Antiterrorism As A Cover For....Terrorism

by Edward S. Herman

October 29, 2001


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During the Cold War the United States supported a string of terror states, from the immediate post-World War backing given Thailand dictator Phibun Songkhram, "the first pro-Axis dictator to regain power after the war," to its support of Suharto, Marcos, Mobutu, Diem, Duvalier, Trujillo, Somoza, and a string of murderous military regimes in Latin America. This was all done on the rationale of needing to "stop Communism," but this excuse was used in cases where the threat was non-existent and laughable. In May 1954, just one month before the United States overthrew an elected government in Guatemala with a proxy army from dictator Somoza's territory in Nicaragua, the National Security Council issued a report on the threat of "Guatemalan Aggression in Latin America," and in a mode of panic described that tiny country as "increasingly an instrument of Soviet aggression in this hemisphere." Guatemala had not moved an inch outside its territory, was virtually disarmed by a U.S. boycott, and was quickly overthrown a month later. Did the NSC really believe their hysterical nonsense? Whether they did or not this was a wonderfully convenient ploy to deflect attention from the U.S. desire to dominate the hemisphere, and it was used regularly to create governments of terror that quickly opened their doors to foreign investment and kept labor markets as "flexible" as the transnationals and IMF might desire.

Anticommunism was a superb rhetorical instrument for rationalizing U.S. support of convenient terrorism, and in the 1954 Guatemala case and regularly elsewhere the mainstream media helped make it work.

There was some reaction to U.S. support of terror regimes in the Carter years in the 1970s, with a claim that this country should give a little more attention to "human rights." This new look never took hold, except in government rhetoric (and in the Carter years aid to Indonesia was stepped up as its attack on East Timor reached genocidal levels in 1977-1978, and relations with Marcos, the Brazilian generals and Mobutu remained solid). But with the coming of Reagan there was a famous turn-about: from our devotion to human rights we were going to turn our attention to "terrorism," announced Secretary of State Alexander Haig in 1981. It was alleged that the Soviet Union was behind a terror network, and in a book that became the bible of the Reagan administration, The Terror Network, Claire Sterling claimed a Soviet hand everywhere, from support of terrorists that threatened governments from Italy and Germany to Argentina and South Africa.

The problem with this new look is that it focused only on retail terrorism--and selectively--and ignored state terrorism. It attended to the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof gang in Italy and Germany, but neglected the Cuban refugee terrorist network working out of Miami, Savimbi and Renamo in Angola and Mozambique, and the Nicaraguan contras--these were OUR terrorists, therefore "freedom fighters" or ignored. Even more important, Reagan supported Marcos, Suharto, the murderous governments of El Salvador and Argentina, and "constructively engaged" South Africa. These were premier state terrorists; South Africa, crossing its borders into the neighboring states and killing scores of thousands, was probably the leading terrorist state in the 1980s. Kaddafi's Libya was an insignificant terrorist state by comparison. Argentina, which Reagan rushed to embrace in 1981, was also a violent terrorist state, and in a report on the history of that regime sponsored by the Alfonsin government after the military government's ouster in 1984, it was stated that "the armed forces responded to the terrorists' crimes WITH A TERRORISM INFINITELY WORSE THAN THAT WHICH THEY WERE COMBATTING." But this had never registered in the U.S. mainstream media while that terrorism took place; they had always called the retail terrorists terrorists, but not the "infinitely worse" state terrorists. The Alfonsin report was given very little attention, and in a miracle of propaganda service the Reagan administration, supporting the world's worst terrorists, engaging in it directly by military actions in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and sponsoring terrorism by supporting the Nicaraguan contras and Savimbi in Angola (among others), was allowed to be fighting terrorism!

So coming to George W. Bush's new dedication to fighting terrorism, we are in familiar territory. The rule is that terrorism is what the U.S. government says it is--if it or its allies or clients do precisely the same thing as the named terrorists, that is not terrorism, by rule of affiliation. Thus, if we bombed Serbian civilian facilities to intimidate that population, killing many hundreds, that cannot be terrorism because we did it. It isn't put this crudely of course, it is merely understood, a silent double standard, just as it is tacitly understood that international law applies to others but not to us.

And if we have refused to allow Iraq to import equipment to repair its destroyed water treatment plants, and if this and the overall sanctions regime kills hundreds of thousands of civilians, as we strive to remove or control Saddam Hussein, this intimidation and large-scale killings is not terrorism, because we are doing it. U.S. support of the Colombian army (and indirectly, its paramilitaries) is not sponsoring terrorism, despite the thousands killed and scores of thousands displaced each year, because we cannot sponsor terrorism by definition. Similarly, although Ariel Sharon's crucial role in the killings at Sabra and Shatila, Qibya, and elsewhere gives him a civilian death toll that exceeds that of Carlos the Jackal by better than fifteen to one, Carlos is EVIL, a major terrorist, whereas Sharon is accepted and supported as Prime Minister of Israel and is not labelled a terrorist. Israel, also, can invade Lebanon repeatedly, maintain a murderous "contra" army in Lebanon, and kill and expropriate freely in its occupied territories, without designation as a terrorist state or sponsor of terrorism, by rule of affiliation.

And George W. Bush can threaten to attack Afghanistan if its Taliban rulers (or faction) does not surrender bin Laden, without providing the Taliban with any evidence of his participation in the World Trade Center/Pentagon bombings, putting large numbers of Afghanis into flight for fear of bombing; and Bush can force Pakistan to close its borders, threatening the several million Afghanis already in peril of starvation with accelerated death--but nowhere in the mainstream media is this described as terrorism, although it fits perfectly the dictionary definition: "a mode of governing, or opposing government, by intimidation."

I noted earlier that during the Cold War the Red Threat provided the intellectual cover for support of a string of terror states that served U.S. political and economic interests. The Bush war on terrorism is already providing the same kind of cover for supporting OUR terror regimes, and they have been delighted with the new developments. Benjamin Netanyahu could barely contain his pleasure at the bombings, barely catching himself to note his regrets at the deaths! "It's very good....Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy." Sharon immediately stepped up his own campaign of intimidation, and the new war on terrorism plays into his hands, as Israel has long been perceived to be only a victim of terror, fighting terrorism, but never itself engaging in terror; therefore a natural ally in the war on terrorism from whom we can learn much. Only the Palestinians terrorize and are never obliged to fight terrorism.

Bush is strengthening ties with Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, and Indonesia, among other states that engage in serious terror, just as Reagan built his relationship with South Africa, Argentina, Marcos, and the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. There wasn't an insurmoutable public relations problem then and there hasn't been a problem currently, because the mainstream media take it as gospel that we are virtuous and terrorists are those who we say are terrorists. The liberal E. J. Dionne, Jr., writes that "Progressives who believe in justice should be able to back war on terror" (Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 29, 2001). In the great tradition of apologetics for U.S.- and U.S.-sponsored terrorism, Dionne never bothers to discuss what terror is; he just takes it as a patriotic premise that his country never engages in it, or supports it. He follows his predecessors, who never discussed whether overthrowing the elected government of Guatemala in 1954 was legal, moral, or based on a real Red Threat; or whether perhaps Reagan's antiterrorism campaign of the 1980s was really a cover for the support of terrorisms "infinitely worse" than those Reagan and the media played up.

In sum, the propaganda system works extremely well, providing Big Brother-quality results under a system of "freedom." The only losers are what Thorstein Veblen called "the underlying population."


       Edward S. Herman is a Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a contributor to Z Magazine since its founding in 1988. Herman is the author of numerous books, including a number of corporate and media studies. These include Corporate Control, Corporate Power (1981), the two-volume Political Economy of Human Rights (1979) and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), both of which he co-authored with Noam Chomsky, as well as The "Terrorism" Industry: The Experts and Institutions That Shape Our View of Terror (1989), which he co-authored with Gerry O'Sullivan. This essay, originally published as a commentary for ZNet is reproduced with the kind authorization of the author.

       Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Edward S. Herman 2001. All rights reserved.

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Published October 29, 2001
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