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That the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or any other entity for that matter, thinks we can defeat terrorism through an advertising campaign has no clue about how to undermine extremism, let alone prevent, manage, or transform violence. Yet, the FBI took out bus ads in Washington State this summer, which the American Freedom Defense Initiative is now re-running, asking the public to pursue a wanted list of apparently Muslim men, many with beards and turbans, saying: “Stop a Terrorist. Save Lives. Up to $25 Million Reward.”
This is not unlike a similar ad initiative paid for in Washington D.C.’s public transportation system, albeit not funded by the FBI, that suggested that the public rally to “Defeat Jihad.” It continued by saying, “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage; Support the Civilized Man.” This ad was similarly prone to prejudice and discrimination, implying that Muslims are savages.
The good news here is that the FBI, in response to Rep. Jim McDermott’s letter of concern regarding the risks of discrimination and prejudice associated with the ad’s bias, has decided to discontinue the ads. And just in time. The local Muslim community in Seattle was feeling increasingly unsafe; the ads created a sense of suspicion and antagonism, rather than collaboration with the community.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), furthermore, in response to widespread and inter-religious opposition, including calls for WMATA boycotts by Rep. Michael Honda and myself, placed placards immediately adjacent to the ads noting that they do not approve of these ads but were forced, by law, to run the ads.
These are positive results. Yet more is needed. The potential for racial profiling is not the only, or the primary, problem with these approaches.
The underlying implication from both advertising premises is that you can, through war or reward, pick off those who wage violence against the state. As if the problem of violence will be solved once a finite number of people are found through financial reward or a White House kill list.
The fact is that America will never be able to drone-strike its way to peace. This is impossible. For every drone strike, not only is civilian casualty extremely likely but so too is the radicalization of all who watch and witness the inhuman war.
If America genuinely wants to prevent terrorism — or to put it in a less inflammatory way, if America wants to prevent violence by non-state actors it should spends its funds figuring out ways to develop livelihoods worth living, not dying, for. America may claim to be doing this in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya or Mali, but it has yet to walk the talk.
We have not left these countries better off, nor pursued development strategies that are locally led or sustainably designed or focused on nonprofit, not for-profit, actors involved in the reconstruction and stabilization process. There is way too much war profiteering going on by both the defense industrial complex and the development industrial complex.
A majority of the defense and development dollars we’ve funneled into Iraq and Afghanistan have come back to American coffers instead of leaving these countries with stable infrastructure, sustainable livelihoods, and secure environments — in short, lives worth living. The pervasive violence now in Iraq is an excellent example of how the rhetoric of “Mission Accomplished,” praised by both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, is an utter fallacy.
The way forward, then, is less about advertising campaigns, rewards for finding or killing bad guys, or thinking that there is a finite number of people who choose violence and, once they’re removed, the violence will subside. Anyone who understands why people choose violence knows that’s categorically untrue. Violence is, quite consistently, in response to perceived injustice, shame and disrespect, historical grievance, unmet human needs, or a fight over natural resources, the latter of which is the source of many a recent war.
The path to the prevention of violence, or terrorism, then, is more about development, so that basic needs can be met, and diplomacy, so that grievances can be addressed. And unless we do something about the resource wars over oil, and the land grabs over water or food, we will only see more wars and more acts of terrorism (by state and non-state actors), not less.
That’s something that ad campaigns will never solve but what FBI should fund. Imagine that on the side of a bus: “Stop Violence. Save Lives By Making Them Worth Living. Up to $25 Million Reward.” That’s how you prevent terrorism.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and is a professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.