Thursday, April 21, 2011

Literal and Propagandistic Views of Terrorism

I see that terrorism and anti-terrorism is in the news again. A Nashville paper reported a protest of > 200 Tennessee Muslims who turned out at the Legislative Plaza to oppose an anti-terrorism bill which they argue grew out of a direct assault against Islam. As first drafted, the so called anti-terrorism bill made it a felony to follow Shariah law. Eventually the references to the Muslin religion were excised but perhaps the spirit driving it is there.

The religious and sometime nationality profiling of terrorism and terrorist got me thinking on how we got to position so irrational that we see a boogie man of Shariah law taking over when other religions seem more front and center in the influence game in this country. This is only a small part of what is probably shaping up to be a loud, finger-pointing debate in the 2012 political season. There are broad issue like terror in Libya and definitions of terrorist acts and groups. For example, is Pakistan supporting Taliban terrorists? Or is this US 'negative propaganda' - Is the use and the threat of the use of force, that some described as coercive diplomacy, a form of terrorism? In Confessions of an Economic Hit Man John Perkins describes it that way ( So I went back to some earlier Progressive writing on the history and of some of the thinking that goes into the terrorist idea.

I didn't need to go very find when I retrieved from my "files" a Noam Chomsky article called International Terrorism: Image and Reality from 1991 which at 10 years before 9/11 seemed a reasonable distance. But as Chomsky notes terrorism became a major public issue back in the 1980s of the Reagan administration. He took office announcing its dedication to stamping out what the was called:

"the evil scourge of terrorism," a plague spread by "depraved opponents of civilization itself" in "a return to barbarism in the modern age" (Secretary of State George Shultz).

The way Chomsky likes to frame this type of terrorism discussion is as a propagandistic approach. The propagandistic exposition of terrorism and terrorist acts is the one that is prevalent in corporate media. Chomsky argues that this is a particular, manufactured construct of the concept of terrorism which can be used, "as a weapon to be exploited in the service of some system of power." We claim some group is terrorist and thus we may do violent things against them to protect ourselves and our values. In Reagan's reign we had a US proxy war against Nicaragua which killed many. Was this support of terrorism? Chomsky's history on this is:

"The State Department specifically authorized attacks on agricultural cooperatives -- exactly what we denounce with horror when the agent is Abu Nidal. Media doves expressed thoughtful approval of this stand. New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, at the liberal extreme of mainstream commentary, argued that we should not be too quick to dismiss State Department justifications for terrorist attacks on farming cooperatives: a "sensible policy" must "meet the test of cost-benefit analysis," an analysis of "the amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end." It is understood that US elites have the right to conduct the analysis and pursue the project if it passes their tests."

When civilians are killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Gaza these are judged as not terrorist acts in the light of there being protective acts against groups labeled terrorist.

There is another way to study & understand terrorism - a literal approach. As you might expect Chomksy prefers a literal approach which takes the topic seriously and uses an historical-fact-rational perspective to understand it. Some of the history of the development of the concepts of terrorism is above. You don't have to be a linguist to appreciate Chomsky's rational- literal approach that Socratically asks what constitutes terrorism and then explored instances of the phenomenon teasing out causal relations. Although he has issues with it Chomsky gets great mileage out of using official United States Code definition of "act of terrorism" to mean an activity that --

(A) involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; and
(B) appears to be intended
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by assassination or kidnapping.

Chomsky sees much of this intimidation of civilian populations in our support of the Contras in Nicaragua. His other example of terrorism during pre-Reagan period is Israel's involvements in southern Lebanon going back to the 1970s when the civilian population was first held hostage with the idea that pressuring these populations would force agreement on Israeli arrangements for the region. He cites Abba Eban, commenting on Prime Minister Menachem Begin's account of atrocities in Lebanon committed under the Labor government, in the style "of regimes which neither Mr. Begin nor I would dare to mention by name,"

Eban normally portrayed as a Labor dove describes Israel policy in terms that would fit US and international concept of terrorism (if not aggression). Indeed as Chomsky notes thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes in these attacks as a modern form of terrorism came to the Middle East. Israel's invasion left some 18,000 killed to achieve political ends, as discussed in Israel. We see the consequences of it as terrorism but may not label the sources of it in a literal way. As Chomksy reports:

"ABC correspondent Charles Glass, then a journalist in Lebanon, found "little American editorial interest in the conditions of the south Lebanese. The Israeli raids and shelling of their villages, their gradual exodus from south Lebanon to the growing slums on the outskirts of Beirut were nothing compared to the lurid tales of the 'terrorists' who threatened Israel, hijacked aeroplanes and seized embassies." The reaction was much the same, he continues, when Israeli death squads were operating in southern Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion. One could read about them in the London Times, but US editors were not interested. Had the media reported the operations of "these death squads of plainclothes Shin Beth [secret police] men who assassinated suspects in the villages and camps of south Lebanon," "stirring up the Shiite Muslim population and helping to make the Marine presence untenable," there might have been some appreciation of the plight of the US Marines deployed in Lebanon. They seemed to have no idea of why they were there apart from "the black enlisted men: almost all of them said, though sadly never on camera, that they had been sent to protect the rich against the poor." "

For more on the introduction of terrorism to the Middle East see Chomsky's "Who are the Global Terrorists?" which describes the 1985 Israeli attack on Tunis and the CIA and Saudi car-bombing in Beirut to get a Shi'ite leader accused of complicity in terrorism which didn't kill him but killed 80 people and wounded 256. The Similar violence was noted in Peres's 1996 invasion and who can forget the use of cluster bombs as Obama took office. These relied on US military and diplomatic support. Accordingly, Chomksy notes "they too do not enter the annals of international terrorism."

In light of our more recent "interventions" in the Middle East (how many civilians died in our Iraq War?) it is useful to remember this history and how things were portrayed. We (and our friends) have a history of organizing proxy army to subdue some recalcitrant population. We see this as a legitimate option but it fits the concept of of a terrorism. In Reagan's day Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that "forceful intervention in the affairs of another nation" is neither "impractical" nor "immoral". As Chomsky noted, this doesn't make it legal. It may make it a hot topic for the coming campaign season in late 2011.


Don Wharton said...

This is a timely post since we will be having a discussion group on this Friday. I think Dr. Lawrence de Bivort (who is the topic presenter for the group) will be in broad agreement with these views.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Lawrence presented a detailed discussion with data from 9/11 on which I hope he will share with the broader community here.

lucette said...

"We claim some group is terrorist and thus we may do violent things against them to protect ourselves and our values."

I have a problem with the phrasing of this sentence and similar ones in this blog. The use of "we" and "our" disturbs me and is probably disturbing to other readers of this blog - this posting is not the only one in our (sic) blog, of course, but I cannot comment on all postings. "Some of us" would not pose a problem, but I do not know how to handle the assumption that "we" are all in agreement with a statement.
The same difference exists between statements like "Women are not good in Math..." and "Some women are not good in Math..." Only the second statement is accurate. The first one drives me crazy, so to speak.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

In this context we is used to refer to declarations of the US government and its official such as the quoted Secretary of State.