societal cost from health care and other factors, like lost productivity, tops $56 billion annually.
A War on Asthma? An estimated 30 percent of children's asthma is due to environmental causes. Tighter air pollution standards and better enforcement would help (like Eastern states requiring their neighbors to cut pollution). As would mandating affordable inhalers: asthma medication, which costs many times more here than overseas, prompts many to avoid or severely ration usage. Broader awareness of asthma triggers could be transformational as well.
Terror Cause #2: Climate Change -- Climate-related disasters are devastating communities and countries. Storms in the Midwest, Superstorm Sandy, and Typhoon Haiyan have sent homes flying, transfixing us to the television as we watch shell-shocked victims struggle to scrounge life's basic necessities for their families. These climate-related disasters are taking an increasing toll, growing fourfold since the 1980's to $200 billion annually. This climate reality and scientific projections have garnered international attention. In 2009, world leaders set a goal to arrest warming to 2 degrees in Copenhagen at COP 15 (some nonprofits strongly urge a 1.5 degree target). The World Bank warns our current path of 4 degrees of warming will bring a "cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people". The world has yet to take meaningful action.
The War on Warming: The realities are simple. We need to cap the carbon dioxide that we burn by midcentury to 565 gigatons. Our current track has us exceeding it at least two decades years earlier. The fossil fuel reserves of energy companies is five times what we can safely burn. Drilling of oil and gas, and the mining of coal need to slow dramatically. Additionally, we need to fund developing countries' efforts to adapt to prevent future disasters, and we need to contribute to their huge climate-related losses. Yet developed countries spend 5 times more on fossil fuel subsidies as climate finance . Citizens need to apply pressure to promote divestment of large climate polluters until they radically slow or stop new "investments" like the tar sands and Keystone XL pipeline and fracking, as well as to push for other actions in line with our planetary needs.
Terror Cause #3: Rape -- 1 in 6. These women -- who experience the terror of an attempted or successful rape -- are several times more likely to experience PTSD, depression, alcohol abuse and drug abuse. Assault is four times as likely for girls 16 to 19 and most likely to affect college students. The stories of victims are heart-wrenching: the former Amherst College student who documented her experience with the insensitive administration and her decision to drop out and the suicides of violated high school girls described in Rolling Stone's Nina Burleigh poignant article, as two examples. But sexual assault affects all women, as Christa Parravani illustrated in her heartbreaking story of her twin sister's rape and subsequent suicide.
The causes are tricky: Not! The only cause of rape is " rapists, as the popular pie chart shows. Sure, raising awareness can be challenging in an environment where news media often blames victims or sides with perpetrators, the government tries to narrow the definition of rape, and violence is glorified. But solutions and institutions exist. Schools can and should teach sexual assault along with sexual education. Colleges should expand awareness (using efforts like RAINN day) and students should push for safety on their campus. As for popular culture: as terrorism-themed movies like "Zero Dark Thirty"get government support and health care information is being provided to Hollywood writers, why don't we see storylines around the harmful consequences of assault?
Terror Cause #4: Medical Crises -- America is experiencing the largest non-war time decline of public health (see the rise in obesity, diabetes, etc.), even as we lack affordable universal health care. While Obamacare is increasing access and removing corruption from the system, there is little evidence it will change the basic unpredictability of system that causes almost 2/3 of bankruptcies. While our citizens will be terrified by serious and deadly diseases, we should not add to it the horror of not being able to afford humane, comprehensive treatment. Even trips to the emergency room can be prohibitive.
What to do: We need to follow the example set by the service provided to Congress, the military, our elderly and our poor: provide affordable, single-payer healthcare.
Terror Cause #5: Guantanamo -- Ironically we've used our "war on terror" to propagate terror. Guantanamo Bay detainees are kept years after being cleared (including 84 current detainees) and sometimes tortured. Many protest through the only means available to them: hunger strikes. The American government in response has force fed them, violating medical ethical guidelines that numerous organizations cite. What's the experience like? When Yasiin Bey (musician and activist Mos Def) attempted to get force fed using standard military procedures, he gave up after dissolving in a puddle of tears and agony. The government announced his month they will no longer release the number of prisoners being force fed. Helpful.
On Thursday, the US General Michael Lehnert, who opened Guantanamo's detention camp, wrote a Detroit Free Press op-ed:
In retrospect, the entire detention and interrogation strategy was wrong. We squandered the goodwill of the world after we were attacked by our actions in GuantÃƒ ¡namo, both in terms of detention and torture. Our decision to keep GuantÃƒ ¡namo open has helped our enemies because it validates every negative perception of the United States.