Skip Navigation

The War on Terror: Does the End Justify the Means?

The KAZ drone helps his winged monkeys fend off evil.

On September 22, 2001, President Bush announced that the 9/11 terrorist attacks had “awakened the United States to danger, and called it to defend freedom.” The al-Qaeda attacks on September 11, which brought down New York City’s Twin Towers, provoked the American government’s vow to “hunt down these terrorists, and punish them.” And indeed, for the past thirteen years, the United States has spearheaded the global war on terror, aiming to eradicate terrorist organizations that threaten American national security. The rhetoric of the anti-terrorism campaigns emphasizes the importance of upholding the American values of freedom, democracy, and justice. Yet, in the course of war, these noble principles have been denigrated in the name of national security.

By practicing torture, drone strikes and government surveillance by the National Security Agency, the US has abandoned the values that it claims to defend; indeed, these extreme measures are violations of human rights in and of themselves. These practices have also alienated vital support and damaged confidence in American strategy, both from the American public and its international allies. What’s more, there is reason to believe that these methods do not bring enough benefits to justify their implementation.


In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the American government began using the prisons of Guantanamo (Cuba) and Abu Ghraib (Iraq) as detention centers for terror suspects. In the early stages of the war, the American government repeatedly insisted that the practices in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were respectful of human rights and the Geneva Conventions. However, human rights violations in these centers are present in every stage of the detention process. A notable example is the “extraordinary renditions” policy, which consists of the transfer — without legal process — of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation.

The 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal uncovered the government’s masquerade. Photos taken from inside the prison were leaked to the public, exposing the torture practices and human rights violations conducted by the US government officials. The use of waterboarding, dogs, music torture and other humiliating procedures caused public outcry and condemnation of these tactics.

While Abu Ghraib closed earlier this year, Guantanamo remains open, with 148 prisoners still waiting to know their fate. Sleep deprivation and solitary confinement are among the types of “torture light” that are still permitted in the Army’s Field Manual for interrogation. This continued injustice represents a betrayal by the United States of the “civilized” principles it claims to promote.

Drone Strikes

The US drone strike program was first introduced in 2004, and it has continued to remain an integral facet of counterterrorism measures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Drone strikes are “premeditated acts of lethal force” in which a drone is deployed to drop a bomb on and kill targeted individuals. In May 2013, Obama both publicly acknowledged that the US would continue to maintain its targeted killing program and sought to justify it – asserting that drone strikes are effective and are authorized only at “the highest standard we can set.”

Despite these claims, the drone strike program raises serious ethical concerns about the United States’ standard of conduct. Because the program is so cloaked in secrecy, it is difficult to determine the legitimacy of the basis by which the government selects a target. This was highlighted in 2011 when Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed by a drone strike on the grounds that he was an “imminent threat.” Where was his right to due process? Does this incident reveal that the US is prioritizing national security over the protection of its citizens’ civil liberties? The lack of legal processes is unacceptable conduct for a country that prides itself on principles of fairness, freedom, and justice. Moreover, there is significant evidence that drone strikes frequently kill innocent civilians along with their targets, or even the wrong target. In short, the American drone program undermines the US claim of moral superiority in the international realm.

NSA surveillance

The National Security Agency (NSA) has hugely expanded its surveillance program since 9/11. Through partnerships with major telephone companies, the government has access to “detailed records of [all] calls individuals made – across town or across the country…” as well as real time access to phone and email traffic, by collecting and storing the “metadata” of the calls and emails. The motivation to expand surveillance was to increase the breadth of information in the government’s control in order to preemptively target terrorist threats.

The expansion of the NSA surveillance program violates the core values on which the United States prides itself as a country. The Constitution guarantees American citizens the basic rights of privacy and freedom of association, but the sweeping nature of the surveillance programs disregards these rights. They allow the government to access private information without the consent of individuals or any preliminary judicial process to determine probable cause. The power the NSA has adopted is unprecedented. Measures like these are eroding the freedoms of American citizens, and undermine the discourse of America’s moral high ground.

(Un)necessary evil?

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have vowed to do whatever is necessary to protect Americans and their values from terrorist threats. However, the measures employed to combat terrorists do not meet the moral and ethical standards that the US government claims to be fighting to defend. The practices of torture, drone strikes, and government surveillance that the US has conducted represent serious violations of the Geneva Conventions and universal human rights.

Moreover, the effectiveness of these practices has been questioned by the international community, and also by subsets of the American government itself. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report evaluating the torture program, released in late March 2014, exposes the lack of definitive intelligence gathered by the CIA through torture practices. The report “outlines a long list of ‘unsubstantiated claims’ from CIA officials in the agency’s pursuit of a global torture regime that resulted in little, if any, substantive intelligence…”

Similarly, the effectiveness of drone strikes is largely contested, and the consequences of their use on modern warfare can prove counterproductive. For instance, reports suggest that the use of drones serves to foster resentment and perpetuate the emergence of terrorists in the areas in which they are used. The use of drone strikes in conflicting areas could thus reinforce the violence in the region.

Finally, the mass collection of data by the National Security Agency is unnecessary. Gathering intelligence could instead be accomplished through targeted surveillance measures. A study assessing the program concludes, “Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism and only the most marginal of impacts on preventing terrorist-related activity…”

Despite serious doubts about the value of these programs, the CIA and the American government continue to claim that their methods have been effective and a necessary evil for the greater good. However, the CIA has refused to release any information that supports these assertions. If the methods have indeed been effective, both the CIA and the US government have the responsibility to the American public to substantiate their claims.

Looking forward

In 2001, President Bush pledged that the War on Terror “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” The ambitiousness of this goal raises serious concerns about its feasibility, and how long would it take to succeed. Certainly, thirteen years later the seeming impossibility of the goal is on everybody’s mind. With the recent rise of the Islamic State, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to eradicate all terrorist organizations around the globe. In fact, the United States has already taken up a leading role in the coalition against ISIS in Syria.

Now more than ever, it is crucial that the United States reevaluates the policies it employs in the war against terrorism. As Amnesty International explains, the war on terror has made the world a more dangerous place “by curtailing human rights, undermining the rule of international law and shielding governments from scrutiny.” Thus, it is vital that the Obama administration recognizes that the best defense against terrorism is to uphold the very principles the US wishes to protect. It is crucial that the United States broadens its definition of security “to encompass the security of people, as well as states,” and therefore commits to the protection of human rights. Only then will the war against terror truly win a decisive victory in its battles against the evils in the world.

This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here