Terror’s Lawfare

Reading Canada’s and Sri Lanka’s anti-terror acts reveals the need for comparative and cross-jurisdictional resistance to globally self-justifying discourses of “terror”

Last fall, when drafts first leaked of Sri Lanka’s new and draconian Counter Terrorism Act (CTA), the uproar was swift, but mostly contained to experts on the island. This should not have surprised me. Sri Lanka’s homegrown war on terror has only skimmed the surface of national security political commentary in the West. And yet, having recently returned from Sri Lanka to Canada, I was struck by the CTA’s similarities with Canada’s own new Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). Across the two countries, the outcry from local activists resounded with echoes: both pointed out the many ways that the new laws dramatically extended and confused already nebulous state definitions of terrorism, casting dragnets over broad forms of dissent. These laws were unconstrained by borders; if we are to survive this era of war without end, our solidarities will need to be no less transnational.

After all, what is this “terror” that allows for so fungible lawmaking in both Canada and Sri Lanka? In their crushing brotherhood, these anti-terror laws represent lawfare—that is, the wartime weaponization of law as a substitute for traditional military strategies—at its most internationalist. In the déjà vu elicited by these laws, we are reminded that “wars on terror” are never really about that indefinable construct, “terror.” Rather, like other state weapons, these laws work to conceal the terror of the state—that is, the terror propagated by the state precisely because it is itself terrified of the resistive and transformative potential of its constituents.

If state terror gets to be so global, our resistance to it must be just as internationalist. In the face of globally self-justifying discourses of “terror” and “national security,” critical opportunities for transformational solidarities are lost when our movements concede the very borders that laws like these so terrifyingly seek to police.

Yes, the countries appear disparate: Sri Lanka is a tiny Buddhist-nationalist postcolonial island country that gained formal independence in 1948; Canada a sprawling half-continent that has had the better part of two centuries to refine its conjoined tactics of settler-colonialism and multicultural democracy. Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) drew to an official, horrific close on May 18, 2009. Canada, meanwhile, remains actively involved offshore in the War on Terror, even now deploying troops to Iraq (where Canadian soldiers are participating in war crimes) and selling arms to Saudi Arabia (where Canadian weapons are feared to have helped crush domestic civilian dissent).

But these differences in state formation belie the mimicry in their respective laws’ provisions on territory, infrastructure, and speech which act in concert to criminalize dissent. In the current moment of global anti-terror, mobilizations that refuse to look past the borders of local settings are thus doomed to failure. That these countries’ anti-terrorism acts can be so similar, when their originating contexts are so different, must be a rallying call for movements that are comparative, cross-jurisdictional, and multi-sourced.

In the wake of mass slaughter and in the face of more violence to come, whole towns dotting Sri Lanka’s north-eastern map of carnage came to a standstill this past April as Tamil and Muslim shop-owners staged a hartal in memory of the thousands upon thousands of their wartime dead.

In their anger and their grief, they were not alone. The last nine months in Sri Lanka have been marked by a surge in anti-state protests across the country’s North and East, which remain highly militarized nearly a decade after the civil war’s end.

What to make of these protests? For those of us in this other hemisphere, taught to dismiss the conflicts of the Global South as little more than the vagaries of brutes, how are we to relate to these brown bodies squinting under a blazing sun?

Put another way, how can it not inspire endless hope that the power of ordinary people anywhere can command such fear in the state to warrant such fearful and fearsome lawmaking?

In Canada, the ATA’s dramatic expansion of state surveillance, information-sharing, and arrest powers was met with months of street protest in 2015. Its predecessor had been introduced just weeks after the fall of the Twin Towers.

Analogously, Sri Lanka’s CTA will replace the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The PTA is infamous for the central role it has played in nearly four decades of mass detentions, disappearances, torture, and murder on the island. The PTA remains operational, despite a 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution committing to its repeal. The incoming CTA, far from reining the scope of this abuse, amplifies the potential for state violence. Outcry from human rights and public policy organizations has been loud and wide.

What need is there for “anti-terror” laws in states that so loudly proclaim their domestic peace—on the one hand, Sri Lanka, because it spared no cost to crush internal resistance, and on the other, Canada, because it works so hard to keep its wars far from its own shores?

The text of the ATA begins by stressing the primacy of the “sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada”; the CTA opens similarly, emphasizing the “unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.” Whose sovereignty? Indigenous sovereignty movements in Canada assert significant treaty obligations that contest Canada’s control over borders and territories. Tamil discontent in and regarding Sri Lanka’s Northeast animates a range of Tamil nationalist demands, from provincial devolution to outright separatism. Without falsely synonymizing the distinct conceptions of and challenges to colonialism at stake in each conflict, it is precisely each state’s claim to an untrammeled “sovereignty” that fuels opposition.

State fear of civilian discontent runs so deep that even private speech has come under scrutiny. Canada’s ATA makes it an offense to “communicate statements” that advocate “the commission of terrorism offences in general,” when one is aware that someone else “may” commit such an offense. Sri Lanka’s CTA makes it an offense to provide “any confidential information” when one has “reasonable grounds to believe” that information will be used by someone else to “conspire, abet, attempt or commit terrorism or terrorism-related offence.”

While Canada’s ATA fails to define “terrorism offences in general,” it does stipulate jail time for individuals found guilty of the speech offense, regardless of whether or not the terrorist offense is ever actually carried out. When even private speech attracts state suspicion, the designation of “terrorist” is not neutrally deployed; it is deeply racialized. “Counter Violent Extremism” programs, for example, have expanded national security efforts in Canada well beyond conventional law enforcement to implicate civil society. The programs, which are highly secretive and overwhelmingly targeted at Muslim youth, use dedicated state funds to have teachers, social workers, and clergy run stereotype-ridden “deradicalization” campaigns. Parading as social work, these programs see Muslims faced with an impossible non-choice: either participate in programs that presume their own criminality or risk being flagged as a threat for refusing to engage. Simply attending prayer can now feel like a flirtation with state surveillance, entrapment, and torture.

In Sri Lanka, meanwhile, police last month attacked a memorial, coordinated by a handful of Northern Tamil organizations, that arrayed hundreds of stones on the beaches of Mullaitivu, engraved with names of people killed there during the war’s final massacres. Alleging Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) links, local police, working with the federal Terrorist Investigation Department, attacked the memorial as a threat to national security. The police’s reliance on the PTA in the subsequent legal hearing—and, importantly, the court’s ultimate decision permitting the police to continue their investigation into the unproven and irrelevant LTTE histories of the deceased—sets a worrying precedent for the CTA’s possible application.

Reading these laws and their terrors together also reveals how civilian safety falls to the wayside in the face of state accumulation of capital. Consistent with their preoccupations with “territorial integrity,” the ATA targets “interference with critical infrastructure” and the CTA “obstruction or damage with any critical infrastructure.”

In Canada, this reflects a state fear of Indigenous protest against Canadian resource extraction coast to coast, from the Elsipogtog anti-fracking blockades in New Brunswick to the Unist’ot’en tar sands opposition camp in British Columbia. The brazenness of this “interference” with Canada’s monopolistic mining industry (over half the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada)) has long invited acute state repression, which can be expected to only grow under the ATA.

Concurrently, the CTA poses a risk to Tamil families looking for disappeared loved ones. (Sri Lanka is outflanked in disappearances by only Iraq.) Relatives of the disappeared, most of them women, marked 100 days of protest this past May by blockading a major northern highway. Camped beside a key Sri Lankan army base, the demonstrators included Kasipillai Jeyavanitha, whose teenage daughter was abducted by the Sri Lankan army in 2009. Jeyavanitha maintains that “it’s highly unlikely the children have been killed. If they are dead, they have to close down all the courthouses, because they are children and if they can be killed like this, there can be no point in having courts. If they are dead, they must show us the bones.” Even as the ATA and the CTA criminalize dissent, Jeyavanitha’s appeal exposes the gaping skeleton at the heart of law-and-order’s justice systems. State officials have insisted the missing children must be dead—and yet courts persist.

Notably, where the ATA and the CTA do differ is in their relationship to Islamophobia—for now, anyway. If in Canada’s liberal mainstream, Indigenous critique of the ATA has been largely overshadowed by analyses of the ATA that over-rigidly and ahistorically begin with anti-Muslim racism post-9/11, in Sri Lanka the CTA’s potential impact on Muslim communities remains under-assessed. This will likely change—and for the worse—as the anachronism of North American “terrorism experts” makes it increasingly easy to find jingoistic warnings of a growing “jihadi” threat in Sri Lanka.

This familiar fear-mongering has helped sustain ongoing, coordinated attacks by Sinhala nationalists on Muslim communities, led by Buddhist monks, including multiple bombings in recent weeks. The attacks, a repeat of similar hate crimes in 2014, are reminiscent of the lead-up to Black July 1983, when an anti-Tamil pogrom sparked the full scale of the next thirty years of civil war.

Where one war ends and where the other begins is hard to pin down. One terror bleeds into the other until the world feels enmeshed in the logic of a fear so omniscient it precludes any working definition. It is, simply, Terror.

If we are to overcome the global logic of terror and its wars, our activism against these laws will need to be no less transnational than this lawfare. In rejecting nationalisms that seek power simply for the sake of power, and in pursuing new models of nation-formation that do not simply replicate the oppressions and violences of existing state forms, we can begin to collectively pursue a peace that no amount of “national security” fear-mongering can ever engender.

To begin, we must mark and celebrate moments of struggle worldwide: keening mothers seated stubbornly in the middle of dusty roads, shopkeepers shuttering their stores to mark a certain silence, and all our brown bodies squinting under blazing suns. When the myths of North American peace-order-and-good-governance fall every day in a shambles around us, we need these far-flung examples of dogged survival now more than ever.