As the powerful seek domination their control of language is as important to their success as their possession of weapons to frighten and kill. The ability to pin the label of terrorist on their targets, and to have themselves (and clients) merely engaging in counter-terror and retaliation is a major advantage of the powerful, as terror is a highly invidious word. Who can oppose combating and defending against terror?
George Bush has won this war of language, whether he thinks “we” can or cannot win the war on terrorism. John Kerry and the Democrats have been delighted at Bush’s momentary retreat on whether we (he) can win this war; but they believe in the war and have differentiated themselves from Bush mainly by claiming that they will do the job of winning it more efficiently than Bush.
Even many liberals and leftists contend that Bush’s attack on Iraq was wrong mainly because it diverted attention from the war on terrorism, which they regard, explicitly or implicitly, as a legitimate enterprise, properly central as a foreign policy objective, and one that Bush is pursuing, even if incompetently.
An alternative view, rarely even mentioned in the mainstream and anathema to the “cruise missile left”–although not unfamiliar in much of the rest of the world– is that the war on terrorism is a fraud and cover for a war of terrorism. This is not to deny that 9/11 was a major terrorist act and that a response against the perpetrators would be entirely justifiable.
But not much of Bush’s alleged anti-terror effort has gone into pursuit of the 9/11 terrorists; much more has been put into a huge military buildup that has nothing to do with defending against terrorism, a great deal has been expending in direct U.S. terrorist operations (as in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, briefly described below), and substantial sums have been devoted to helping out clients who are “with us” and pleased to get U.S. help in dealing with their own dissidents (“terrorists”).
The Bush triumph in the use of language requires a slithering past the essential meaning of terrorism, and even official definitions, in favor of the “only-if-they-do-it-is-it-to-be-called-terrorism” definition. The essential meaning is “A mode of governing, or opposing government, by intimidation” (Webster); the U.S. Code definition is “any activity…dangerous to human life?intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population?[or] to influence the policy of a government by intimidation.”
It has long been recognized that states are the primary terrorists, as they have the resources to intimidate, and terrible forms of intimidation such as torture are engaged in almost entirely by states (in Abu Ghraib, by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and then by the United States). They are what we may call “wholesale” terrorists, who do their terror business on a large scale, in contrast with “retail” terrorists, who kill on a smaller scale with their more limited means.
But because the United States and many of its clients like Israel and Colombia–and for many years Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Uruguay, South Africa and Turkey, among others–have used terrorism as a mode of governing, or of extending their domains, by intimidation, official usage has downgraded state terrorism and tended to confine the use of the word to retail terrorism.
Exceptions are made where politically convenient, so that the former Soviet Union, Libya and Cuba can be guilty of terrorism and sponsoring terrorism, and retail terrorists under U.S. protection like Savimbi in Angola, the Nicaraguan contras, and the Cuban refugee network still engaging in hit and run attacks against Cuba, are classed as “freedom fighters” rather than terrorists (in contrast with Mandela’s African National Congress and the Palestine Liberation Organization, both long classed as terrorist groups).
Three of the four Cuban expatriate terrorists recently pardoned by the president of Panama are U.S. citizens, and after their release from prison returned immediately to their safe haven in Miami (perhaps to work, as some wag has suggested, on the Florida Board of Elections).
Naturally, officials can only get away with this ludicrous evasion of wholesale terrorism and focus on selected retail terrorisms with media cooperation, which has always been forthcoming.
Although the New York Times did very briefly mention the conclusion of Argentina’s “National Commission on Disappeared Persons” whose work followed the ouster of the military government in 1983, that the terrorism of the military government had been “infinitely worse” than that of the retail terrorists they were exterminating (along with many many non-terrorist dissidents), throughout the years of Argentine state terrorism the Times confined the use of the word terrorism to the acts of the retail terrorists, also frequently referred to as “extremists,” in accord with the official agenda.
It should be obvious that war and military conquest involves wholesale terrorism on an especially large scale, and state terrorism should also include a military buildup and development of weaponry designed to produce fear and compliance with the demands of the stronger. Is a nuclear war threat and the brandishing of nuclear weapons not a case of trying to “influence a government [or many governments] by intimidation”? As the United States has monopolized brandishing and using nuclear weapons, this is not found to be terrorism in the West, by application of the “only-if-they-do-it” definition and rule.
The same definition and rule explains why war and conquest are not terrorism: it fits the wrong party too often. But the fit is close: it was openly acknowledged during the bombing war against Yugoslavia in 1999 that the intent was to force a quick surrender by displaying overwhelming force and ravaging Serbia, and this plan was warmly greeted in the United States by liberal pundits like Thomas Friedman (“It should be lights out in Belgrade: every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road and war-related factory has to be targeted.
Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverizing you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too,” “Stop the Music,” New York Times, April 23, 1999). This was clearly an attempt to “influence the policy of the government by intimidation,” the intimidation eventually explicitly aimed at civilians and civilian facilities, therefore constituting both “terrorism” and a clear violation of basic international law (but aggressively supported by Louise Arbour and the Yugoslavia Tribunal).
The ideas that this was self-defense or even defense of Kosovo Albanians, and was forced by Serbian violence and the exhaustion of negotiating options, are completely indefensible (see Diana Johnstone’s Fools’ Crusade and Michael Mandel’s How America Gets Away With Murder).
The U.S. attack on Afghanistan was a source of widespread fear in that poor country which was receiving large-scale international aid to prevent mass starvation. Unknown numbers died in fear-based flight from U.S. bombs and the disruption of aid service, and many thousands?many more than died at 9/11–were victims of “collateral damage.”
Collateral damage killings were exceptionally large because there was no political cost to killing Afghan civilians, so bombing civilian sites based on rumor and unverified “information” was commonplace, besides which many areas bombed contained civilians friendly to the Taliban and hence were more than expendable (“This is an area of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” said General Gregory Newbold, about the killings at the wedding ceremony at Kakrak; or “The people in this vicinity clearly were connected to those activities,” as Rumsfeld said about a mass killing of civilians at Karam village).
This was wholesale terrorism, even if the United States had a right to deal with the perpetrators of 9/11?the thousands of dead Afghanis were not perpetrators and were not responsible for acts of the Taliban, and the U.S. attack was in straightforward violation of the UN Charter.
The same of course was true of the invasion-occupation of Iraq, the initial “Shock and Awe” invasion bombing plan pointing up the importance of the use of fear as well as force as means of intimidating the Iraqi army and populace. Both the invasion and occupation have been characterized by the lavish use of firepower, including cluster bombs and depleted uranium munitions, in heavily populated areas to keep U.S. casualties low (at the expense of Iraqi civilian casualties) and to intimidate any opposition.
Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths under the occupation run up to 37,000 and beyond. Sweeps with mass arrests based on minimal information stoked fear and anger, and helped fill Abu Ghraib and other prisons, the Red Cross claiming that U.S. officials acknowledged that 70-90 percent of those seized and imprisoned–with many tortured– were taken “by mistake” and presumably on the basis of misinformation or no information of oppositional activity.
These terroristic practices, carried out in support of a completely illegal invasion and occupation, helped stoke a major insurgency in Iraq. However, for the U.S. establishment and media, local resistance to this wholesale terrorism was evil and outlawry, and the only behavior properly designated by the word terrorism. This requires eye aversion, internalization of the belief in the U.S. right to commit aggression and the absence of any right of the people attacked to resist, and the use of the “only-if-they-do-it” definition.
For the Bush administration the invasion-occupation of Iraq is part of the war on terrorism, and so is the support of the governments of Colombia, Indonesia, Israel, the Philippines, Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan, all involved in local wars of repression that involve serious state terrorism. The buildup of U.S. arms and bases throughout the globe is part of the war on terrorism, but it and the underlying policy documents that give it intellectual rationale clearly relate to power projection and the determination to dominate, not reaction to “terrorism.” These all bespeak a war OF terrorism, not a war on terrorism.