Oct/Nov 2012 Salon

Terrorism 101

by Thomas J. Hubschman

What is terrorism? Is it an arbitrary act of violence, violence for its own sake or as protest—the anarchist's bomb thrown into the carriage of a high public official that happens to set off a world war? Is terrorism any act of violence that has civilians as its victims?

Words matter. Thoughts, attitudes, political opinions are formed by words. Politicians and their enablers know this. They use words carefully to create the political will they need to carry out their agendas. The acts of September 11, 2001 were quickly and almost without objection labeled as terrorism or "acts of terror." Virtually overnight the narrative became: they hate us, so they acted as they did to terrorize us.

But did they? Did the 19 men who hijacked four airliners and successfully flew three of them into very prominent buildings mean to strike terror—extreme fear—into us? If so, to what purpose? Terrorism is almost always a tactic, not a goal. You terrorize civilians in order to change their behavior. You kill everyone in an Indian/Filipino/Vietnamese village to send a message not, obviously, to the dead but to the neighboring villages that this will be their fate as well if they give support to our enemies. You incinerate the civilian population of a Japanese or German city to destroy the will of the rest of the population to continue the fight. You terrorize not – at least not in theory—to engender fear for its own sake but to cause a change in the enemy's attitude and ability to fight.

Is that what 9/11 was about? If the attacks occurred because they "hate our freedoms" or what we stand for—vague and propagandistic as those putative reasons may be—were those attacks acts of terrorism? Are we to assume that bin Laden and company believed we would change our political attitudes because of 9/11? Is that why he attacked the USS Cole the previous autumn or before that the American embassies in Africa? To weaken our will?

Bin Laden's stated reasons for the 9/11 attacks primarily amounted to retribution for the continuing presence of "infidel" troops on the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia which contains the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Before the first Gulf War he had offered to drive out Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, and in the 1980s he had fought, with American support, to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. You could reasonably say he attacked us on 9/11 for the same reason we killed the grandmothers and babies in those Vietnamese villages: to send a message. But with the forces of strength so lopsided in our favor—the world's only superpower versus a handful of men mostly operating from abroad—bin Laden could hardly have believed he could prevail in the contest, certainly not in the short term, despite what was said at the time about al Qaeda expecting the West to collapse like a house of cards. Bin Laden's experience in Afghanistan might well have taught him that a persistent, well-financed guerrilla war against an occupying power, even one as mighty as the Soviet Union, could over time succeed. But the United States is not occupied Moslem land, and the attacks of 9/11 were not the first strike of a major guerrilla action. They were a successful attempt to do in a more spectacular way what al Qaeda was able to do in its attack on the Cole and the US embassies: bin Laden did what he had signaled he was intending to do: strike an American target on American soil.

But was it terrorism? And does it matter if it was or wasn't?

The disconnect between the way we think about conscious, deliberate acts by nations intended to break the will of a people or intimidate them and individual acts of violence aimed at relatively small groups of civilians makes us lose our perspective about what terrorism is and is not. When, as in the words of Justice Richard Goldstone's UN report about the actions of Israel in Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, the purpose is to "humiliate, punish and terrorize," how can that action not be spoken of as terrorism? Yet, we continue to reserve that word, with all the animus it carries, for suicide bombers and more sophisticated but still non-national actors who target civilians.

Was the Oklahoma City bombing by two or three American citizens acting on their own an act of terrorism? Timothy McVeigh drove a truck full of homemade explosives up to the front of a federal building and detonated it, killing 300+ people. Did he do so to terrorize—to strike fear into others or make them change their behavior? During his last visit with his father before his execution he is reported to have said, "It was all about Waco," referring to the deaths of dozens of men, women and children after federal agents in Texas attacked the compound of a religious sect known as the Branch Davidians. McVeigh's motive sounds like retribution to me, very much like bin Laden's initial claim that 9/11 was revenge for American troops desecrating the Muslim holyland.

Words do matter. Revenge can satisfy a claim of injustice: an eye for an eye. Terrorism is about something else.

By the way, is the state execution of a convicted criminal like McVeigh an act of terrorism or one of justice in the form of revenge? Isn't part of the argument in favor of capital punishment that it acts as a deterrent, like stringing up a "bad" slave to send a warning to others, or the destruction of one of those Indian or Vietnamese villages? The intent in those cases was to strike fear into would-be malefactors. The victims in each instance were also civilians.

When someone talks about "state terrorism" it's easy to dismiss their claim as exaggeration with arguments like, War is a dirty business in which everyone suffers, and euphemisms like "collateral damage." When a couple hundred thousand civilians are incinerated in their beds or on their ways to work in cities pretty much devoid of military significance, is that just collateral damage? If we (in a democracy it's our military, responsible to and by us) deliberately destroy the infrastructure of a nation and 500,000 children die as a result of poor sanitation and other deprivations over the next several years, is that just the fortunes of war or is it state terrorism?

It seems to me that, as long as we exempt nation states like our own from any responsibility for terrorism, we are leaving out the major and most lethal perpetrators of those who engage in the practice. If we confine the definition to individuals or small groups of people acting on their own or on behalf of some cause they espouse, we shift the entire ground of the argument to a place where our collective responsibility is safe from any stigma of guilt. And yet, what a monstrous moral sleight-of-hand we engage in when we do so. It's as if we were to claim the only terrorists were John Brown's raiders or some rebellious slaves, not the institution of slavery and the slave owners who kept their "property" in a continual state of fear with lashings and worse administered as often as necessary in order to send a message to all other slaves.

You can't wage a war on terrorism or terror, any more than you can send an army out to fight "evil." But it seems you can befuddle your population into believing you can while at the same time perpetrating acts of mass murder for which no domestic and few international courts will call you to account. Henry Kissinger is liable to arrest in some parts of the world for his part in the massive bombings of civilians during the Vietnam War. But he's safe enough in the United States and most places abroad, as are George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. But as long as we go on believing that terrorists are not heads of state and those they represent but are only suicide bombers and other non-state actors, the rest of us can sleep peacefully at night... until some super-patriots decide we are the enemy that needs to be eliminated.


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