Two Takes on Terrorism

2 May 2008

Two Takes on Terrorism

By Gwynne Dyer

“Terrorism,” like “fascism,” is one of those words that people routinely apply to almost any behaviour they disapprove of. We had a particularly impressive spread of meanings on display last week.

At one extreme, the US State Department released its annual “Country Reports on Terrorism,” a Congressionally mandated survey of all the incidents that the United States officially regards as terrorism. There were, it said, 14,499 such attacks last year. (That’s 71 down from the previous year, so there is hope.)

At the other extreme, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor and current nemesis, when asked to justify his earlier remark that the 9/11 attacks on the United States were “America’s chickens coming home to roost,” helpfully explained that the US had dropped atomic bombs on Japan and “supported state terrorism against the Palestinians and black South Africans,” so what did Americans expect?

“You cannot do terrorism on other people and expect it never to come back on you,” Wright elucidated. “These are Biblical principles, not Jeremiah Wright bombastic divisive principles.” So it was presumably God who selected a bunch of Saudi Arabians and Egyptians to punish the United States for its misdeeds against Japanese, Palestinians and South Africans.

Mass slaughter of the innocent as a tool of divine justice is a familiar concept in the Bible (Jericho, Sodom and Gomorrah, the seven plagues of Egypt, etc.), and it would have held equal appeal for the nineteen Arab fanatics aboard those hijacked aircraft on 9/11. The ancient Hebrews were quite partial to divine terrorism, too, since it served their purposes so well.

But divine terrorism doesn’t really qualify under the State Department’s definition, since God, even when he perpetrates “premeditated, politically motivated violence…against non-combatant targets,” is not acting as a “sub-national group or clandestine agent.” He is more of a sovereign Power in his own right. This puts Him in the same category as sovereign states, whose actions, however violent and even illegal, cannot by definition be described as “terrorism.” If you don’t believe me, ask the State Department.

So much for Jeremiah Wright’s attempt to define the American use of nuclear weapons against Japan as terrorism. It was terrible and terrifying, and it was intended to terrorise the Japanese people into surrender, but it was not terrorism. Neither are Israeli actions against the Palestinians, even when ten or twenty Palestinians are dying for every Israel victim of Palestinian terrorism, and a high proportion of the dead Palestinians are innocent civilians. Israel is a state, so by definition what it does cannot be terrorism.

Now that that’s clear, let’s move on to what the US State Department does define as terrorism. The first thing that strikes you, reading the “Country Reports on Terrorism,” is that 6,212 of “the terrorist attacks,” over two-fifths of all the 14,499 that it records for last year, were in Iraq. Might that be connected in some way with the fact that Iraq was invaded by the United States five years ago and for all practical purposes remains under US military occupation?

Algerian rebels used similar tactics against French imperial rule, including numerous brutal attacks on innocent civilians. So did the Mau Mau guerillas against their British colonial masters in Kenya, and the Viet Cong against the American presence in South Vietnam, and other people fighting against foreign occupation or domestic oppression in dozens of other countries. Their tactics were regularly condemned by their targets, but nobody tried to pretend that the world was facing a wave of irrational and inexplicable violence called “terrorism.”

Yet that is precisely the assumption that underlies the State Department’s annual reports on “terrorism,” and indeed the Bush administration’s entire “war on terror.” Or rather, it is the perspective through which the report’s authors want the rest of the world to see the troubles in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on, for they cannot be so naive that they truly believe the link between the presence of US occupation troops and a high level of terrorist attacks is purely coincidental.

You can see the same perspective at work in the distinction that is made between Israeli attacks on Palestinians (the legitimate actions of a sovereign state) and Palestinian attacks on Israelis (terrorism). Thus US support for Israel is also legitimate, while Iranian support for Palestinian militants makes Iran the “most active state sponsor of terrorism.”

Others play this game too – notably the Russians in Chechnya – but it is really an American innovation. Leading neo-conservative Richard Perle, former chairman of the Defense Policy Board, famously declared in 2002 that “terrorism must be de-contextualised,” but the process was already well underway in practice. And so, deprived of context, terrorism sits there as a uniquely wicked and inexplicable phenomenon, while legitimate states and armies can get on with the business of killing people in legitimate wars.

Jeremiah Wright is a narcissistic and embittered man who says many stupid and untrue things (like accusing the US government of spreading HIV/AIDS among the African-American population), but you can see why he got a little confused on the terrorism issue.


To shorten to 725 words, omits paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Mass…well”; and “Others…wars”)