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John Chuckman: Anatomy Of Terror

Anatomy Of Terror

By John Chuckman
February 13, 2004

Trying to bring reason to the subject of terror seems hopeless. The subject is crushingly-weighted with hatreds, prejudice, and political lunacy. But the attempt is important because the subject may dominate the lifetimes of most readers.

Terror is both a real phenomenon and a fraud. It is real in that groups with deep grievances do sometimes kill innocent people in their attempt to influence events from a position of political and military weakness.

Yet, following the vast and organized murder of the twentieth century, there is nothing distinctive or unusual about killing innocent people when trying to get your way. The United States and some other states now do it all the time to advance narrow interests. Politicians who most loudly decry terror display the dishonest, insincere thinking Dr. Johnson characterized as "cant." In this sense, terror is a fraud.

Extreme examples often best make a point. No more extreme example of misused words exists than George Bush, but when he speaks of terror, he exceeds all his other loose and silly talk. Bush calls guerilla attacks in Iraq the work of terrorists. Since when are people whose country has been bombed and overrun by tanks engaged in terror if they take reprisals? They are usually called partisans or resistance fighters or guerillas, and the only reason Bush is not laughed off the stage for speaking this way to Americans, who cherish their right to keep arms against tyranny, is that it is their sons and daughters often being killed.

One never knows all the terrible outcomes of war. That was and remains one of the strongest arguments against the Iraq War. We won't understand for years the full damage of what Bush has done.

We do know that Bush's invasion of Afghanistan released a storm of heroin because the weak, though well-intentioned, new government there has no means of governing regional warlords financed by poppies. American troops in Afghanistan are pitifully few in number - about ten thousand in a land the size of Texas with more than twenty million people - and their focus is finding bin Laden. Were Bush to send the forces needed to subdue the warlords, we would see the same reprisals we see in Iraq, perhaps worse. America's "allies" in Afghanistan swiftly would become its enemies. New variations on al Qaeda would crop up like poppies.

I read Putin's statement following a bomb attack in the Moscow subway. My God, he is determined to root out terror.

Anyone who appreciates what the Russian army has done in Chechnya wonders which terror Putin is talking about. Russia's cruelty and wanton destruction have been on a colossal scale. The American press does not report much on this both because its access is limited, but, more importantly, because a cozy modus vivendi exists between Russia and the United States on what they call terror. Russia has a free hand to reduce Chechnya to a landscape of tank-tread ruts in return for its lack of opposition to Bush's bombings and human-hunts.

Russia did oppose the invasion of Iraq, but that only points up the fact that even Russia could see Bush's invasion had nothing to do with terror.

The Chechens, who for years have wanted nothing more than the same independence achieved by other regions of the former Soviet Union, have been treated much the way people in 1860s' Georgia were treated when they stood in the path of General Sherman's March to the Sea. The comparison is apt, since the American Civil War was only necessary because of Lincoln's ferocious insistence that no state was entitled to change its mind ever about being part of what he quaintly called The Union. His position was in every respect as irrational and bloody as any argument advanced by slaveholders or future leaders of the Soviet Union.

As I write this, Israel has again rolled its tanks and armored bulldozers into Gaza. Its soldiers killed about a dozen people, wounded about forty, including several children. And the purpose? To bulldoze three houses, some orchards and olive groves, and to look for suspected tunnels used to obtain weapons. A second incursion within hours apparently killed another three and wounded still more.

There are limits to how badly you can beat a people down. Every time a desperate and powerless Palestinian suicide bomber kills himself or herself in order to attack Israelis, we see that proposition again demonstrated.

I do not mean to say that all so-called terrorists have rational goals. After all, many people in ordinary life do sometimes make unreasonable demands or yield to violent impulses. But a person of good will recognizes reasonable goals, and the goals of the Chechyns and Palestinians, decent treatment and their own states, are reasonable.

The goals of an organization like al Qaeda are less clear, but it was hardly necessary to invade two sovereign nations and kill thousands of innocents to deal with them. All the resources of international cooperation, security, intelligence, and diplomacy could have been patiently applied. If you want rule of law, then you must abide by it. If you want the arrogant privilege of stepping outside the law, then you have no moral claim against the people you call terrorists.

I suspect al Qaeda's goals were along the lines of Timothy McVeigh's or those who blew up an airliner over Lockerbie, vigilante reprisals for what were felt as stinging injustices or insults. In McVeigh's case, he was horrified at having seen the FBI, impatient to end a stand-off, attack a large group of armed religious fanatics with tanks. The people were odd and they had broken the law, but they hardly deserved to be incinerated or crushed. The FBI's actions, so similar to those of the Chinese army at Tiananmen, were revolting, but for a person like McVeigh, an American militia-type with paranoid anti-government fantasies, they aroused a passion to play avenging angel.

The Lockerbie bombing was vengeance for the U.S. Navy's destruction of an Iranian airliner with three hundred people aboard. How easily the American government could have avoided the whole mess by decently apologizing and paying compensation for the rash act of the ship's commander. Better still, it could have avoided the dangerous act of stationing the ship in a sensitive place during someone else's war.

The United States has made a long series of blunders in the Middle East guaranteed to offend and intimidate Muslims, especially fundamentalists, the people from whom an organization like al Qaeda draws support. These blunders must be seen in the context of an almost irrational support for Israel's bloodiest behavior. While Arabs are resigned to Israel's existence, how can they accept Sabla, Shatila, Jenin, the destruction of Beirut, or words of prejudiced contempt so often heard from Israeli leaders?

I suspect the single most provocative American act was the posting of troops in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia contains Islam's holiest sites, and its population is among the most tradition-bound in Islam, but the U.S. in pushing its troops into Saudi Arabia, made no serious effort to protect local sensibilities. Troops were posted near Riyadh and exposed to local people in highly offensive ways, as when female soldiers walked about in Western outfits with informal and careless American manners. This was the equivalent of having a stripper jump on stage and disrobe at a Baptist revival meeting, but it was not a one-time incident, it continued over time.

It was more provocative than my analogy can convey, for here was an insulting presence seemingly kept in place at gunpoint. This was sheer arrogance of power, and later yelling the word terrorism at the top of your voice ignores your own failed responsibilities.

Keep in mind that the CIA earlier had played with fire in Afghanistan, supplying and training associates of bin Laden's in America's dirty war against the Soviet Union. The resentments of fierce, traditional, mountain fighters were exploited with all the arts the CIA could summon to kill Soviet heretics. Not many years later, the same United States had troops in the holiest of lands with women, in the view of traditional Muslims, exposing themselves.

Vengeance is not legal in most societies, and it cannot be tolerated in international affairs. Vengeance-seekers must be brought to justice, but we should also learn something by the whole sad experience. What are we to make of America's actions after 9/11, most of which have been little more than vengeance on a global scale? Do you stop vengeance with vengeance? I don't think there are any good examples in history of that working. The examples set by the U.S. in this are extremely dangerous, especially its willingness to flout international law and concerns.

America's post-9/11 behavior resembles the careless, arrogant acts which caused people's sense of being violated in the first place, only now it comes on a grander scale. And the irritating context of Israel's refusal to deal fairly with its neighbors has been permitted to change from bad to worse. War on Terror? What we need is a war on stupidity.


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