Myths and Realities about the “New” Terrorism

This article appeared in the Kyunghee Institute for Peace journal, Peace Forum, in Spring 2003

Most of this paper focuses on myths about terrorism.It contains only a very brief discussion of the real roots of terrorism and rational policies to reduce terrorism.This is because the United States and its allies in the terrorism war seriously misunderstand the nature of the problem.Myths are beliefs that in some way reflect certain realities, but are essentially false.Policies based on myths are likely to fail and likely to create more problems than they solve.Successful policy requires seeing the problem clearly.

Myth Number One: Terrorism is a New Form of Warfare Because It Targets Civilians

Perhaps the greatest myth about terrorism is that it is a new form of warfare because it targets civilians.According to most Western analysts, terrorism is particularly evil because innocent civilians are its greatest victims.In his “axis of evil” speech George Bush denounces a new enemy that “makes no distinction among military and civilians.”

But in fact, the methods the terrorists use are not so different from the standards of warfare practiced by the great powers of the 20th century.The use of disproportionate violence to attain political goals, including massacre of civilians, is perhaps the defining characteristic of the 20th century.The targeting of civilians to achieve political and military ends was not invented by Islamic militants.21st century terrorists are in fact a mirror image of the warriors of the 20th century, a funhouse mirror that distorts and exaggerates certain aspects of the original image, but still gets its form from the basic original image.

Sixty million people lost their lives in World War II, most of them civilians.Terror bombing was the open policy of both sides, the Allied powers as well as Axis, escalating to British and American firebombing intended to obliterate entire cities.World War II was also the first atomic war.Hiroshima in particular was selected as a target exactly because it had no military bases or significant war production.It was chosen because military planners had never thought it was important enough to bomb, and therefore the impact of the single nuclear explosion could be easily measured because it would not be confused with the effect of previous conventional bombing.Hundreds of thousands of civilians died, in large part because the Americans wanted to conduct an experiment on the power of nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union not only amassed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons designed primarily to kills civilians, they also proliferated nuclear technology to their key allies.Strategists on both sides openly talked of the “balance of terror” and their intentions to kill hundreds of millions of civilians if the cold war ever got hot.

Civilians remain the main victims in post-Cold War warfare.Most of the casualties in the Gulf War were not Iraqi soldiers, but Iraqi civilians killed in the bombing of Baghdad and other population centers.Most of those who have died in the series of civil wars during the disintegration of Yugoslavia were civilians being “ethnically cleansed,” not only in the states the U.S. and the West opposed, but also in Croatia and Bosnia, the ethnic states the U.S. and the West supported.The trial of war criminals from Serbia is in some sense justice, but it is victor’s justice, since the war criminals that the U.S. and the West supported are not on trial.Even in the largest-scale action so far in the terrorism war, the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S. and its allies, more civilians than soldiers have died, perhaps more civilians than were killed on September 11.

The United States tries to put its actions on higher moral ground than those of the terrorists because it claims it does not try to kill civilians, that civilian casualties are only “collateral damage.”Yet when the United States bombs cities or towns, ostensibly to take out military targets, it knows most of the casualties will be civilians.That civilians are not the official targets is a distinction without a difference.

So what is new about 21st century terrorists?Their real crime is they are non-state actors who attack civilian populations in the West.Hardliners in the Bush administration see terrorism as such a new and dangerous threat to U.S. power largely because unlike states, terrorists cannot be deterred by threats to attack their civilian populations, because they have no civilian populations to defend.

Americans are particularly shocked to be vulnerable since they have enjoyed a long history of a relatively untouchable homeland.Particularly in the 20th century, Americans thought of war as something they went overseas to fight.Americans are quite disturbed that the old Biblical injunction “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” is now being applied to them.

Myth Number Two: Terrorism is the Reason for a New Wave of Global Interventionism by the United States

Terrorism is becoming a functional equivalent to the Cold War as an all-purpose excuse for the U.S. to intervene in conflicts around the world.The U.S. had a long history of sending its military into Central America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe long before the Cold War, and has been just as busy on a global scale since the demise of the Soviet Union.During the Cold War anti-communism provided a convenient excuse to do things the U.S. wanted to do for other reasons.

Now terrorism has replaced communism as the global evil that justifies American interventionism.The Cold War was a very real conflict, but it also took on a mythical dimension in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union.In the U.S., the struggle against the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union was used to justify a wide range of illegitimate, unnecessary, and unwise military and paramilitary actions.It took only four months from September 11 to George Bush’s first State of the Union speech the following January for the real problem of terrorism to be transmuted into a mythical “axis of evil” used to justify a new series of U.S. military interventions across the globe that are also illegitimate, unnecessary, and unwise.In the words of one analysis, “(T)he U.S. is not now engaged in a war with terrorism at all.Instead, this is a war against regimes the U.S. dislikes.” (Cox)

The myth of terrorism is being used as an all-purpose justification for: 1) preemptive attacks against regimes hostile to the United States, 2) preemptive attacks against states that have or are pursuing weapons of mass destruction, 3) military and political support for regimes that abuse human rights, and 4) suspending basic civil liberties domestically.

So, for example, the U.S. attack on the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan was justifiable as a direct response to real terrorist activity.However, the overthrow of the Taliban was more problematic.If, as the U.S. claims, the Taliban directly supported Al Qaeda actions, then a reasonable case could be made for striking back at the Taliban or even overthrowing it.But such evidence was never made public, either to American citizens, the UN, or non-NATO states around the world.

More important, even before the Taliban fell, hard-liners in the U.S. were lining up with other candidate regimes in the Muslim world they wanted to take down, including not just Iraq but also Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iran.Some of these regimes may have ties to Al Qaeda, some may not, but the defining characteristic of these regimes is not support for terrorism, but foreign policies that defy American hegemony.In his “axis of evil” speech George Bush chastises terrorists because “They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries…These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield,” yet obviously the same can be said of the United States.During the Cold War, the threat of communism was stretched to provide an excuse for a wide range of military and paramilitary actions against anti-U.S. regimes that had little to do with a real threat of Soviet expansionism—Vietnam, Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Chile, Nicaragua, and Lebanon are just some of the more well-known.Terrorism should not be the new all-purpose justification for U.S. attacks on regimes it does not like.

The kernel of truth behind the new interventionism is the new sense of vulnerability in the United States after September 11.It is an open question whether terrorism has really increased recently or whether it has simply gotten more attention because the global hegemon feels a new urgency about the problem.But already the American war on terrorism is being expanded to provide cover for conflict with a long list of forces the U.S. had targeted long before September 11.

Myth Number Three: Potential Wars with Iraq or other “Evil” States are about Terrorism

Combating terrorism should not become a justification for aggressive American action against nations that have or are pursuing weapons of mass destruction.Preemptive strikes against such regimes are not a reasonable substitute for a balanced nonproliferation policy.Conservative Republicans in the Senate and the Bush administration have rejected a whole series of international agreements designed to lessen the threat from weapons of mass destruction, from the Comprehensive Test Ban, to the Agreed Framework with North Korea, to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the first and most important nuclear arms treaty.

The common dimension of the regimes in President Bush’s “axis of evil” is not support for terrorism.There is no evidence that Iraq had any connection with the September 11 attack nor any other terrorist activity, except support for Palestinians in battle with Israel.North Korea has used terrorism in the past, but has not been associated with any terrorist activity since before the end of the Cold War.

Nor is the sin of the evil axis the possession of weapons of mass destruction.There are eight known members of the nuclear weapons club, and none of them are in the axis.95% of all the nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction are in the hands of the United States and Russia, the world champion proliferaters.

Even active attacks on civilians plus the possession of nuclear weapons plus the flouting of UN resolutions is not enough to get a state into the axis.Israel regularly makes direct attacks on non-violent Palestinian civilians, openly flouts a wide-range of UN resolutions, and is known to have nuclear weapons.Yet no one could conceive of the U.S. abandoning its support of Israel, much less taking action against it.

The real criteria for membership in the axis are determined opposition to American hegemony coupled with sustained programs to develop and deliver weapons of mass destruction. In one sense conservative Republicans are being more honest than liberal Democrats about the true nature of U.S. policy on weapons of mass destruction.U.S. nuclear policy has never been about non-proliferation.In the post-Cold War world American non-proliferation policy is about keeping an oligopoly on nuclear weapons limited to regimes that are either U.S. allies or that at least do not directly challenge U.S. hegemony.

Not only is preemptive war against the “axis of evil” hypocritical, it also is highly likely to be counterproductive.In the words of an old pop song, it is “putting out fires with gasoline.”Any U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq will enrage millions of Arabs and Muslims around the world.Pro-U.S. regimes in states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan will all be under siege from Islamic militants.If any of these regimes fall, it will put much greater wealth and/or technical resources than Iraq possesses in the hands of new, more powerful opponents of the U.S.Furthermore, existing regimes facing conflict with the U.S. could respond by more determined pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, as may already be the case in North Korea.

Myth Number Four: The Terrorism War Protects Human Rights

In another analogy to the Cold War, the war on terrorism is becoming the new justification for the U.S. to support authoritarian regimes, as long as they line up with the U.S. on key military issues.Before September 11 Pakistan’s leader Musharraf was out of favor in the U.S. for several reasons.Musharraf is a military dictator who overthrew a democratically elected government and continues to repress his people.His government was the best friend of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.Under Musharraf, Pakistan tested nuclear weapons and traded technical support for nuclear and missile programs with regimes Washington found distasteful, like North Korea and Iran.

Yet when Pakistan agreed to abandon its former ally the Taliban to lend cooperation to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, suddenly Musharraf was a hero in the U.S.Washington was silent when Musharraf conducted a phony referendum to extend his rule for five years and openly supported his crackdown on dissidents at home.Support for the dictator Musharraf is only one example of growing Bush administration support for authoritarian regimes and policies in the non-Western world.Although Singapore and Malaysia have electoral systems, they are essentially one party states which have long been criticized in the U.S. for their restrictions on opposition groups.But now they are being praised in Washington for exactly the same authoritarian policies, because now their repression is targeted at Islamic militants.

In a further analogy to the Cold War, civil liberties in the U.S. are also under threat.The McCarthyism of the 21st century is the doctrine of guilt by association applied to those who belong to Islamic groups that may or may not have given some form of indirect assistance to terrorist cells, often without any knowledge of the intent of the terrorists.Just as most of those targeted by McCarthy were not communists, most of those under investigation today are not terrorists.But they are being tarred with that brush just because of their membership in unpopular groups.Profiling of American citizens by their countries of origin is now widespread, not unlike actions taken against all Japanese-American citizens during World War II that were only recently repudiated by the American legal system.In perhaps the most egregious case, at least one American citizen has been held for six months without charges because he has been classified as an enemy combatant and thus subject to summary military justice rather than protected by the American Constitution.

Myth Number Five: Terrorism is a “New” Threat to Civilization

Not long ago, while doing research into the origins of American hegemony, I came across an article written by Teddy Roosevelt before he became the first American president in the 20th century to articulate a global role for the U.S.Although there are important differences, Roosevelt’s late 19th century characterization of “barbarians” shows important continuities with George W. Bush’s 21st century characterization of an “axis of evil.”

The growth of peacefulness between nations...has been confined strictly to those that are civilized... Whether the barbarian be the Red Indian…the Afghan…or the Turkoman…(i)n the long run civilized man finds he can keep the peace only by subduing his barbarian neighbor; for the barbarian will yield only to force.

It is only the warlike power of a civilized people that can give peace to the world. The Arab wrecked the civilization of the Mediterranean coasts (and) the Turk wrecked the civilization of southeastern Europe, setting back the progress of the world for centuries, solely because the civilized nations opposed to them had lost the great fighting qualities.

(N)owadays the barbarians recede or are conquered (and) peace follows their retrogression or conquest…due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.

There are several things striking about this passage.Perhaps the most obvious is that more than a hundred years ago, Afghans and Arabs were also identified as enemies of “civilization.”Add the Turks, also an Islamic people, and you can see that Samuel Huntington did not invent the “clash of civilizations” at the end of the 20th century.

Second, there is an easily decipherable code to Roosevelt’s remarks.The “civilized” nations are all white, western, and Christian, while all the barbarian peoples are non-white, non-European, and non-Christian.In the past century there has been some blurring of these racial and cultural lines, but it is no accident that the members of the “axis of evil” are all non-white, non-Christian Asian nations, while the core of today’s “civilization” as seen by George Bush is still white, western, Christians.Some non-European U.S. allies such as Japan and South Korea are now in the charmed circle of “civilized” nations, as is Turkey, the key American military ally in the Muslim world.But the basic code remains—the bad guys are non-white, non-Christian Asians, while all the white, western, Christian nations are good guys, with a few carefully selected, friendly, and properly deferential Asians allowed to join the club.

Similarly, in the 21st century we no longer talk about entire peoples as “barbarian.”Less developed, Third World peoples who are not “advanced” is more politically correct.But contemporary characterizations of “an axis of evil” or “rogue regimes” differ little from Roosevelt’s characterization of barbarians.

Third, Roosevelt writes of a permanent state of warfare between the good guys of the West and much of the rest of the world.He even openly celebrates the “fighting qualities” and “fighting instinct” of the West.In the 21st century it is not acceptable to be looking for “fights.”Wars must all be depicted as defensive.Wars can no longer be about territorial gain or conquest of barbarians.But the Bush administration’s view of a long-term global struggle against “evil” regimes around the world has remarkable parallels to Roosevelt’s felt need to subdue the entire planet in the name of civilization.The Bush administration’s superstitious faith in military power as a solution to difficult political problems corresponds well to Roosevelt’s belief in civilized nation’s “fighting qualities.”

Today we can see clearly the racist, Eurocentric thinking of Roosevelt.Yet somehow the same racial, western-centric thinking of George W. Bush eludes us.Before the real causes of terrorism can be seen clearly, we must shed the myths that distort our perceptions of the problem.

The Root Causes of Terrorism

The roots of terror are many and different analysts will focus on different dimensions.There are at least four basic origins of terrorism: 1) real political grievances unmet by the current international system, 2) the inability of nation states and conventional international institutions to address these real political grievances by historically legitimate means, 3) the intensification of globalization which not only undermines traditional cultures but also gives terrorists greater ability to organize globally and greater access to targets around the world, and 4) the use of terror by the great powers and superpowers throughout the 20th century, which has blurred any distinction between war between national militaries and war on civilian populations.

It is not simply poverty or economic inequities that produce terrorism.Effective terrorist action requires funding and technical support beyond the means of the totally impoverished.Converting economic deprivation and political repression of a people into individuals willing to take terrorist action requires a political elite with an articulate ideology that links the plight of desperate people to a definable enemy target.

Many of the most publicized terrorist actions have been conducted by Islamic fundamentalists.Conflict between the Western and Islamic worlds has been going on for more than a millennium, and Muslims around the world have accumulated a long list of grievances against the West.Most of the Islamic world was colonized by European aggressors.In the post-colonial era the U.S. and the West have been more concerned with extracting oil and fighting socialism in the Islamic world than with human rights or economic development.The U.S. has supported many corrupt, despotic regimes, ranging from the Shah of Iran to Suharto in Indonesia, to at times even Saddam Hussein, and of course, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.But the use of terrorism transcends any one culture or region.Terror is truly global in scale, from the IRA in Northern Ireland to the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to the narco-terrorists in Columbia to the ethnic cleansers in the former Yugoslavia.

Terror can be found wherever a well-funded, well-educated elite with bitter historic grievances against an inflexible political system mixes with a poor and repressed population with little or nothing to lose.The elite provides the ideology that motivates the desperate individuals to act with unrestrained violence.

Getting to the Root Causes of Terrorism and Violence Against Civilians

Commenting on the disapproval of the great powers of the 20th century of the methods used by nationalist movements fighting for independence from Western conquest, half a century ago Fanon noted that what is rational from the point of view of the colonized may not appear rational from the point of view of the colonialist.In fighting terrorism, what matters is not whether terrorist actions seem rational to the rich, comfortable, white West, but whether these actions seem rational to relatively poor, bitter, and desperate, non-white peoples who have been repressed by the powerful nation states and ignored by the international community.

More can, should, and will be done to strengthen inter-faith dialogue and understanding between Christians, Jews, and Muslims.But inter-faith dialogue will not be enough.Sometimes the West and Islamic peoples understand each other perfectly well; we simply disagree, like on the question of Israel—disagree so strongly both sides are willing to kill to get their way.

Sometimes terror can be suppressed with counter-terror.Sometimes if the rich and powerful are willing to use even more violence than the non-state terrorists, they can kill enough terrorists and potential terrorists to be successful, as the war in Afghanistan seems to demonstrate.But the continuing battle in Palestine shows that simply killing more desperate people than they can kill is not necessarily effective.

Sometimes actions that separate the political elite that mobilizes terror from the desperate population that provides the individual foot soldiers can be effective.So cutting the flow of money, weapons, and ideas between terrorist cells can sometimes avert terror before it happens.

But if grievances are deep and widely felt, suppression will not work.In many cases, unless the root causes are dealt with, terrorism becomes like the mythical Greek Hydra, the multi-headed beast that grew two new heads every time one was cut off.People only resort to terror when they have real grievances, and progress on such core issues nearly always undercuts terrorist movements.When the real political problems that underlie terrorist movements are seriously dealt with, terrorist action generally recedes.Peace talks leading to political change have brought an end to large-scale terror in Northern Ireland and may soon do so in Sri Lanka.In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the Oslo peace process dramatically reduced terror.It was only when that process broke down that the new wave of terror began.

Liberals who recognize that terrorism is most effectively dealt with by addressing the root conflicts often call for the U.S. to take a greater role in mediating such conflicts, especially between Muslims and non-Muslims around the world, for example the Middle East or India-Kashmir.But in many cases U.S. or Western intervention has been a major contributor to the rise of terrorism—whether it was U.S. support for Israel, British suppression of Catholics in Northern Ireland, or Western support of what became the Taliban when they were fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan.The best contribution the U.S. and the West could make toward reducing terrorism would be to reduce their meddling in the lives of Islamic and other post-colonial peoples around the world.

Liberals who call for redressing global economic inequities as a measure against terror have their hearts in the right place, but their analysis is a bit off.Redressing global political inequities—like excessive American power, Western cultural hegemony, and Israel’s military supremacy—would get more directly to the causes of terrorism.

Violence conducted by powerful states, whether executed through their own militaries or through proxies, is rarely considered terrorism.What the powerful call terrorism is a weapon of the weak.When powerful nations choose to kill civilians to achieve their political purposes, we in the West call it warfare.Most of the civilians killed in the 20th century have been killed by warfare between nations, not what the powers that be define as terrorists.Even in the post-Cold War era where there has so far been no serous conflict between the powerful nation-states, most of the civilians killed in conflicts between powerful states and non-state movements have been killed by the powerful states, not the terrorists.

So when the United States and the other rich and comfortable peoples of the West ponder what to do about terrorism, a quote from the Bible might be appropriate, “before you can remove the speck of dust from your brother’s eye, you must remove the plank of wood from your own eye.”


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