The True Face of Terrorism

A "Peaceful" Nation?

America is gearing up for war. After defining last week's savage terrorist attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as an "act of war," the United States Senate has voted overwhelmingly to grant President George W. Bush the power use "all necessary and appropriate force" in its response. President George W. Bush has said that "This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger (Charles Babington, "Bush: US Must 'Rid the World of Evil'" The Washington Post, September 14, 2001)." and in response to the Senate vote claimed that "The United States will do what it takes to win this war (Peter Cooney, "U.S. Girds for War; Taliban Firm on Bin Laden" Yahoo! News, September 16, 2001"

But necessary for what? And appropriate by what standard? Immediately after the brutal attacks, Bush defined them as an "act of war" and went on to make perfectly clear that the US "will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these attacks and those who harbor them." Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz pulled it all together and added a level of sophistication when he explained that "it's not just simply a matter of capturing people and holding them accountable, but removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism (Bob Woodward & Vernon Loeb, "CIA's Covert War on Bin Laden" The Washington Post, September 14, 2001)."

But just how far is the US willing to go to redress last week's act of terror? If public opinion is any indication, the answer to that is "as far as it takes." A New York Times/CBS News Poll found that fully three quarters of the American people support a military engagement - against the terrorists and those that harbor them - even "at the prospect that thousands of innocent civilians abroad could be killed (Richard L. Berke and Janet Elder, "Poll Finds Majority Back Use of Millitary" New York Times, September 16, 2001"

We're willing to kill innocent people in order to bring terrorists to justice? Doesn't anybody see the cruel irony in this?

As the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer explains in his efforts to help foster a jingoistic rage of bloodlust among Americans, "An open act of war demands a military response, not a judicial one...If bin Laden was behind this, then Afghanistan is our enemy. Any country that harbors and protects him is our enemy. We must carry their war to them. We should seriously consider a congressional declaration of war." Explaining why, he tells us that "there are two virtues to declaring war: It announces our seriousness both to our people and to the enemy, and it gives us certain rights as belligerents (Charles Krauthammer, "To War, Not to Court" The Washington Post, September 12, 2001)."

Which is to say, it frees us up to use violence instead of the international rule of law to bring the terrorists to justice. When this results in what the New Republic's Eliot Cohen calls "the inevitable collateral damage [that] occurs," then Krauthammer's belligerents' rights will act to absolve us from what Cohen calls "the inevitable consequence of war," when we, too, "kill some innocent civilians (Eliot A. Cohen, "Make War, Not Justice," The New Republic, September 12, 2001)." Obviously, the majority of Americans have made their peace with the prospect of killing innocent civilians in order to redress last week's killing of innocent civilians.

In Krauthammer's most chilling phrase, "You bring criminals to justice; you rain destruction on combatants." Or in Republican Senator John McCain's words, "God may have mercy on [them]. We won't ("Congress working on resolution authorizing force" CNN, September 13, 2001"

'To define and to make it stick'

Neil Postman has suggested that we can understand power as the ability "to define and to make it stick (Neil Postman, The End of Education, p. 184)." This is certainly evident in the quick and absolute way that the US government has reined in the terms of debate. All of this language is carefully calculated to free America up to act with impunity when it strikes back. The definition of the terrorist attack as an "act of war" allows the US to respond using warlike rather than judicial means. Let's face it: you can't exactly "rain destruction" on someone in a court of law, except in the most figurative sense. As a corrolary to this, the inclusion of "those who harbor them" in Bush's condemnation of the attack simply allows the US to violate the sovereignty of another country in its mission to avenge last week's attack. Even the ever-popular "collateral damage" helps us to de-humanize the people that will undoubtedly be killed in such a military strike.

Perhaps the most damning use of language has been the immediate and sustained identification of the terrorists with "radical Islam." What this does is transform what is a deeply political issue into the act of a small band of religious extremists. Most Muslims do not see in their religion a prescription for holy war - any more than most Christians would see in their religion a prescription for the Crusades. The people who are behind these attacks - if it turns out that they are from the Middle-East - are by no means operating in a vacuum.

Any response to this attack that refuses to acknowledge the historical precedents for a terrorist attack on the US - note that I do not claim this in any way justifies such an attack - will fail to address the roots of the anti-American rage behind the attack. Acts of terror are never justified, but at the same time, the anger that sometimes provokes them is real and understandable. Until the causes for that anger are addressed meaningfully, it will not go away, and every counterattack will simply add more fuel to the fire.

Frankenstein's monster

There are some things we need to bear in mind regarding Osama bin Laden - if, indeed, he is behind this. (It's hard to tell at this point, at least in part because the US government was already convinced of his guilt before we started looking for evidence, and seems determined to find any justification to bomb Afghanistan.) Remember that we helped create bin Laden. He was and remains a CIA-trained terrorist, just one of a seemingly endless parade of disreputable characters with whom America has felt it prudent to consummate a marriage of convenience.

Acting through Palestine's Inter-Services Intelligence, the CIA was dispatched under the auspices of President Reagan's National Security Decision Directive 166 in 1984 to undermine and eventually drive the Soviet army out of Afghanistan. It was thought that this could best be accomplished by covertly training and arming a group of radicals from Afghanistan as well as from neighbouring countries. This was done through a front called the Maktab al-Khidamar, and this front was run by Osama bin Laden, a young Saudi dilletante who was the heir to a family construction business. It would appear that the US was sufficiently attracted to Osama bin Laden's virulent anticommunism (and, probably, his family wealth) to overlook his more extremist inclinations.

Actually, this is not quite true. America must also have been attracted specifically to those extremist inclinations, if only because the CIA was then able to take full advantage of his willingness to engage in acts of terror. The crucial point is that his early acts of terror were directed at our enemies, not us, so we were quite content to keep any howls of moral outrage in check.

If it is demonstrated that bin Laden was behind Tuesday's attacks, then he will truly represent a kind of Frankenstein's monster, turned horribly on its maker. The major difference between the brainchild of the CIA and the brainchild of Dr. Frankenstein is that the good doctor didn't understand the destructive capacity of the monster he was creating. The CIA, by contrast, knew exactly what they were doing when they trained bin Laden in the art of terror. What they didn't seem to understand was that their band of radicals did not fight the Soviet occupation out of any love for America. Or, if they did understand this, they didn't appreciate how their efforts to coordinate such a terrorist group might come back to haunt them. An article on bin Laden on MSNBC reads "At the CIA, it happens often enough to have a code name: Blowback. Simply defined, this is the term that describes an agent, an operative or an operation that has turned on its creators. Osama bin Laden, our new public enemy Number 1, is the personification of blowback (Michael Moran, "Bin Laden Comes Home to Roost" MSNBC" This was written in August of 1998, after bin Laden planted a bomb outside the American Embassy in Kenya.

Terrorists and "freedom fighters"

So much of our response to these events is driven by relationships - that is, our judgment of an act is determined by our relationship to the attacker and to the victim. When we commit acts of terror on our enemies, they are "police actions," undertaken to protect "freedom" and "the rule of law." When we incite and and equip one faction of a warring people to strike at another faction of whose policies we don't approve, the faction we support are called "freedom fighters." Indeed, the term "freedom fighter" was obliterated from the world of meaningful discourse the instant President Reagan used it in reference to the band of US-trained and US-equipped somocista bullies who then gladly proceeded, at America's insistence, to spend the next half decade blowing up schools and hospitals, and raping and slaughtering their way across Nicaragua. Nicaragua was a "rogue state," guilty of the unforgivable sin of overthrowing its corrupt US-backed puppet dictatorship (in a curious exception to most Central American coups d'etat, the dictator and his cronies were asked to leave the country rather than being killed) and electing a progressive government in its stead.

In the 1970s, no one in America called Nicaragua's popular Sandanista resistance movement "freedom fighters," just as no one called the Lebanese Hezbollah "freedom fighters." This is in spite of the fact that they struggled against the (US-trained and US-equipped) Israeli soldiers that marched into southern Lebanon in 1982, destroying dozens of villages and killing nearly 20,000 Lebanese people. The United Nations Security Council tried several times to pass resolutions condemning the Israeli occupation but was blocked each time by American vetoes.

As Robert Fisk so eloquently put it,

this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps. (Robert Fisk, "Terror in America" The Independent, September 12, 2001)

Or in the chilling words of Rahul Mahajan,

Where was the justified rage of commentators, analysts, and talking heads when the United States...invaded Panama, in blatant violation of international law, shelled a lower-class civilian neighborhood of Panama City for hours, broadcasting commands for the people to surrender in English, not Spanish, and then bulldozed most of the estimated four thousand (mostly civilian) dead into unmarked mass graves? (Rahul Mahajan, "The War Comes Home" September 12, 2001

I can produce example after example of the gross double standard attached to acts of aggression - we also didn't mind Saddam Hussein's brutality when he was using our armaments to do war against our enemies in Iran. I discuss these not to draw attention away from this week's attacks but rather to allow us to focus directly on what it means whenever and wherever people are attacked, whenever and wherever people are violated and killed in their homes and places of work. It doesn't matter whether the attacks come from paramilitary organizations, other governments or their own governments. Terror is terror, and it is always and everywhere an unjustifiable act of violence.

A celebration of violence

Doubtless, there are people in the world who will celebrate Tuesday morning's suicide bombers as heroes, just as we celebrated the heroism of the contra "freedom fighters," just as we celebrated the heroism of the returning Gulf War soldiers, just as we will surely celebrate the heroism of the American soldiers after they "rain destruction," in Krauthammer's approving words, on Afghanistan. Am I suggesting that American soldiers and Nicaraguan contras are possessed of the same moral fibre? Of course not. What I am suggesting is that they all play for the same team, and therein lies the crux of my argument: We react with justifiable moral outrage when someone commits acts of terror against our citizens, but we are perfectly willing to commit acts every bit as gruesome and despicable as this week's attack against our own enemies. This is done with no consideration whatsoever for the human consequences for "the enemy."

Indeed, if you consider that the terrorists represent an ugly and tiny subset of the populations of the Middle East, and that most people there - even our so-called enemies - denounced the attacks, it becomes clear that the kind of people who would endorse or especially undertake such an activity must consist of a radical minority. However, when this is placed next to this morning's poll results, in which 75 percent of Americans accept the risk of civilian deaths in America's retaliation, what does that say about mainstream American thought as compared to a radical minority of terrorists?

The depths of horror

This can be an occasion for an ugly, escalating war whose casualties will be mainly civilian, or it can be an occasion to seriously examine our own complicity in the world's problems. We can demonize the enemy as we anticipate the occasion to annihilate them, or we can humanize the enemy as we anticipate the occasion to try and break the chain of escalating violence that has so thoroughly gripped the world this last bloodthirsty century. If we truly wish to engage in a struggle of "democracy versus terror," as Fisk puts it, then we need to recognize that such a struggle profoundly transcends borders and boundaries and reaches into every country and into every people.

Now that, as Mahajan says, the war truly has come home to America, perhaps this can provide us with an entreaty to mourn all the world's dead, all the victims of war, terror, and oppression. Perhaps it is time to discover the humanity we all share. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this week of the terrorists, "we should remember that, whoever they are, they must be human beings. We like to think of such acts as inhuman, but the truth is that human nature can sink to the depths of horror, as well as rise to the highest level of nobility. It is up to each of us to cultivate the best in his or her nature, and to struggle against the worst."

As our leaders prepare to make war, drummed on by pundits who cry for them to "rain destruction" on our enemy - an 'enemy' that is everywhere and nowhere, almost by definition the kernel inside every government, movement or group that has rejected US imperialism - we must ask ourselves a question. Are we prepared to become as the enemy in order to defend ourselves against it? If we truly decide, as John McCain said, that "God may have mercy on them, but we won't," have we not also sunk to the same depths of horror?

And, having done that, can we truly condemn those who then retaliate in kind?

A much more powerful, more difficult and more profound response to this would be for Bush to stand before the world and say:

A grievous wrong has been committed against the American people, and against all free people. Those who smash the boundaries of the law in the ruthless and outrageous taking of innocent lives must be and will be brought to justice.

However, we will not answer violence with violence, and we will not answer terror with terror. For we are a free people in a free nation, and we live, if at all, under the rule of law and not the rule of the fist. We will not stop, not rest, not turn from our purpose until everyone who is behind this is brought to justice, but we will not use unjust means to accomplish this.

If we use the means of the terrorists to stop them, then we have truly lost the war and terrorism has won. If we strip away our own civil liberties to answer the threat of attack, then we have sacrificed the very thing we claim to defend. If we callously murder innocent civilians in the execution of our purpose, then the blood of all innocent people is on our hands as surely as it is on the hands of our attackers.

Ryan McGreal
September 16, 2001

Previous: Newsletter #6 | Next: Newsletter #8


From: Richard Weatherill
Subject: Re: Newsletter #7
Date: Sun, 16 Sep 2001

Excellent, Ryan! But virtually ALL the wars the U.S. has engaged in have involved nothing more than a few people making vast sums of money, using the maiming and deaths of thousands of their fellow citizens to do so. If there was no money to be made in war, America would not go to war. If America was serious about total war, the corporate suppliers would forego their profits, and the civilian workers would forego their wages for the duration. It's as simple as that.

Rick Weatherill

From: steef
Date: Mon, 17 Sep 2001
Subject: Re: Newsletter #7

Dear Ryan,

I strongly agree with most of your analysis. It is the voice of reason.



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