The Politicization of Terror


September 11 will forever
be synonymous with terrorism. If Americans lacked a clear definition of
terrorism prior to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, those
events have now generated an unwelcome familiarity with terrorism. Defining
terrorism is not simple, but for the sake of clarity, here is a definition of
the term that most would accept: terrorism is intentional violence or the threat
of violence perpetrated on a civilian population to inflict fear in the pursuit
of a political agenda. Unfortunately, clarity in definition has not translated
into a clear use of the term. U.S. policy-makers and opinion-makers alike have
long abused the use of the word “terrorism.”

On September 28,
the United Nations Security Council was granted the arbitrary power to define
terrorism and to determine which countries harbor terrorists. Britain’s
ambassador to the UN, Jeremy Greenstock, confidently defined a terrorist as
“something that looks like a terrorist and makes noise like a terrorist.”
President Bush also seemed to own a clear definition of terrorism when he
stated, “any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be
regarded by the U.S. as a hostile regime.” Unfortunately, current U.S.
policy-makers are using the crisis of terrorism to achieve political goals that
do not include abolishing terrorism.

Bush addressed
the nation and a joint session of Congress on September 20 to prepare the nation
for the “War on Terrorism.” Bush is not the first president to confront the
issue of terrorism before a nationwide audience. Jimmy Carter, in his State of
the Union speech in 1980, referred to the 50 American hostages in Iran as
“innocent victims of terrorism.” Terrorism and counter-terrorism have been
American policy issues for over 20 years.

The historical
notion of terrorism in the U.S. has been subjected to biased selective memory.
The definition of terrorism our leaders have created is not factual, but based
on “a series of accepted judgments.” The accepted judgment in America is that
only our stated enemies are capable of terrorism. American historical
selectivity has washed our actions, and the actions of our friends, down the
drain of denial—actions that should be construed as terrorism.

politicization of terrorism is not a new phenomenon. Countries that work against
the pronounced interests of the U.S. have routinely and specifically been listed
as countries that harbor terrorists. Many of these countries warrant their spot
on such a list. However, the bar is lowered considerably when the actions of the
U.S. and its clients are measured. If the U.S. expects to be taken seriously on
a global scale in terms beyond force or the threat of force, we need to attempt
to uphold a single standard for human behavior.

In so doing, any
list of terrorist countries needs to include the U.S. The U.S. has consistently
used what should be considered terrorism as a means to an end. The definition of
terrorism should not be confined to the work of independent networks.
State-sanctioned terrorism is also a very real phenomenon, and should be
included in the “War on Terrorism.” The atrocity committed against the U.S. on
September 11 cannot be used to justify violence perpetrated against civilian
populations to attain a political goal—even if that goal is to “fight
terrorism.” Unfortunately, the “war on terrorism” has become the war on
America’s enemies.

To qualify these
statements, I will examine the politicization of Cuba and Iraq’s spots on the
State Department’s list of countries that harbor terrorists—a study that
outlines U.S. hypocrisy. I will then discuss the roots of U.S. counter-terrorism
policy, founded during the Reagan Administration.


The U.S. and

Cuba is among seven
countries that continue to “earn” the right to be on the State Department’s list
of countries that harbor terrorists (Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and
Sudan are the other six).

Linking Cuba to
terrorism is an extreme example of the U.S. politicization of terrorism. The
historian Norman Davies attempted to exact the theme of historical selectivity.
His first model of historical selectivity is propaganda: “the deliberate and
systematic technique of presenting only those facts and falsehoods which suit a
particular political goal.” American intellectuals who disseminate America’s
collective awareness of historical matters learned early on “the need to support
the power structure.”

Cuba has been a
thorn in the side of U.S. policy since its revolution over 40 years ago. Their
military operations in Africa during the Cold War are a large contributor to
them being branded a “rogue state,” along with the other nations that act
outside the realm of U.S. interests. State Department “rogue states” and
“terrorist states” go hand in hand; make one list, and you are guaranteed a spot
on the other list.

Cuba sent forces
to Angola in 1975 and helped defend the People’s Movement for the Liberation of
Angola (MPLA) until its eventual victory in 1988. The U.S. labeled Cuba’s
actions as “Cuban military imperialism,” thus beginning the construction of
Cuban linkage to terrorism. Cuba, in the tradition of Che Guevara, was committed
to the struggle against global imperialism and interested in advancing
nationalist independent movements. In so doing, Cuba acted against the wishes of
the Soviet Union, although the Soviets helped fund and arm the MPLA. Cuban
insider Jorge Risquest stated in 1988 that Cuba participated because Angola was
“the only genuinely independent, nontribalist, and nonracist movement in

The MPLA invoked
UN Charter Article 51 to call on Cuba to help them defend Angola from both
internal and external forces, which included South Africa and U.S. proxies.
During the 13 years of Cuban military support in Angola, Cubans helped stop
several annexation invasions by South Africa. The military defeat of South
Africa helped destabilize and humiliate the South African apartheid regime,
contributing to the fall of the racist government. In July 1991, Nelson Mandela
thanked Cuba. Many in southern Africa believe Cuba was a main force in ending
apartheid. When Fidel Castro traveled to New York City for the UN’s 50th
anniversary celebration, he was welcomed in the predominantly black neighborhood
of Harlem where he spoke at a Riverside Church celebration. They were
celebrating the fall of apartheid, and Castro’s speech was interrupted on
numerous occasions due to prolonged applause. During the war, the U.S. press
focused on Cuba’s intervention and falsely documented Cuban atrocities, later
refuted by CIA Chief of Operations in Angola, John Stockwell, who wrote, “The
only atrocities we were able to document had Cubans as victims rather than
criminals.” While some have a difficult time accepting Cuba’s military presence
in Angola as a benevolent, humanitarian intervention, their actions certainly do
not warrant the terrorist label. Cuba had its reasons for being there. A huge
percentage of Cuba’s population came from the African region of Angola, which
was a heavily targeted slave market during the Atlantic slave trade. Cuba’s only
“misdeed” was working against the U.S.

To comprehend the
role of selectivity in America’s understanding of Angola and its connections to
terrorism, we need to examine the role of the U.S. and its proxies. The
proportionality of atrocities committed will help us understand the propaganda
model of selectivity. Angola became another Third World country brutally
destroyed during the Cold War, and the picture of U.S. complicity is not

The West was not
willing to give up this former Portuguese colony because of its valuable
resources. The U.S. supported the Portuguese attempts to subvert independence
from the beginning. “By January 1962 outside observers could watch Portuguese
planes bomb Africa villages, visit the charred remains of towns like Mbanza
M’Pangu, and identify 750-pound napalm bomb casings by its ‘Property U.S. Air
Force’ label.” Continuing the flow of resource extraction was a factor in
Angola. Cabinda Gulf Oil (a subsidiary of U.S. Gulf Oil Company at the time)
discovered extensive oil deposits in Angola in 1966. By the early 1970s, Angola
was the fourth largest oil producing country in Africa. Foreign investors were
excavating diamonds and other valuable mineral deposits. Besides the U.S. and
Portugal, Japan, Britain, France, and Germany all had major investments in this
mineral rich country.

Also, in terms of
Cold War proximity, the CIA began planning its secret war in Angola soon after
complete withdrawal from Vietnam. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in 1975,
saw Angola only in terms of global politics, and was the main impetus behind the
war in Angola. Uncomfortable with recent events and frustrated by the
humiliation in Vietnam, Kissinger was seeking opportunities to challenge the
Soviets. Kissinger tried to “foment and sustain a civil war in Angola simply to
convince the Russians that the American tiger could still bite.” Angola became
the answer to turning the tide of East-West relations back to the West despite
lack of CIA evidence implicating Soviet intervention in Angola.

In “fomenting”
this war, Washington used tribal rivalries and began to fund any Angolan rebel
group willing to combat the MPLA. The most prominent of these rebel groups, and
the most vicious, was Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA. American policy-maker Jeane
Kirpatrick referred to Savimbi as “one of the greatest heroes of our time, a
true freedom fighter.” Rather than a “freedom fighter,” Savimbi is more aptly
described as a “fascist, a murderer, and a liar,” by Peter Hain, the British
Minister responsible for Africa. Savimbi’s gangs systematically destroyed the
social, economic, and political framework of the nation. It is estimated two
million Angolans died during the war. When the South African army fell in 1988,
the U.S. continued to aid UNITA and withheld recognition from the legitimate
Angolan government. Savimbi continues terrorist operation in the war-plagued
nation of Angola to this day. The Angolan government blames UNITA for derailing
a train that killed 100 civilians on August 13, 2001.

South Africa also
played an unsavory part in this war, supported every step of the way by the U.S.
South Africa’s extreme militarism went hand in hand with its white supremacy and
overall strategy of destabilization in the southern end of the continent. South
Africa backed the contra war in Mozambique that killed or maimed 250,000 and
created over one million refugees. South Africa subverted independence in
Namibia with its counterinsurgency war. The apartheid military had 120,000
troops stationed in Namibia in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1975, South Africa
intervened in Angola with the support of the CIA. The U.S. had traditionally
supported South Africa, in large part due to Kissinger’s renowned racist “Tar
Baby” policy (NSSM39). “Tar Baby” articulated the U.S. position in Africa: Black
Nationalist movements were an unsuitable alternative to continued colonial rule.
“Tar Baby” was the impetus behind Washington’s million-dollar sales of military
aircraft to the South African government in Pretoria. The South African military
was notorious for its brutality—terrorists in every sense of the word. Support
from the U.S. gave South Africa’s apartheid terrorists legitimacy.

When the South
African and UNITA terrorists were not enough to quell the MPLA and Cubans, the
CIA recruited an undercover army composed of U.S. and European mercenaries to
fight the MPLA. George Cullen, a CIA-funded mercenary from Britain, was
notorious for his cruel and racist actions. He gunned down 14 fellow African
mercenaries to make a point. Anyone willing to continue this dirty war was good
enough for Kissinger and the CIA—as long as the war continued. Angola is still
suffering the effects of never-ending war. In 1999, it was estimated there were
twice as many people in need of assistance in Angola as there were in Kosovo. In
2000, a new round of human rights abuses were committed as the country returned
to full-scale armed conflict. Angola may never recover.

But in the U.S.,
Angola is barely a blip on the radar screen. We don’t know much about the
Angolan situation, and what we do know certainly does not implicate the U.S.
While Cuba remains politically targeted as a country that harbors terrorists,
the United States terrorist actions in Angola have been covered up. The media’s
adherence to the propaganda model of selectivity is apparent. The prestigious
U.S. newspapers were not critical of U.S. policy in Angola. Never was the
terrorist label attributed to UNITA, South Africa, and certainly not to the
CIA-recruited mercenaries—only Cuba. The inhumane economic sanctions levied
against Cuba by the U.S., economic measures to instill fear in the population to
achieve a political agenda, is a form of economic terrorism. But this is never
recognized as such and as Fidel Castro’s Cuba consistently refuses to adhere to
the U.S. agenda, it officially remains a country that “harbors terrorists.”


The U.S. and

Iraq has been on the State
Department list of countries that harbor terrorists since the 1991 Persian Gulf
War. Iraq merits its place on any list of terrorist states. Besides proof that
they harbor known members of Al Qaeda, Iraq’s actions as a state are aptly
described as state-sanctioned terrorism. In 1988, Saddam Hussein launched a
poison gas attack against the Kurds of Northern Iraq, killing 5,000 Kurds in the
town of Halabja. The Kurds were being punished for their participation in the
Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 on the side of Iran. At a televised public meeting on
February 18, 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary of
Defense William Cohen invoked this atrocity to justify a new wave of U.S.
bombings: Hussein was guilty of using weapons of mass destruction against his
own people, the ultimate atrocity.

What Albright and
Cohen failed to mention, and what the press failed to call them on, was that
when Hussein gassed the Kurds at Halabja, the U.S. had friendly relations with
Hussein, and 1988 was actually the peak year of U.S. military aid to Iraq. When
ABC TV correspondent Charles Glass revealed the site of Hussein’s program of
biological warfare, the State Department denied it. Most of the biological and
chemical weapons Hussein used had their roots in the U.S. and Great Britain. One
of the deadly pathogens was traced to the army’s center for germ research in
Fort Detrick, Maryland. Not only was the U.S. complicit in Hussein’s terrorist
behavior, it consistently used that terrorist behavior to justify its own
terrorism on the people of Iraq.

Although this is
rarely mentioned, one of Hussein’s biggest mistakes in the eyes of the West was
devoting a substantial portion of Iraq’s huge export earnings to human services
and economic development. Domestic policies like these, especially in oil rich
Third World countries, are never viewed approvingly by Washington. The interests
of Washington in Iraq must be the interests of foreign investors, not the
domestic population. Before the Gulf War, Iraq enjoyed free health care and free
education, creating a standard of living higher than any other Arab nation.
Iraq’s literacy rate reached 80 percent, a sizable achievement. All that came to
an end when Iraq was bombed back into the Third World during the Gulf War,
during which more than twice the high explosive tonnage was used on Iraq than
the entire Allied air forces used during World War II.

An embargo has
been sanctioned against the people of Iraq since the Gulf War. The U.S.
government has intentionally targeted the civilian population in Iraq as a means
to an end. The U.S. destroyed Iraq’s water treatment infrastructure during its
bombing campaign. It continued its attack on Iraq’s water supply by cutting off
water treatment supplies as a component of the embargo, knowing full well that
it would ravage the Iraqi population, predominantly Iraqi children. Declassified
documents from 1991 indicate U.S. cruelty: “Iraq depends on importing
specialized equipment and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of
which is heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline.” The document
continues to state that without the vital commodities necessary to purify its
water supply, which are blocked by the embargo, there will be a severe shortage
in pure drinking water.

These same
declassified documents spell out the possibilities of these sanctions: huge
increases in disease that could reach the proportion of an epidemic. The
policy-makers also note that these sanctions will acutely affect the children in
Iraq. They were correct in their estimation: according to UNICEF, an average of
5,000 children under the age of 5 die each month in Iraq.

On May 12, 1996,
as the cruel realities of the sanctions became more apparent, Leslie Stahl of
ABC’s “60 Minutes” asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about accusations
that the sanctions were killing 5,000 children per month. Albright responded,
“We think the price is worth it.” This response cannot be that different from
Osama bin Laden’s recent spine-chilling declaration that, in effect, “Americans
will never feel security.”

Any country with
Hussein as its leader may belong on a list of terrorist countries, but the U.S.
also uses terrorism as a political tool in its continuous oppression of the
Iraqi population. The propaganda model of selectivity allows for such
politicization. Facts that indict the U.S. are conveniently ignored.


“Anti-terrorism is Terrorism”

When Reagan came to power
in 1981, new Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced that the new
Administration would replace Carter’s so-called “human rights” foreign policy
with anti-terrorism. In 1984, the White House Office of the Press Secretary
released Reagan’s anti-terrorism statement. It begins, “In the past fifteen
years, terrorism has become a frightening challenge to the tranquility and
potential stability of our friends and allies.”

The Reagan
administration’s foreign policy more resembles terrorism than any other
administration’s policies. During the 1980s, as Noam Chomsky points out, “the
U.S. was well in the lead in spreading the cancer they were demanding must be
extirpated.” The U.S. trained, armed, and funded the very same terrorist network
that is being held responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon. The Reagan Doctrine—a plan to increase the cost of Soviet support of
Third World socialist governments—overwhelmed any semblance of anti-terrorism
policies. The CIA, working closely with the huge Pakistan intelligence service
(ISI), and a coalition of other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and
France, covertly developed these “freedom fighters” recruited from across the
Arab world, who referred to themselves as the Mujahidin (“holy warriors”).
Unfortunately, these “freedom fighters” were tough to control and immediately
contributed to what the CIA refers to as “blowback.” The U.S. and its allies
became targets of the Mujahidin, as we know all too well.

counter-terrorist initiative included the “Aircraft Sabotage Act” of 1984. This
legislation attempted to “deal with certain criminal acts relating to aircraft
sabotage or hijacking.” One such example of aircraft sabotage might include
Iranian airliner flight 655, shot down over Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf
on July 3, 1988, killing 290 people. Iran took the case to the UN International
Court for Justice, stating that the naval vessel that shot it down “breached its
stated neutrality” in the region, and in violating Iran’s sovereignty, committed
an “international crime.” There was one significant problem with Iran’s case:
the USS Vincennes was the ship charged with shooting down the airplane,
and the U.S. was the country charged with violating Iran’s sovereignty. Being
the dominant world superpower, and the leader in anti-terrorism, the U.S. was
not about to be held responsible for 290 dead Iranians. The facts show, despite
a Pentagon cover-up, which Washington was forced to admit to when Iran sued the
U.S., that the plane was shot down in broad daylight and well within the
commercial airline course over international waters—but facts are irrelevant
when the U.S. is the guilty party.

The New York
editorialized two days later that “while horrifying, it was
nonetheless an accident.” In 1983, when a South Korean airliner was shot down
over the Soviet Union, the message of the media was different. A New York
editorial headlined “Murder in the Air” read, “there is no conceivable
excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner.” This appeal to high
principle is only allowed when our enemies are violators of the human good.

anti-terrorism policy also stressed, “International forums, such as the United
Nations, take a balanced and practical view of who is practicing terrorism and
what must be done about it.” The Contras, created and backed by the U.S., and
responsible for numerous atrocities in fighting its war against the Sandinista
government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, were considered terrorists by those who
took this “balanced and practical view.” On January 5 and 6, 1986, the New
York Times
published stories detailing charges that the Sandinistas supplied
arms to terrorists in the guerrilla attack on the Palace of Justice in Colombia.
When the Colombian government accepted Sandinista proof of denial, the New
York Times
failed to follow up on the story. American readers were
necessarily impressed—the Sandinistas were terrorists.

The Contras,
trained at the U.S. School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia,
systematically destroyed Nicaragua in the same fashion UNITA pillaged Angola.
The Sandinista government had raised the standard of living to higher than that
of any other Central American country, but at the cost of expelling some foreign
investors. The CIA-backed Contras reversed these efforts. The U.S. and the
Contras tortured and killed thousands, mined Nicaraguan harbors, and cut off
food supplies to the Nicaraguan countryside. Former State Department official
William Blum correctly calls the covert actions that were responsible for the
deaths of millions throughout Central America an “American Holocaust.”

Nicaragua took
the U.S. to the World Court in 1986, heeding Reagan’s call for terrorists to be
brought before an “international forum, such as the United Nations.” The Court
condemned U.S. actions as an “unlawful use of force.” Secretary of State George
Shultz ignored the anti-terrorism policies of his boss as he rebuked those who
advocated “utopian, legalistic means like outside mediation, while ignoring the
power element of the equation.”


Analogies and

September 11 has most
often been compared to Pearl Harbor—an analogy that beckons the emotions of an
America under siege. It is natural to seek the use of analogies to further
understand a current situation. Princeton political scientist Yuen Foong Khong
has done an extensive study on the cognitive use of analogies in the
decision-making process of policy-makers. Khong might argue that the Bush
administration invoked the Pearl Harbor analogy to prepare itself and the
country for the high stakes of America’s “war on terrorism.” World War II was a
time of incredible sacrifice—the analogous use of Pearl Harbor, in addition to
calling the current state of affairs a “war,” is intended to illicit such a

George Bush has
effectively declared permanent war. The new war knows no boundaries, as it
transcends both space and time. Bush’s war menacingly lacks clearly defined
goals. While Pearl Harbor prepared the country for a world war against very
definable enemies, September 11 is involving America in an infinite war against
a vague, shifting enemy.

The atmosphere of
fear created by the terrorist threat has given Bush carte blanche to do
as he pleases. Reactionary economic policies such as the capital gains tax cut,
are being draped in patriotism by congressional opportunists. Anti-terrorism
measures are sweeping through Congress, limiting constitutional freedoms
Americans have taken for granted. On October 11 the Senate passed broad
anti-terrorist legislation that “significantly enhances the power of law
enforcement agencies to conduct searches, wiretaps and other forms of electronic
surveillance.” While the terrorist attacks revealed the folly of Bush’s
lucrative Star Wars plans, he is manipulating his newfound anti-terrorism
coalition relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin to enact a new wave
of Star Wars.

If peace and
security are what we desire, then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a good
analogy. Israel’s anti-terrorism policy is obviously failing. Beyond the
illogical assassination policy, it is impossible for Israel to hope for peace
when their government’s policy is to continue expanding Israeli communities and
bulldozing Palestinian homes while encircling and suffocating the Palestinian
population. This is a recipe for violence. Increasing the levels of despair will
only incite more Palestinians. On a global level, much of the Arab and Muslim
worlds perceive the U.S. as Palestinians view Israel. U.S. foreign policy is
suffocating the Arab and Muslim worlds in its ever-increasing rush to control
the world’s limited supply of fossil fuels. Further encirclement of the Arab and
Muslim worlds will only exacerbate the problem, which is exactly what we are
witnessing as a result of our bombing program in Afghanistan and resulting
anti-American protests.

If anything
positive can be taken from September 11, maybe the realities of terrorism will
awaken the American public. Maybe Americans will come to realize the sheer
horror of violence for political gain. Maybe Americans will stop allowing its
own government’s terrorist policies. Unfortunately, the propaganda model of
historical selectivity has strong roots in America. Most likely, America’s
historical selectivity will continue. But that is no reason to give up hope.