The Threat Of Global State Terrorism

S. Herman & David Peterson

We are living in a very
dangerous time, but for reasons almost exactly the opposite of those
conventionally accepted. The consensus view in the United States right now is
that the danger lies in the terror threat from Bin Laden and his network, and
perhaps other terrorists hostile to the West. But Bin Laden and his network,
though evidently formidable terrorists, cannot compete in terrorizing with
states, and especially with a highly militarized superpower. His is a “retail”
terror network, like the IRA or Cuban refugee terrorist network: it has no
helicopter gunships, no offensive missiles, no “daisy cutters,” no nuclear
weapons, and although its death-dealing on September 11 was remarkable (although
down from the initially estimated 6,000 or more to below 3,900), it was unique
for a non-governmental terrorist organization.

large-scale killing and torture to terrorize—“wholesale” terrorism—has been
implemented by states, not by non-state terrorists. The reason people aren’t
aware of this is that states define terrorism and identify the terrorists, and
they naturally exempt themselves as always “retaliating” and engaging in
“counter-terror” even when their own actions are an exact fit to their own
definitions. And their mainstream media always follow the official lead. The
U.S. Code definition—“any activity…dangerous to human life…intended to
intimidate or coerce a civilian population…[or] to influence the policy of a
government by intimidation”—surely fits U.S. policy toward Iraq, where the
incessant bombings and “sanctions of mass destruction” have been designed to
intimidate the Iraqi people and influence Iraqi government policy. This serious
terrorism has been killing more children per month than the total casualty
figure for the September 11 terrorist attacks, but in this country it is Iraq
that, if not terrorizing, is a terrorist threat getting what it deserves. This
distorted perspective is made possible by a mainstream media that serves state
policy by focusing attention on Hussein’s efforts to develop “weapons of mass
destruction,” while keeping pictures of dying Iraqi children out of sight.

As another
illustrative case, Israel has been using torture on an administrative basis for
at least 25 years, a feat no retail (non-state) terrorist could duplicate. This,
and the U.S. policy toward Iraq, are wholesale terrorist operations, carried out
on a large scale over an extended period of time, as only the institutions of
state terrorism are capable of doing. As the 1984 Alfonsin National Commission
on the Disappeared explained after reviewing the record of the deposed military
regime of Argentina, which had tortured and killed thousands in over 300
detention centers from 1976 to 1983, that regime’s (wholesale) terrorism was
“infinitely worse” than the (retail) terrorism it was combating.


The real danger to world
peace and security arising out of the events of September 11 lies in the
responsive wholesale terrorism that will result—and already is resulting—from
the resurgent aggressiveness of the United States, with its excessive military
power, its global interests that can be served by a forward military policy, its
self-righteousness and habituation to getting its way, and the absence of any
country or group of countries able to contain it. This country is also
especially dangerous by virtue of its being perhaps the most religiously
fundamentalist in the world (ranging from the Christian Right and its various
militia-like sects to the blind patriotic fervor in the wake of September 11 to
belief in close encounters of the third kind, angels, and End Times); and with a
population that, with the help of the mainstream media, can be brought to
approve or ignore any level of external violence that the leadership deems
useful. We may recall that the United States is the only country that has used
nuclear weapons and has threatened their further use many times. Its employment
of chemical weapons more than competes with Saddam Hussein’s use in the 1980s,
one of the U.S. legacies being some 500,000 Vietnamese children with serious
birth abnormalities left from a decade of U.S. chemical warfare in the 1960s.

The September 11
bombing was a windfall for the Bush administration and military-industrial
complex, so much to their advantage that theories have been circulating
suggesting that the U.S. leadership engineered, or at least failed to interfere
with, the bombings. We don’t accept the purported evidence for this, but we do
believe that after the initial shock at their failure to protect U.S. citizens
from attack, the leadership realized that this was what they had been waiting
for as a substitute for the Soviet Threat to justify a new projection of U.S.
power. In fact, the “war against terrorism” may prove to be more serviceable as
a tool for managing the public than the Soviet Threat, given its open-ended and
nebulous character.

The Soviet Threat
gave the United States a Cold War propaganda cover to justify its support of
numerous military dictators and other goons of convenience who would serve U.S.
economic and political interests. Thus, in the name of fighting both Soviet
“expansionism” and “terrorism” the United States supported terrorist states that
engaged in really serious terrorism, combatting a lesser (retail) terrorism that
was frequently a response to that state terrorism. One document produced by the
Catholic Church in Latin America in 1977, made the telling observation that the
military regimes needed to employ terror because the ruthless economic policies
that they encouraged, their “development model,” which featured helping foreign
transnationals by giving them a “favorable climate of investment” (i.e.,
crushing labor unions), “creates a revolution that did not previously exist.” It
is hardly a coincidence that “liberation theology,” with its “theology from the
underside of history” and its “preferential option for the poor” (Gustavo
Gutierrez), was born out of the turmoil and victimization of this era of
U.S.-sponsored counterrevolutionary violence.

In the earlier
period the United States got away with claims that it was opposed to and was
fighting terrorism, while it was actually supporting “infinitely worse”
terrorisms. The mainstream media allowed the government to define terrorism and
name the terrorists; so, for example, the New York Times regularly
referred to the retail terrorism in Argentina as “terrorism,” but never called
the infinitely worse state terrorism in that country by its right name. And the
Times—and the rest of the mainstream media— rarely discussed the ugly
details of Argentinian state terrorism, never related it to any development
model, and failed to express indignation over it. Also, they never referred to
the Nicaraguan contras or Savimbi’s UNITA as terrorists or the United States as
a sponsor of terrorism for giving them support.

In the Cold War years,
also, the media never questioned the alleged objectives of U.S. interventions.
If the U.S. government claimed back in the early 1950s that it was overthrowing
the elected government of Guatemala for fear of Soviet control and to stop the
spread of communism, the media never doubted this; they never suggested that
this was a fraudulent cover for the desire to protect the United Fruit Company,
to dispose of an annoyingly reformist and independent government, and resulted
from an arrogantly imperialistic government’s refusal to brook any opposition in
its backyard. The media served then as uncritical propagandists for the “war
against communism,” featuring the alleged threats and focusing heavily on the
progress of that notorious intervention. They made the destruction of a
democratic government and introduction of a police state into a noble venture
that saved the United States from a wholly fabricated threat.

Sound familiar?
It should, as the media are doing the same job of protecting state actions
today. If their government says that what it is doing in Afghanistan is a “war
against terrorism,” that is what the media label it. If the Administration hints
at extending the war on terrorism to Iraq as one of its state sponsors, the
media talk about this only in terms of strategy, whether allies will go along,
and possible repercussions. They never suggest that the attack on Afghanistan
was itself an act of terrorism, or beyond that, an act of aggression done in
straightforward violation of the UN Charter and international law. They never
suggest that Iraq has been a victim of very serious state-sponsored terrorism
for more than a decade, in which 23 million Iraqis have served as hostages to be
starved into rebellion. Never. Although what this country does may fit the
official U.S. definition of terrorism with precision, the supposedly free and
independent media exempt its actions from the label as a matter of course.

As they did back
in 1950-1954 in reference to Guatemala, the mainstream media focus on U.S.
claims regarding enemy maneuvers and sinister plans (back then, Red
infiltration; today, the location and tricks of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda); the
planning and military activities of the forces supported by the United States
(back then, the “contra” army invading Guatemala from Somoza’s Nicaragua; today
the military successes of the bombing and “coalition” fighting on the ground in
Afghanistan); who is winning and losing in the fighting and diplomatic
maneuvering. There was no discussion in the earlier years of objectives other
than that supposed “war against communism”—such as the welfare of United Fruit,
or the U.S. objection to any social democratic reforms or independent state in
its backyard—just as today the media will not discuss the Bush administration’s
broader agenda—gaining access to and control over the Caspian Basin’s enormous
oil and natural gas resources, or using antiterrorism as the rationale for going
after any global target, or to help create a moral environment that will serve
to advance its domestic programs.


Just as the Cold War
provided a cover for U.S. support of a “real terror network,” so now the “war
against terrorism” is providing a cover for a similar and rapid gravitation to
contemporary goons of convenience like Russia’s Putin, Pakistan’s Musharraff,
and Uzbekistan’s Karimov. Putin is a major wholesale terrorist, whose political
career has been built on terrorizing Chechnya; Musharraff is a military dictator
who previously was closely allied with the Taliban; and Karimov is another
holdover dictator from the Soviet era, whose only virtue is a willingness to
serve the “war on terrorism.” Just as the media back in 1954 never discussed the
fact that that first generation contra invasion of Guatemala, allegedly to
“free” Guatemala, was being organized in Somoza’s “unfree” Nicaragua, nor
questioned U.S. support of that dictator, so today the media never ask the
obvious question: How can a new order of democracy be created by supporting and
consolidating the power of dictators and wholesale terrorists?

The “war against
terrorism” has given a freer hand to terrorist governments that are “with us,”
like Russia’s but also that of Israel, whose leaders quickly recognized their
improved political position after September 11 and greatly intensified their
violence in the occupied territories. China has also joined the fight against
terrorism, and is expected to “use the international war against terror for a
new crackdown on the Turkic-speaking Uighurs,” and “arrests in the region have
increased significantly” since September 11 (“China using terror war against
separatists,” UPI, October 11, 2001). The new “war” has encouraged governments
across the globe to ask for military support from the United States to fight
their own “terrorists,” and the Bush administration has already come through
with aid to the Philippines and Indonesia in these local struggles. So it looks
very much as if insurgents anywhere, if they don’t happen to be supported by
Washington as “freedom fighters,” will be transformed into targets of the new
“war against terrorism,” now to be fought on a global basis. Whereas in the Cold
War years these insurgents were tied to Moscow in preparation for supporting
states like Argentina, which would then crush them; now they will be branded
“foreign terrorist organizations” or linked to Bin Laden, or perhaps that won’t
even be necessary in the New World Order—just call them terrorists, flash
pictures of the victims of the World Trade Center, and bomb them.

In the earlier
years, also, as the government wanted the public mobilized to the frightful
threat posed by the disarmed Guatemala, the media beat a steady and incessant
drum, day in and day out. Similarly, since September 11, the Bush administration
wanting the public frightened and mobilized to support its new and open-ended
war, the media have provided incessant and frightening—as well as hugely
biased—coverage of “A Nation Challenged,” as the New York Times‘s daily
section would have it, or “At War With Terror,” in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s
regular account. The public is led to believe that the Pitiful Giant has had its
back against the ropes in its struggle against retail terror, a truly
frightening situation; whereas in the earlier case, a social democratic
government threatening United Fruit and U.S. prerogatives, but linked to Moscow,
provided the media with grist for creating public panic, and justifying U.S.

In the earlier
case, after the elected government of Guatemala was overthrown in June 1954, and
was replaced by a puppet that proceeded to dismantle all the human rights and
social gains brought by democracy, media attention to Guatemala disappeared, and
it stayed invisible as a counterinsurgency state, built on wholesale terror,
took over and has remained in place for almost half a century. The media helped
overthrow the democratic government, and in the years that followed they kept
the public unaware that under U.S. auspices, with U.S. funding, training, Green
Beret participation in counterinsurgency campaigns, and diplomatic support, a
terror state was built, aided, and protected (for details, Michael McClintock,
The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in Guatemala
[Zed, 1985]). The same pattern was observable in the case of Nicaragua in the
1980s: huge media attention to the Sandinista government’s “threat of a good
example” that followed U.S. support of the Somoza dictatorship for 45 years;
then after the ouster of the Sandinistas, with the crucial aid of U.S. direct
and sponsored terrorism, the media once again lapsed into silence.

This media
practice allows the United States to carry out a hit-and-run policy, without any
serious public cost to its leadership, as the public is kept in the dark about
the fact that this country has “run” following its extended and devastating
“hit,” because media attention falls to close to zero.

This should clue
us in on the likely developments in Afghanistan after this fearsome military
challenge is met—and the United States and its antiterrorist “coalition” can
celebrate another victory in which they created a desert and called it peace.
There is a great deal of talk now of “nation-building” and modernizing
Afghanistan, but that is now, when the establishment needs to fend off
suggestions that it is better at killing and starving people than it is at
spreading democracy and development that helps them. But Vietnam, Guatemala,
Nicaragua, Kosovo, and many other cases, teach us that there will be no
nation-building at all, although building oil and natural gas pipelines and
military bases is another matter.

Once the great
military victory is achieved, budget priorities will hardly extend out to
Afghanistan, any more than they did to other victims of imperial violence.
Official attention will disappear and the media can be counted on to shift their
focus elsewhere. Call it a law of the free press, which falls in line whenever
duty calls and boldly follows the flag and priorities of the elite and
government establishment. If these call for nation destruction, and then a
silent exit, so be it.                                      Z


Edward S.
Herman is an economist and media analyst. His most recent book, co-edited with
Philip Hammond, is
Degraded Capability: The Media and The Kosovo Crisis.
(Pluto Press, 2000).

David Peterson is a freelance writer.