Should the US Renounce Terrorism?

by Richard Heinberg, New College, Museletter

Renounce: to give up, refuse, or repudiate:

The US is engaged in a self-declared war on terrorism. That war, little more than two months old, has already entailed extraordinary measures that include the domestic curtailment of civil liberties, the spending of billions of dollars on military operations overseas, and the killing of hundreds or perhaps thousands of non-combatant civilians in Afghanistan (the exact number may never be known). Officials have stated that the heavy bombing of other nations, such as Iraq, is being contemplated.

If polls are to be trusted, most Americans think this war on terrorism is a good thing. Nobody wants to be terrified, after all. And the horrors inflicted on innocents in New York and Washington on September 11 surely require some response that would ensure that no similar attacks will follow. Moreover, the war seems to be going well: the Taliban are on the run and it appears that arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden is on the verge of being taken.

But if the US government is effectively to oppose terrorism in the long run, one would think that an important early step would be for its officials to publicly renounce the use of terror by the United States as an instrument of foreign policy. Such a gesture would have the immediate benefit of drawing a clear moral line distinguishing the actions of the 9-11 perpetrators from those of the American government in rounding up the evil-doers.

As simple and obvious a suggestion as this might at first seem, it in fact raises a number of thorny issues.

defining terrorism
Before terrorism can be renounced it must first be defined. My dictionary (Merriam-Webster's New Collegiate, Ninth Edition) suggests that it is "the systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion."

However, this is neither a legal nor a universally accepted meaning for the term. Indeed, no international standard definition exists. As recently as October 2, 2001, during debate at a meeting of the UN General Assembly, nations including Saudi Arabia, Britain, Algeria, the Netherlands, Mongolia, and Burkina Faso joined Secretary General Kofi Annan in calling for a clear, consistent international definition.

Thus far, one has not emerged to which all can agree. In the US, terrorism is defined by the Code of Federal Regulations as ". . . the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

(28 C.F.R. Section 0.85) According to the US State Department, terrorism is "Pre-meditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant* targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience." (If we follow the asterisk, we find that the word "noncombatants" includes both civilians and military personnel who are unarmed or off duty at the time. The text offers several examples, including the 1986 disco bombing in Berlin, which killed two servicemen.)

The term terrorism was first used in 1795 to refer to Robespierre's famous "reign of terror" in post-revolutionary France. Thus the word originally meant actions undertaken by the state to terrorize its own citizenry. Ironically, that meaning is carefully exempted from the current State Department definition quoted above, as only "subnational groups" or "clandestine agents" are capable of committing terrorism.

Since terroristic acts have undeniably been committed by governments, the State Department provides a list of states that are said to "sponsor" terrorism, though they are not described as being the direct perpetrators. This deliberate exclusion of government violence from the official definition of terrorism seems peculiar, especially in light of the word's origin, until we examine the record of America's own use of violence as a means of coercion.

the u.s. and terrorism
By the State Department definition, the US has clearly been guilty of "sponsoring" terrorism on a number of occasions. Its support of the Contras - who used mass murder, torture, and kidnappings in their attempts to overthrow the elected government of Nicaragua during the 1980s - is one instance; others include CIA support of Jonas Savimbi's ruthless UNITA faction in Angola from 1975-1990, and of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Each of these subnational groups comitted acts undeniably - by any definition thus far proposed - classifiable as terrorism, and did so with financing and arms supplied by the US government. In each instance, US support continued during and after widely-reported atrocities.

If a broader definition of the term were to be adopted - one that included violence perpetrated directly by governments upon noncombatant civilians during peacetime - then many more instances of US "terrorism" could be cited.

Even if we narrow the discussion of violence simply to bombing, the list is long; the following is a roster of the countries that the US has bombed from the end of World War II through 1999, either openly or in covert operations, as compiled by historian William Blum:

China 1945-46
Korea 1950-53
China 1950-53
Guatemala 1954
Indonesia 1958
Cuba 1959-60
Guatemala 1960
Congo 1964
Korea 1950-53
China 1950-53
Guatemala 1954
Indonesia 1958
Cuba 1959-60
Guatemala 1960
Congo 1964
Peru 1965
Laos 1964-73
Vietnam 1961-73
Cambodia 1969-70
Guatemala 1967-69
Grenada 1983
Libya 1986
El Salvador 1980s
Nicaragua 1980s
Panama 1989
Iraq 1991-99
Sudan 1998
Afghanistan 1998
Yugoslavia 1999

If we include the "terrorist" actions (again, by a definition that includes the actions of governments) of US-supported states, we confront another long list. Recall the Shah of Iran, installed and supported by the US, whose Savak secret police routinely killed and tortured political dissidents; and Indonesian president Suharto, whose brutal military invasion and occupation of East Timor (using US-supplied weapons) ultimately led to the deaths of between a quarter and a third of that nation's people.

Also, let us not forget the CIA role in the overthrow of the democratically-elected Allende government in Chile in 1973, and subsequent US support for the dictator General Pinochet (and, indirectly, his use of summary executions and torture).

Of current interest is America's ongoing economic and military support for Israel, despite its use of assassination and torture as standard tools in its military occupation of Palestinian territories. In addition, a complete tally would have to mention American complicity in "terrorist" actions by the governments of South Vietnam, Guatemala, Zaire, the Dominican Republic, Greece, Laos, and Haiti, among others.

To the extent that the US justifies these past and ongoing actions, rather than repudiating them, its current "war on terrorism" is meaningless in the minds of large numbers of people throughout the world. However, when the question comes up domestically (as it seldom does, given the American media's hesitancy about discussing potentially embarrassing matters like these), officials typically justify violence against noncombatant civilians as a necessary tool of statecraft.

One still-chilling example was a statement by Madeleine Albright, recently the US Secretary of State, during a May 1996 interview for the TV program Sixty Minutes. Inquiring about the human consequences of US-UN economic sanctions on Iraq, interviewer Leslie Stahl noted that, according to independent reports, the preventable deaths of a half-million children are attributable directly to US actions. "Is the price worth it?", asked Stahl. Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but, the price, we think the price is worth it." Not only officials, but media commentators - from across most of the political spectrum - offer such justifications.

In his 1992 book Deterring Democracy, Noam Chomsky devoted several pages to a discussion of media apologetics for state terror; noting that "It is superfluous to invoke the thoughts of Jeane Kirkpatrick, George Will, and the like," Chomsky focused on political commentator Michael Kinsley, "who represents 'the left' in mainstream commentary and television debate." Chomsky wrote:

"When the State Department publicly confirmed US support for terrorist attacks on agricultural cooperatives in Nicaragua, Kinsley wrote that we should not be too quick to condemn this official policy. Such international terrorist operations doubtless cause "vast civilian suffering," he conceded. But if they manage "to undermine morale and confidence in the government," then they are "perfectly legitimate." The policy is "sensible" if "cost-benefit analysis" shows that "the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in" yields "democracy". . . .

Thus the clear message emerging from both officials and the media is that our (i.e., US or US-backed) "terrorism" is fine, as long as the goal is worthy; while their "terrorism," whatever the objective, is criminal and deserving of the harshest possible violent response.

the goals of u.s. foreign policy
The assumption that appears to lie at the heart of the American attitude toward the use of deadly force in statecraft is that we live in a violent and dangerous world; and given that fact, horrible acts are sometimes needed for the accomplishment of noble ends.

This is an assumption worth examining. Few would claim that we do not live in a violent and dangerous world; but can further violence, even on the part of noble and enlightened governments, succeed in making the world more peaceful and less dangerous? The advocates of state violence as a means of fostering democracy point to the examples of the American and French revolutions, and events in Germany, Japan, and Italy in the 1940s. In these instances, war was indeed followed (at least temporarily) by the formation of democratic governments. Malaya and Bangladesh offer other possible examples. However, a good argument can be made that these are exceptions to the general trend of recent history.

During the past century, the majority of democratic reforms around the world was won through the exercise of nonviolent direct action. This was true both within existing democracies (such as the US, in which the civil-rights movement put an end to many kinds of legal discrimination against minorities) and within brutal dictatorships (as in Poland, where the Solidarity movement defeated the well-armed, repressive communist regime without firing a shot). Throughout the twentieth century, nonviolent movements arose by the hundreds throughout Central and South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia, resulting in the collapse of communism and the end of formal European colonialism.

Most successful independence movements - from Kwame Nkrumah's campaign for the independence of Ghana, to Kenneth Kaunda's leadership of the Zambian movement for self-rule, to the East Timorese struggle for autonomy from Indonesia - have relied on nonviolent methods. Even in the case of the ANC's struggle against apartheid in South Africa, success came after a strategic shift from violent to nonviolent tactics in the early 1980s. In very few cases have independence or pro-democracy movements adopted nonviolence because those movements' leaders were pacifists. In virtually every instance, leaders settled on nonviolent tactics (strikes, pickets, boycotts, marches, and civil disobedience) because such tactics proved more effective than violence at achieving the movement's goals.

Against this backdrop, the American government's repeated attempts to replay World War II (i.e., seeking peace and democracy through bombing) appears unimaginative at best and cynically misleading at worst. After all, of the nineteen nations the US has bombed since 1945, not one adopted a democratically elected government, respectful of human rights, as a direct result. Repeatedly, the American people are told that their nation's current target is a leader who is the equivalent of Hitler, and that this villain du jour can only be gotten rid of through massive use of force.

This despite the fact that even the Shah of Iran, whose regime was one of the most despotic and most militarily intimidating (as a result of US aid) of the century, was overthrown nonviolently.

Since the US continues to use violence to achieve its ostensible political ends (peace, freedom, justice, and democracy), two conclusions are possible; either (1) the news hasn't reached America's leaders that nonviolent action undertaken primarily by oppressed populations themselves is the most effective means of achieving these goals; or (2) the stated US goals are not the real ones. If the actual goal of US action were not peace and freedom but control of global resources, then a frequent resort to violent means would be more understandable. There is historical precedent: every empire has sought to maintain such control through violence or threat of violence. Moreover, the nonviolent alternative would presumably be less attractive: while it is easy to see how nonviolent means can be successful in rallying the support of vast numbers of people to a popular cause like independence or economic justice, it is not so easy to envision how truly peaceful methods could be employed by one nation to gain control of another nation's resources. Economic chicanery and propaganda can go only so far toward that end, unless they are backed up by bullets.

Given that US officials are well-educated and intelligent people (or at least capable of employing well-educated and intelligent people) who are unlikely to be ignorant of the historical trends noted above, observers throughout the world can perhaps be forgiven for concluding that the second option is the correct one: stated US goals are not the real ones, and American use of violence in statecraft is motivated primarily by the desire to control global resources.

However, for the most part, the American people have not reached the same conclusion. This is no doubt partly because they wish to believe that their country has admirable motives, but also because their government and news media tend to obscure the process and results of American foreign policy.

Just within the past 15 to 20 years, according to a survey published by the Los Angeles Times, American newspapers and television networks have reduced foreign coverage by 70 to 80 percent in response to corporate advertisers' economic priorities. It is difficult to understand something one doesn't know much about.

All of this leads to two long-term trends that have become more obvious since September 11. First: If the goal of US foreign policy is to gain and maintain control by American-based corporations of global resources (e.g., oil), efforts along such lines would seem likely to engender resistance that might occasionally take hateful or violent forms. The US might even find itself acting in opposition to local nonviolent pro-democracy movements. A careful reading of the history of the past few decades shows that these possibilities have been realized repeatedly. Second: If Americans are being misinformed about US foreign policy, this might prevent them from being able to understand why people elsewhere in the world resent them. The result would be that a large percentage of Americans would tend to become more self-righteous, more defensive, and more supportive of US military action.

Again, we see this taking place. From the perspective of many people in the less-consuming countries, the US is the world's bully, insisting on getting its way through propaganda, bribes, and skewed elections; and then, if those measures don't work, through bombs and bullets. But from the average American's viewpoint, the fact that people on the other side of the world hate the US is incomprehensible. Thus the "war on terrorism" represents a widening schism between worldviews. Americans, largely unaware that the 9-11 attack was in many respects a result of past US support for terrorist groups (the Mujahideen and the Islamic Jihad movement when they were fighting the Soviets), are unable to see why it was especially important to de-link violence and foreign policy in this instance by dealing with the 9-11 perpetrators through the mechanisms of international law rather than warfare. It is probably unrealistic to think that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban could have been neutralized solely by US support of nonviolent action on the part of the Afghani people.

Some sort of international police action was necessary, and was indeed called for by many parties around the world. But those calls were scarcely heard in the US, where Mr. Bush's immediate demand for war (beginning September 12) went virtually unchallenged in the major US media. Equally silenced have been calls for nonviolent reforms that would reduce or erase motivations for terrorism - i.e., the removal of US troops from Saudi Arabia; the ending of military support for Israel; forgiveness of debts owed by less-consuming nations to the World Bank, IMF, or international investment banks; etc. It is as though Americans are wearing blinders. For them, Afghani civilian casualties are largely unknown, because US government and media are soft-pedaling information about deaths from Yankee bombs and atrocities by the Northern Alliance.

Americans are likewise uninterested in the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan as a result of the war's interruption of relief efforts. According to UN estimates, up to seven million Afghans face starvation unless massive food shipments commence immediately, before winter weather makes roads unpassable. Even British officials have criticized the US for its casual neglect of the potentially genocidal consequences of its actions in this matter. None of this is to deny the dedication and bravery of Americans who earnestly serve their country in various ways - the firefighters and rescue workers in New York, and even the enlisted troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Their patriotism, and that of many citizens who merely display a flag, is no doubt genuine, making all the more tragic the hijacking of that honest sentiment and effort by national leaders who appear to be using words like freedom and democracy as mere slogans to disguise their real objectives and to camouflage their terrorizing tactics.

Even in the present circumstance - especially in the present circumstance - a US renouncement of state terrorism would have salutary effects. In the absence of such a declaration, the real US goals in this war remain questionable, and further instances of terrorism on all sides seem likely.

slipping toward fascism
It would be nice to think that all one need do in order to change US foreign policy is politely to point out inconsistencies between stated goals and real actions. Noam Chomsky and others have been doing this for decades with little noticeable effect. The foreign policy establishment doesn't hear because it isn't listening.

Nor is foreign policy all that much different from domestic policy in this regard. The chilling truth may be that, in the US, democracy is for all practical purposes a mere catchword, and that the American government has been quietly commandeered by parties who have no interest whatever in freedom, peace, or justice. This is hardly news to those who have, for the past few decades, been following the growing influence of corporations on elected officials by way of campaign contributions. However, corporations are not the only ones pulling the strings. The national security apparatus, consisting of the war department and several super-secret agencies able to act well outside the scrutiny of elected officials, appears to have been guiding US policy in a consistent and identifiable direction at least since World War II, regardless of which party is in power. For both these elements of the ruling class, the war on terrorism appears to be part of a larger plan.

A clue to the nature of that plan is the anti-terrorism legislation recently proposed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, quickly approved by both houses of Congress, and signed by the ostensible president, with little debate or media discussion. This legislation includes many proposals that the Justice Department, FBI, and CIA seem to have been quietly assembling for years.

According to Nat Hentoff, in "Terrorizing the Bill of Rights" (Village Voice, November 19, 2001), "That many details of this new law are in contempt of the Bill of Rights is unknown to most Americans because, with few exceptions, the press - particularly its television and radio divisions - has not been paying enough attention."

An ACLU press release claims the new legislation gives "enormous, unwarranted power to the executive branch unchecked by meaningful judicial review." Moreover, "most of the new powers could be used against American citizens in counterterrorism investigations and in routine criminal investigations completely unrelated to terrorism." And the law can be applied against "those whose First Amendment activities are deemed to be threats to national security by the attorney general."

Human rights lawyer Michael Ratner, in his essay "Fortress America: Will It Make Us Safer?" warns that

The new legislation is filled with many other expansions of investigative and prosecutorial power, including wider use of undercover agents to infiltrate organizations, longer jail sentences and lifetime supervision for some who have served their sentences, more crimes that can receive the death penalty and longer statutes of limitations for prosecuting crimes. Another provision of the new bill makes it a crime for a person to fail to notify the FBI if he or she has "reasonable grounds to believe" that someone is about to commit a terrorist offense. The language of this provision is so vague that anyone, however innocent, with any connection to anyone suspected of being a terrorist can be prosecuted.

One of the most troubling aspects of the USA Patriot Act ("Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism"), is that it - again, according to Ratner - . . .

creates a number of new crimes. One of the most threatening to dissent and those who oppose government policies is the crime of "domestic terrorism." It is loosely defined as acts that are dangerous to human life, violate criminal law and "appear to be intended" to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population" or "influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." Under this definition, a protest demonstration that blocked a street and prevented an ambulance from getting by could be deemed domestic terrorism.

Likewise, the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO could fit within the definition. As bad as the USA Patriot Act is, it is easily matched in its insidiousness by two recent executive orders - one enabling eavesdropping on attorney-client conversations in cases where terrorism might be involved; the other authorizing the use both of secret military courts to try non-citizens accused of terrorist acts, and of secret, summary executions. And if Americans are still feeling insecure after reading about these new developments, they can take comfort in Mr. Bush's creation of the Office of Homeland Security, a cabinet-level agency headed by Tom Ridge, the execution-friendly former governor of Pennsylvania.

Ratner sums up the situation this way: . . .

rights that we thought embedded in the constitution and protected by international law are in serious jeopardy or have already been eliminated. It is no exaggeration to say we are moving toward a police state. In this atmosphere, we should take nothing for granted. We will not be protected nor will the courts, the congress, or the many liberals who are gleefully jumping on the bandwagon of repression guarantee our rights.

All of these chilling developments have occurred in the context of an extraordinary spate of press self-censorship. In an article titled "One Nation, One Mind?" in Vanity Fair, December 2001, Leslie Bennetts writes:

Not since the rancorous "America - love it or leave it" days of the Vietnam War has the line been so starkly drawn between what passes for patriotism and what is seen as dissent in this country. . . . Virtually overnight, public tolerance for any criticism of President Bush, not to mention discussion of America's role in the post-Vietnam world - which is to say the period that set the stage for our terrifying set of new challenges - seemed to vanish.

Bennetts goes on to cite instances of media hypervigilance, such as the dropping of conservative commentator Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect television show from many broadcast outlets after he questioned on-air whether terrorists who die for their beliefs can really be called "cowards," as Bush had dubbed them. She describes a kind of superpatriotic hysteria sweeping the nation, leaving little room for even the mildest forms of dissent. Seen in isolation, these developments might appear merely to be momentary responses to a single, unexpected, horrific assualt upon the nation. From another perspective, it is difficult to avoid seeing legislation, executive orders, and corporate press self-censorship as aspects of a larger plan whose goal can be summarized in a single word: fascism. I do not use the term lightly; I mean it not as an alarmist exaggeration, but as a cold and serious assessment of what I see happening before my eyes.

Historians typically define fascism by the characteristics it assumed in Italy, Germany, and Spain during the second, third, and fourth decades of the twentieth century: authoritarian capitalism, superpatriotism, militarism, state secrecy, xenophobia, scapegoating, totalitarian suppression of dissent, and dictatorship. Of these, only the last has not yet appeared on the American scene - though, as Bertram Gross argued in his 1980 book Friendly Fascism, it may actually be possible for a nation to become fascistic while maintaining formal elections.

We live in a time when ruling elites, foreseeing a peak in global petroleum production, together with a consequent economic crash and resource wars, must be developing various strategies for controlling an unwieldy populace. All evidence suggests that the wealthy and powerful will go to any lengths to survive and prosper - even as the rest of humanity suffers and starves - by financing an awesome military machine to put down uprisings at home or abroad.

The alternative to this grim prospect would be some sort of transparent, cooperative, international plan to conserve and share existing fuel stocks while making the transition to a post-petroleum regime as painlessly as possible. Between the two paths lies all the difference in the world.

This is not a moment to keep fearfully silent. Rather, it is a time to sound the alarm. Those who value democracy, freedom, peace, and justice must insist that the US define terrorism to include state terror; that it renounce terror in foreign and domestic policy; that constitutional rights be restored and protected; and that the cloak of government secrecy be lifted. We must at the same time defend nonviolent social action in all its forms, from union organizing to environmental activism. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must press for full disclosure to the world's people of the imminence and consequences of petroleum depletion, and demand a global cooperative approach to future resource allocation.