Who Terrorizes Whom?

By Edward S. Herman and David Peterson
Published on Zmag.org, October 19, 2001

One of the marks of exceptional hegemonic power is the ability to define words and get issues framed in accord with your own political agenda. This is notorious at this moment in history as regards " terrorism" and "antiterrorism."

Since the September 11 attacks, two truths have been indisputable and universally reported. One is that the hijacker bombings of the World Trade Center and Pentagon were atrocities of a monumental and spectacular scale (and media coverage of that day's events alone may have generated more words and graphic images than any other single event in recent history). A second truth is that the bombings were willful acts of terrorism, accepting the basic and widely agreed-upon definition of terrorism as "the use of force or the threat of force against civilian populations to achieve political objectives." And let us also recognize that "sponsorship of terrorism" means organizing, and/or underwriting and providing a "safe harbor" to state or non-state agents who terrorize.

But there is a third indisputable truth, although much less understood, let alone universally reported: namely, that from the 1950s the United States itself has been heavily engaged in terrorism, and has sponsored, underwritten, and protected other terrorist states and individual terrorists. In fact, as the greatest and now sole superpower, the United States has also been the world's greatest terrorist and sponsor of terror. Right now, this country is supporting a genocidal terrorist operation against Iraq via " sanctions of mass destruction" and regular bombing attacks to achieve its political objectives; it is underwriting the army and paramilitary forces in Colombia, who openly terrorize the civilian population; and it continues to give virtually unconditional support to an Israeli state that has been using force to achieve its political objectives for decades. The United States has terrorized or sponsored terror in Nicaragua, Brazil, Uruguay, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia/East Timor, Zaire, Angola, South Africa, and elsewhere. And it stands alone in both using and brandishing the threat to use nuclear weapons. It has for many years provided a safe harbor to the Cuban refugee terror network, and it has done the same for a whole string of terrorists in flight from, among other places, El Salvador, Haiti, Vietnam, and even Nazi Germany (see Christopher Simpson's Blowback).

Even in its response to the September 11 terrorist events the United States resorted instantly to its own terrorism. Ignoring legal niceties--despite its supposed devotion to the "rule of law"--the United States immediately began to threaten to "take out" states harboring terrorists, threatened the Afghans with bombing--itself an act of terrorism--and by such threats succeeded in blocking the flow of food supplies to a starving population, which is yet another act of terrorism, and a major one. (A spokesman for Oxfam International stationed in Islamabad recently stated that "Prior to this crisis, the World Food Program, with the help of Oxfam and other groups, was feeding 3.7 million [Afghan] people. But with the onset of the bombing campaign, this has stopped as the aid workers have been force to withdraw. The airdrops will--at their very best--feed 130,000 people," or only 3.5 percent of those facing winter and starvation.) On October 7 the United States then began to bomb this impoverished country-not just a further act of terrorism, but the crime of aggression.

All serious observers recognize that the U.S. actions against Afghanistan have and will cause many, many more deaths than the 6,000 killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But U.S. power and self-righteousness, broadcast and justified to the whole world by a subservient media machine, assure that what the United States does will neither be called terrorism, nor aggression, nor elicit indignation remotely comparable to that expressed over the events of September 11--however well its actions fit the definitions. The same bias extends to other Western countries, diminishing in scope and intensity from Britain to the others, and weakening further in the Third World. In the Middle East, for most of the population the bias disappears and U.S. terrorism is called by its right name, although the U.S.-dependent governments toe their master's line, if nervously. In these more remote areas the press speaks a different language, calling the United States a "rogue state par excellence repeatedly defying international rulings whether by the World Court or by U.N. resolutions when they have not suited its interests" and a " bandit sheriff" (The Hindu, India), and speaking of this as an "age of Euro-American tyranny" with tyrants who are merely "civilized and advanced terrorists" (Ausaf, Pakistan).

But another sad fact is that in this country, and Britain as well, even the Left has trouble escaping the hegemonic definitions and frames. Leftists here regularly discuss the terrorism issue starting from the premise that the United States is against terrorism and that the issue is how the U.S. government can best deal with the problem. They are worried that the United States will go about solving the problem too aggressively, will seek vengeance, not justice. So they propose lawful routes, such as resort to the United Nations and International Court of Justice; and they urge seeking cooperation from the Arab states to crush terrorists within their own states. They discuss how bin Laden money routes can be cut off. Some of them even propose that the United States and its allies intervene not to bomb, but to build a new society in Afghanistan, engage in "nation-building," as the popular phrase  puts it, in the spirit of the Kosovo "new humanitarian" intervention.

While some of these proposals are meritorious, we haven't seen any that discuss how a "coalition of the willing" might be formed to bring the United States under control, to force it to stop using and threatening violence, to compel it and its British ally to cease terrorizing Iraq, and to make it stop supporting terrorist states like Colombia, Turkey, Indonesia, and Israel. Or to make U.S. funding of its terrorist operations more difficult!  The hegemon defines the main part of the agenda--who terrorizes-and the debate is over how he and his allies should deal with those he identifies as terrorist.

A good illustration of this Left accommodationism is displayed in the "New Agenda to Combat Terrorism," recently issued by the Institute for Policy Studies and Interhemispheric Resource Center in their Foreign Policy in Focus series. Nowhere in this document is it suggested that the United States is itself a terrorist state, sponsor of terrorism, or safe harbor of terrorists, although it is acknowledged that this country has supported "repressive regimes." " Repressive" is softer and less invidious than "terrorist." The report refers to the "destructive and counterproductive economic sanctions on Iraq," but doesn't suggest that this constitutes terrorism. In fact, "destructive" sounds like buildings knocked down and fails to capture the fact of a million or more human casualties. The recent publicity given the U.S.'s deliberate destruction of the Iraqi water supply also suggests something more than "destructive and counterproductive" is needed to properly describe U.S. policy toward that country (Thomas J. Nagy, "The Secret Behind the Sanctions: How the U.S. Intentionally Destroyed Iraq's Water Supply," The Progressive, September 2001). Nowhere does the IPS/IRC document mention Colombia, Turkey or Indonesia, where the United States is currently supporting "repressive regimes."

This practice of leaning over backwards to downplay the U.S. terrorist role merges into serious misreadings of ongoing events: for example, the New Agenda claims that one effect of September 11 was that "defense policy was redefined as defending America and Americans rather than as force projection." This takes as gospel official propaganda claims, when in fact September 11 has given the proponents of force projection just the excuse they need to project force, which they are doing under the guise of antiterrorism. As John Pilger notes, "The ultimate goal is not the capture of a fanatic, which would be no more than a media circus, but the acceleration of western imperial power" (New Statesman, Oct. 15, 2001). And discussing the Bush Administration's non-negotiable demands on the Taliban, Delhi University professor Nirmalangshu Mukherji points out that "it is hard to believe that thousands are going to be killed and maimed, entire nations devastated, regional conflicts allowed to take ugly turns, the rest of the world held in fear--all because the dead body of a single, essentially unworthy person is given such high value." On the contrary, she proposes, as does Pilger, that "in the name of fighting global terrorism, the US is basically interested in using the opportunity to establish [a] permanent military presence in the area" that is notable for its geo-political importance ("Offers of Peace," Oct. 16, 2001).

Calling for "reorienting U.S. policy along the lines of respecting human rights," the New Agenda report states that "the unnecessary projection of U.S. military abroad, represented by the archipelago of overseas military bases, often serves as a physical reminder of U.S. political and military support for repressive regimes." This claim that such bases are "unnecessary" completely ignores their ongoing important role in facilitating the global expansion of U.S. business, and, amazingly, ignores the fact that the United States is right now in the process of building new ones in " repressive" states like Uzbekistan, with 7,000 political prisoners and in the midst of a low-intensity war against Islamic insurgents ("U.S. Indicates New Military Partnership With Uzbekistan," Wall Street Journal, Oct. 15, 2001). Such bases are only "unnecessary" to analysts who are unable or unwilling to confront the reality of a powerful imperialism in fine working order and in a new phase of expansion. These analysts seem to believe that the United States can easily, perhaps with Left advice, be dissuaded from being an imperialist power!

The reasons for this Left accommodation to what we must call the Superterrorist's antiterrorist agenda are mainly twofold. One is the power of hegemonic ideas, so that even leftists are swept along with the general understanding that the United States is fighting terrorism and is only a victim of terrorism. Some swallow the New Imperialist premise that the United States is the proper vehicle for reconstructing the world, which it should do in a gentler and kinder fashion. Thus Richard Falk takes this for granted in declaring the U.S. attack on Afghanistan "the first truly just war since World War II" (The Nation, Oct. 29, 2001), although claiming that its justice " is in danger of being negated by the injustice of improper means and excessive ends."  Although writing in the left-liberal Nation magazine, it never occurs to Falk that the right-wing Republican Administration of Bush and Cheney, so close to the oil industry and military-industrial complex, might have an agenda incompatible with a just war.  Apart from this, as the attack was itself a violation of international law, and was from its start killing civilians by bombs directly and via its important contribution to the already endemic mass starvation, Falk makes the war "just" despite the fact that its justice was already negated at the time he made his claim. (By Falk's logic, an Iraqi attack on the United States would also be a highly just war, though its justness might be endangered by dubious means and excessive ends.) This is imperialist apologetics carried to the limit.

The other reason for Left accommodation is pragmatic. Thanks to the effectiveness of the U.S. propaganda system, U.S. citizens by and large are caught within the epistemic bind of not knowing that they do not know.   Thus, leftists understand that people will have difficulty understanding what they are talking about if they start their discussions of controlling terrorism with an agenda on how to control Superterrorist's terrorism. If one wants to be listened to quickly and possibly influence the course of policy right now-and be far safer personally and professionally--it is better to take the conventional view of terrorism as a premise and discuss what the United States should do about it. Maybe this way one can help curb extremist responses.

On the other hand, by taking it as the starting premise that the United States is only a victim of terrorism, one loses the opportunity to educate people to a fundamental truth about terrorism and even implicitly denies that truth in order to be practical. We find that we can't do that. After one of us (Herman) authored books entitled The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (with Noam Chomsky) and The Real Terror Network, the latter featuring the gigantic U.S.-sponsored terror network that emerged in the years after 1950, and after following U.S. policy for years thereafter in which terrorism has been very prominent, he (and we) consider the notion of the United States as an antiterrorist state a sick joke.

We believe it is of the utmost importance to contest the hegemonic agenda that makes the U.S. and its allies only the victims of terror, not terrorists and sponsors of terror. This is a matter of establishing basic truth, but also providing the long-run basis for systemic change that will help solve the problem of " terrorism," however defined. Others see things differently, and very good articles have been written in the pragmatic mode. But we want to call attention to the fact that there is a cost to using that mode, and those that work in it should do this understanding what they are taking for granted and its costs. Given the current trajectory of world events, we believe that we need a greater focus on all the terrorists and sponsors of terror, and less pragmatism.    

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