On the Preeminence of State Terrorism Globalizing &ldquo


y any generally applicable
standard—i.e., excluding the fraudulent but widely used “terrorism
is what somebody else does” criterion—state terrorism
is vastly more destructive than anti-state and individual and small
group terrorism. This is the basis for distinguishing between the
two as “wholesale” versus “retail” terrorism.
Wholesale trade implies large scale business operations that deal
with many smaller retail operators. The retailers have little capital
and do business with a small set of local customers. State terrorists
apply their violence over a wide terrain using the large resources
of the state, and they can employ a broader and more cruel range
of techniques of intimidation, including devastating weapons like
napalm, phosphorus, depleted uranium munitions; cluster, thermobaric
and 500-pound bombs; advanced delivery systems like helicopter gun-ships
and cruise missiles; and torture. 

Retail terrorists operate more narrowly in space, with fewer personnel,
limited resources, and working with relatively unsophisticated weaponry
and delivery systems. As the Argentinian National Commission on
Disappeared Persons stated in the aftermath of that country’s
era of military rule and state terrorism (1976-1983), the terrorism
of the military regime was “infinitely worse than that which
they were combatting.” The 9/11 attack was an extreme outlier
in the record of retail terror, whereas massacres of similar or
larger size by state terrorists have been numerous. 

Retail terrorists also use torture only occasionally and on a small
scale. But for state terrorists torture is big business and is an
important part of their overall effort at intimidation. In Argentina
under military rule, there were an estimated 60 separate detention
centers at which torture was administered to the victims of this
terrorist state (Amnesty International, “Testimony on secret
detention centers in Argentina,” 1980). As is well known, the
United States today practices torture at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib
and other prisons in Iraq, and the Bagram air base in Afghanistan,
and sends many others to torture centers in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan,
Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the process of “extraordinary
rendition.” Israel has used torture on an administrative basis
for decades, compellingly exposed in a major

Sunday Times

(London) study almost 30 years ago (“Israel and Torture: An
Insight Inquiry,” June 19, 1977), but already long-standing
and institutionalized. Noam Chomsky and I showed back in 1979 that
26 of the 35 countries that were then using torture on an administrative
basis were U.S. client states. This was rampant state terrorism,
carried out under U.S. sponsorship (see Chomsky and Herman,

Washington Connection and Third World Fascism,

South End Press,



Under U.S. auspices torture is now once again

flourishing and has even become a growth industry.


As noted, state terrorists also kill on a much larger scale than
anti-state and private terrorists. In an admittedly crude computation
I did some years ago, the ratio of major killings of state terrorists
to the CIA’s estimate of all terrorist killings from 1968-1980
was found to be over 500 to 1 (“Killings by State and Nonstate
Terrorists: Numbers and Orders of Magnitude,” Herman and O’Sullivan,

The “Terrorism” Industry,

Pantheon, 1990). The
ratio of Israeli state killings of Palestinians to Palestinian killings
of Israelis was long over 20 to 1, and only declined to 3 to 1 in
the second Intifada

. New York Times

reporter James Bennet
claimed a decline from 25-1 in the first Intifada to 3-1 in the
second (“Mideast Turmoil: Mideast Balance Sheet,”


March 12, 2002). In Iraq, Saddam Hussein undoubtedly killed scores
of thousands of his own citizens and ran a notorious torture operation,
but the United States beats Saddam even in his home state, with
credit for a million or more Iraqi civilian dead via sanctions that
killed more civilians than “all the weapons of mass destruction
in human history” (Karl and John Mueller, “Sanctions of
Mass Destruction,”

Foreign Affairs

, May/June 1999),
and a “shock and awe” and follow-up capital intensive
pacification program that all independent analysts estimate to have
killed many more civilians than the insurgency. U.S. operatives
simply stepped into Saddam’s shoes as torture managers in Abu
Ghraib and elsewhere. 

State terrorism is also preeminent, not only because of its vastly
larger scale and use of more ferocious tactics and weapons, but
also because it is very commonly either causal, inducing a derivative
retail terrorism, or the mechanism that protects intolerable conditions
that might themselves be considered a form of terrorism. It was
evident in Latin America from the 1950s onward that the National
Security States that were emerging in the U.S. backyard, and with
U.S. sponsorship, were supporting and enforcing terrible economic
conditions for the masses, to the advantage of transnationals and
local businesses. These states were regularly denounced by representatives
of the indigenous Catholic church in documents with evocative titles
like “The Cry of the People” and “The Marginalization
of the People” that focused on what they described as the forced
“atomization” and fragmentation of the people, referred
to now as “flexible” labor markets. (A classic account
is Penny Lernoux’s book entitled

Cry of the People

Penguin, 1980.) 

After the U.S.-organized overthrow of the democratic government
of Guatemala in 1954, unions and peasant organizations were destroyed
by a repressive and militarized state serving local and expatriate
elites. As historian Piero Gliejeses has written, “Only violence
could maintain the status quo.” In one telling church document
it was asserted that the National Security State was “creating
a revolution that did not previously exist.” In other words,
the military regimes in power were helping the business community
brutalize the populace to the point of provoking a violent response.
This would then be quelled by terrorisms “infinitely worse”
than those the inhuman and arguably terroristic economic policies
provoked—but only the derivative and lesser violence would
be called “terrorism.” 

This process of creating terrorists and then killing them—and
decimating the civilian population “sea” in which the
terrorist “fish” swim—was clearly evident in Vietnam
and is also conspicuous in Iraq today. In Vietnam the United States,
struggling to avoid popularly supported rule by Ho Chi Minh and
his Communist Party, imported a dictator from the U.S. and supported
him in a vicious war of pacification that literally forced the South
Vietnamese Viet Minh into armed resistance (a major theme in Gareth

The Perils of Dominance)

. When that pacification
war failed, the United States stepped in with a direct aggression
that not only destroyed the country in order to “save”
it, but by its murderous tactics and weaponry, which included the
deliberate destruction of peasant rice crops by chemical warfare
(Operation Ranch Hand) and killing several million people, kept
creating new cadres ready to die fighting the savage aggressor. 

 A similar dynamic has been evident in Iraq, where the initial
joy at the removal of Saddam Hussein was rapidly transformed by
the U.S. failure to provide security or the means of life to the
citizenry and by its self-serving economic and political actions,
but also and increasingly in response to the brutal tactics and
racist behavior of the U.S. invaders-occupiers. Abu Ghraib was a
dramatic manifestation of the attitude and behavior of the invaders,
but more important was the daily invasion of homes and the bullying
and humiliation of Iraqis in the streets and at checkpoints, and
the lavish use of firepower that killed or injured tens of thousands
of civilians standing in the way. As Congressperson John Murtha
recently stated, “We put 150,000 people outside their homes
in Fallujah. If you remember in Jordan, the bomber said the reason
she became a bomber was because two of her relatives were killed
in Fallujah. We lost the hearts and minds of the people.” 

These murderous effects are increasing as the Bush administration
steps up its air war to try once again to quell the insurgency while
keeping U.S. casualties down as it struggles for “victory”
before the next election. Seymour Hersh notes, “A key element
of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public
statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced
by American airpower,” with the likelihood that “the overall
level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase
unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.” Airstrikes
by U.S. forces rose almost fivefold in 2005, and more are likely
to follow in 2006. 

State Terrorism in the 7th Century BC 


tate terrorism goes back
a long way, but in its most dramatic earlier manifestations it has
a clear family resemblance to state terrorism today. Assyria in
the 8th and 7th centuries BC was a militarized state, with advanced
military technology for the time that pioneered “shock and
awe” tactics. The Assyrians “brought to perfection a systematic
terrorization of their adversaries…. The accounts of their
campaigns enumerate with wearisome monotony the punishments inflicted
after each victory; to flay men alive, to impale them by hundreds,
to cut off arms, legs, noses, and ears, and then to keep their mutilated
rivals shut up in cages—such was the invariable custom of their
generals. Small wonder that the very names of the Assyrians inspired
panic terror, and that the mere approach of their armies often forced
strong kingdoms and cities to surrender and beg for mercy”
(M. Rostovtzeff,

The Ancient World

, vol. 1). 

Have we progressed in humanistic behavior in warfare since the Assyrians?
Certainly the United States and Israel intend that their military
prowess and threats will terrify people who stand in their way and
induce quiescence. Both recognize that it is sometimes necessary
to use military force to teach troublesome peoples a lesson on the
futility of resistance. “Shock and awe” in the initial
attack on Iraq was openly designed to induce surrender, and so was
the 1999 bombing war against Yugoslavia. 

Of course our generals do not “flay men alive,” impale
them, cut off arms, legs and noses, and keep mutilated rivals shut
up in cages (although they keep damaged torture victims in cages).
On the other hand, modern technology makes it possible to do the
equivalent of flaying men alive and cutting off their limbs and
noses, at a distance, via napalm, phosphorus, fragmentation bombs,
fuel-air and large bombs, cannon, and rapid fire guns. One only
has to explore the Internet or watch Al Jazeera to see numerous
hospital cases or street or grave scenes of people burned beyond
recognition or with body damage that would equal or exceed anything
the Assyrians could produce. And what can be seen via these non-mainstream
media information sources is clearly a small fraction of the burned,
crushed, and dismembered. 

One “humanistic” advance is that in the more democratic
world of today, flaying or napalming enemy soldiers and civilians
would horrify and arouse into an opposition force large numbers
in the countries dispensing this violence. So at this point in the
evolution of human society such military behavior would not be acceptable—if
it could be seen and understood. But now we arrive at the role of
the media and the “humanitarian intervention” intellectuals
in keeping the flayed, impaled, and limbless equivalents out of
sight and putting the deadly enterprises that damage and kill them
in a positive light. 

It works as follows. First, the leaders of the targeted people are
demonized and the populations themselves are often condemned as
“willing executioners.” Their leaders may be brought to
trial and their crimes, real and alleged, will be heavily publicized
with gruesome details, real and alleged. The media and establishment
intellectuals play a crucial role here in focusing on the demons
with great indignation, accepting official claims of sincere efforts
to settle matters peaceably, the ominous threat that the demon target
will commit local genocide or might attack the United States itself
with his weapons of mass destruction, and the benevolent and humanitarian
intent of the government once again about to unleash massive state
terror. This regular pattern of apologetics, that includes the acceptance
and dissemination of serious disinformation, makes it easier for
the home public to accept harsh treatment of the population about
to be attacked. 

Second, the government-media-intellectuals axis uses (and misuses)
words that put the attack and attacker in a favorable light and
denigrate their targets. The word “terrorism” is used
only to designate retail terrorist actions and retail responses
to state violence, at least where the state terrorism is carried
out by the United States or one of its allies or clients. Argentina’s
“infinitely worse” state terrorism was never designated
terrorism by U.S. officials or in the

New York Times

in the
years 1976-1983; only the retail terrorism was so named, and the
paper even had flattering articles on the “moderates”
among the generals who were ruling and managing the infinitely worse
terrorism. Argentina was a U.S. client state. Similarly, Israel
never commits terror—it only “retaliates” and engages
in “counter-terror.” This is pure ideological bias, but
is an important part of the management of public opinion. 

and supporting the use of “terrorism” only in reference
to retail terror, is the distinction between deliberate killing
and “collateral damage.” Retail terrorists, like suicide
bombers, deliberately kill civilians, whereas with bombing raids
on “suspected” Vietcong, Taliban, Hamas, or Iraqi insurgent
hideouts, any civilian killings are allegedly inadvertent rather
than deliberate, hence in a different and higher moral class. This
is a fallacy in terms of practice, logic, morality, and the law.
As regards practice, many bombing raids have been clearly intended
to kill—the civilian deaths at Hiroshima, Dresden, and Tokyo
in World War II were clearly deliberate, and in many other cases
civilian deaths are either more than acceptable (as in areas supporting
the enemy) or of no concern except as a public relations problem.
As General Gregory Newbold said about the killings at the wedding
ceremony at Kakrak in Afghanistan in July 2002, “This is an
area of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” and
many similar statements, as well as the evidence of many hundreds
of attacks on civilian sites, indicate something other than concern
for civilian casualties in all three recent U.S. wars of aggression.
It is good, even essential PR to claim an interest in avoiding civilian
casualties, but only apologists for state terror will take these
assurances at face value. 

In terms of logic and morality, if bombing raids on civilian sites,
based frequently on unverified rumor and dubious sources, regularly
kill large numbers of civilians, the fact that the individual victims
were not targeted doesn’t make the deaths inadvertent and undeliberate—they
occurred with a high probability value, which makes them intended
in logic and also in the law. As Michael Mandel points out in his
excellent discussion of the collateral damage apologetic for killings,
the law—even in the state of Texas—has long found that
killing a third party while intending to kill somebody else does
not exempt the killer from being guilty of murder (

How America
Gets Away With Murder,

Pluto, 2004). But in the Western media
and for Western establishment intellectuals killings under the rubric
collateral damage are treated differently than those of retail terrorists,
giving an aura of innocence if not virtue to the state terrorist’s
slaughter of large numbers of “inadvertent” victims. 

Fourth, the word bias runs parallel with the level of attention
and indignation. The victims of “terrorism” are “worthy”
victims and get extensive and sympathetic treatment that can arouse
public sympathy and help justify the attacks on the officially-identified
terrorists in programs of “counter-terror.” In the case
of Argentina, 1976-1983, there was minimal attention in the U.S.
media to the plight of the many thousands tortured in those 60 detention
centers or slaughtered by the state terrorists. The

New York

, for example, never reviewed or even mentioned the 1980
Amnesty International reports “Testimony on secret detention
centers in Argentina,” or “Guatemala: A Government Program
of Political Murder,” and “Disappearances: A Workbook.”
Nor did it ever review Penny Lernoux’s

Cry of the People

This was the U.S. backyard and the terror states were U.S. clients,
so powerful exposes of the horrors taking place in these states
would be attending to “unworthy” victims, and the

York Times

and its media colleagues largely avoid this. 

The same is true of the media’s and establishment intellectuals’
treatment of the unworthy victims of Israeli terrorism on the West
Bank and U.S. terror in Iraq. The Israeli case is remarkable as
Israel has been pretty straightforwardly stealing Palestinian land
and water and ethnically cleansing for years in gross violation
of the Fourth Geneva Convention and numerous UN Security Council
and International Court rulings. But in the U.S. media the Palestinians
are terrorists and the ethnically-cleansing Israelis are the victims.
This miracle of racist and immoral bias is built into the media
treatment of these issues—the Palestinian victims get slight
attention and little sympathy, with regular demands that they cease
attacking those who the “international community” allows
to ethnically cleanse them. The attention and sympathy go to the
victims of the suicide bombers; and there is no demand that the
Israelis cease their ongoing dispossession, let alone return stolen
land and water to the untermenschen. 

The Media’s Service to the State 


n dealing with Iraq, the
media had already established a remarkable record of service to
the state before the March 2003 invasion by swallowing disinformation
on Iraq’s WMD and links to Al Qaeda. It is a crushing indictment
of the media that at the time of the U.S. attack a large fraction
of U.S. citizens believed that Saddam had WMD, had links to Al Qaeda,
was involved in 9/11, and posed a serious security threat to the
United States. (Even now 48 percent still think that Saddam “was
a serious threat to U.S. security,”

Wall Street Journal

Online, December 29, 2005.) The media also simply ignored the fact
that the Bush administration had violated the UN Charter and committed
the “supreme crime” in its invasion, and they soon took
it as fact that creating a democracy in Iraq was now the Bush aim.
The causal link between U.S. violence and the growth of the insurgency
was rarely suggested in the media, and they quickly made the insurgents
into “terrorists” fighting a U.S. striving to bring “stability”
and “democracy” to Iraq. 

As always, the media played down and kept largely out of sight the
fact that most Iraqi civilian casualties were victims of U.S. violence.
Of course the fact that all the fighting flowed from the invasion
was unmentioned. The stress has been on deaths caused by the insurgents,
and in parallel with the official silence on overall casualties,
those numbers have been largely kept out of sight. When a major
study of civilian casualties was published in the


which gave a conservative estimate of 100,000 civilians deaths attributable
to the invasion-occupation, the media largely ignored it, and where
they did discuss it on a back page, they went to pains to criticize
its methodology, although that same methodology had been used and
cited earlier without criticism by U.S. and British officials. When
Bush recently acknowledged publicly that 30,000 Iraq civilians had
died in the fighting, the media reported the Bush figure on the
front page without debating the number or methodology, and without
comparing it with the now 15-month-old (and thus even more understated)



destruction of Fallujah was a major event in a now operative U.S.
policy that has been called “urbicide”—the killing
of cities. Town after insurgent-friendly town has been attacked
furiously and with heavy fire-power, with minimal media attention.
One critical report notes that “the pleas of American victims
[of Katrina] were eventually heard loud and clear but those of people
trapped inside Tal Afar or forgotten around its peripheries [90
percent of the inhabitants fled the town] are lost in the ether….
There are no convoys of aid-bearing trucks and planes, stuffed with
food and blankets headed in their direction. Even to be acknowledged
at all would be a step up” (Linda Heard, “Tal Afar Under
Media Carpet,” September 13, 2005). 

The media treatment of Fallujah is a microcosm of the abysmal totality.
This was a Guernica on a vast scale, in which numerous war crimes
were committed, a sizable city destroyed, several thousand civilians
killed, several hundred thousand people made homeless, illegal weapons
employed, hospitals destroyed and medical personnel and patients
mistreated, among other matters. The embedded journalists didn’t
even uncover the story of the use of phosphorus—that was dug
up by an outsider—and when it was forced into the public domain
journalists treated it not as a war crime but as a PR setback for
“our side.” A classic is the press treatment of the takeover
of the Fallujah General Hospital, where the troops “kicked
the doors in” with “patients and hospital employees rushed
out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the
floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” It
was alleged that the hospital presented a problem in that they provide
“inflated casualty figures…propaganda they believe for
the Iraqi insurgents” (Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “Early Target
Of Offensive Is a Hospital,”


, November 8, 2005;
a photo accompanies the article showing patients and doctors being
tied up and questioned). 

 Nowhere in this article is it mentioned that such treatment
of a hospital and its patients and personnel violates international
law (nor does it or any accompanying article mention a nearby hospital
destroyed by bombs, in an even more obvious violation of international
law), nor is there any editorial page questioning of this tactic
or the rest of the Guernica treatment. That the media can normalize
the murder of Fallujah and the escalating urbicides across Sunni
territory shows clearly how the media’s work underpins state
violence and can allow that violence to go very far in violation
of both the law and widely accepted morality. 

Modern weapons and cooperative media institutions have worked together
to facilitate state terrorism and the commission of acts of violence
against distant civilians that are easily competitive with the Assyrians
“flaying men alive” and cutting off limbs and noses. The
incentives to do this on the part of contemporary state terrorists
rests on motives not far off from those of the Assyrians: material
gain, the desire to possess land and resources held by others, and
a mix of racist and religious feelings and power hunger. 

It may be true that democratic sentiment today militates against
such horrible behavior, but that humanizing force is kept at bay
by oligarchic institutions: governments representing elite interests
lie about their true aims and create demons and threats that must
be destroyed and removed; a military establishment, weapons contractors,
and transnational business collective provides the primary support
base for these governments and their policies and lies; and an elite-dominated
media and small body of establishment intellectuals work hard to
keep their own state’s victims out of sight and convince the
majority that their state’s terror is “counter-terror”
reacting to a real threat, and that any nasty results of their own
state’s terror are regrettable “collateral damage.” 

Thus, under contemporary conditions, despite an impressive and growing
but as yet ineffective democratic resistance, state terrorism flourishes,
and “shock and awe,” which was only regional in the time
of Assyrian hegemony (and even the Roman), has been globalized.
The hope of the future is that the only remaining contesting superpower—democratic
opinion—along with pockets of local or regional resistance,
will gain strength sufficient to halt the predations of the militarized
superpower, now out of control and so zealously striving to impose
its will, its domination and privileged position, and its favored
neoliberal rules on others across the globe that the response it
provokes is becoming equally global.

S. Herman is a professor emeritus of finance, Wharton School, University
of Pennsylvania. He is the author of numerous books including

Political Economy of Human Rights

(with Noam Chomsky). His lastest

The Myth of the Liberal Media.