The Essential Terrorist

The Essential Terrorist

With the “war on terror” now official nomenclature, the problematic conflating of ethnic, religious and “terrorist” identities is now a matter of policy as well as media distortion. In a 1986 book review, Edward Said argues presciently against the dangerous “terrorism craze”–“dangerous because it consolidates the immense, unrestrained pseudopatriotic narcissism we are nourishing.”


As a word and concept, “terrorism” has acquired an extraordinary status in American public discourse. It has displaced Communism as public enemy number one, although there are frequent efforts to tie the two together. It has spawned uses of language, rhetoric and argument that are frightening in their capacity for mobilizing opinion, gaining legitimacy and provoking various sorts of murderous action. And it has imported and canonized an ideology with origins in a distant conflict, which serves the purpose here of institutionalizing the denial and avoidance of history. In short, the elevation of terrorism to the status of a national security threat (though more Americans drown in their bathtubs, are struck by lightning or die in traffic accidents) has deflected careful scrutiny of the government’s domestic and foreign policies. Whether the deflection will be longstanding or temporary remains to be seen, but given the almost unconditional assent of the media, intellectuals and policy-makers to the terrorist vogue, the prospects for a return to a semblance of sanity are not encouraging.

I hasten to add two things, however, that are. The noisy consensus on our Libyan adventures is, or seems to be, paper thin. The few dissenting voices are a good deal more effective in stimulating discussion and reflection (which on their own, alas, cannot prevent the destruction we are capable of unleashing) than one might have thought. A small instance of what I mean occurred recently during a Phil Donahue show whose subject was the April 14 raid on Libya. Donahue began the show by asking the audience for their opinion; he received an almost total, even enthusiastic, endorsement of “our’ righteous strike. Two of his guests were Sanford Ungar and Christopher Hitchens, who, once they got going, managed quite rapidly to extend the discussion beyond the audience’s unexamined assumptions and patriotic bombast. By the end of the hour, the kicking of Libyan ass in revenge for terrorism seemed to be a less agreeable, more troubling exercise than when the program began.

The second source of encouragement is related to the first. The obvious case to be made against the ugly violence and disruptions caused by desperate and often misguided people has little sustainable power once it is extended to include gigantic terror networks, conspiracies of terrorist states or terrorism as a metaphysical evil. For not only will common sense rise up at the paucity of evidence for these preposterous theories, but at some point (which is not yet near enough) the machinery for pushing the terrorist scare will stand exposed for the political and intellectual scandal that it is. The fact is that most, if not all, states use dirty tricks, from assassinations and bombs to blackmail. (Remember the C.I.A.-sponsored car bomb that killed eighty people in the civilian quarter of West Beirut in early 1984?) The same applies to radical nationalists, although we conveniently overlook the malfeasance of the bands we support. For the present, however, the wall-to-wall nonsense about terrorism can inflict grave damage.

The difference between today’s pseudoscholarship and expert jargon about terrorism and the literature about Third World national liberation guerrillas two decades ago is interesting. Most of the earlier material was subject to the slower and therefore more careful procedures of print; to produce a piece of scholarship on, say, the Vietcong you had to go through the motions of exploring Vietnamese history, citing books, using footnotes–actually attempting to prove a point by developing an argument. This scholarship was no less partisan because of those procedures, no less engaged in the war against the enemies of “freedom,’ no less racist in its assumptions; but it was, or at least had the pretensions of, a sort of knowledge. Today’s discourse on terrorism is an altogether more streamlined thing. Its scholarship is yesterday’s newspaper or today’s CNN bulletin. Its gurus–Claire Sterling, Michael Ledeen, Arnaud de Borchgrave–are journalists with obscure, even ambiguous, backgrounds. Most writing about terrorism is brief, pithy, totally devoid of the scholarly armature of evidence, proof, argument. Its paradigm is the television interview, the spot news announcement, the instant gratification one associates with the Reagan White House’s “reality time,” the evening news.

This brings us to the book at hand, Terrorism: How the West Can Win, edited and with commentary, weedlike in its proliferation, by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. A compilation of essays by forty or so of the usual suspects–George Shultz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Lord Chalfont, Claire Sterling, Arthur Goldberg, Midge Decter, Paul Johnson, Edwin Meese 3d, Jean-Francois Revel, Jack Kemp, Paul Laxalt, Leszek Kolakowski, etc.–Terrorism is the record of a conference held two years ago at the Jonathan Institute in Washington, Jonathan Netanyahu being Benjamin’s brother, the only Israeli casualty of the famous raid on Entebbe in 1976. (It is worth noting that victims of “terrorism” like Netanyahu and Leon Klinghoffer get institutes and foundations named for them, to say nothing of enormous press attention, whereas Arabs, Moslems and other nonwhites who die “collaterally” just die, uncounted, unmourned, unacknowledged by “us.”)

The sections into which the book is divided roll forth with a reassuringly steady acceleration: “The Challenge to the Democracies” and “Terrorism and Totalitarianism” are succeeded by (of course) “Terrorism and the Islamic World,” which in turn brings forth “The International Network” and “Terrorism and the Media.” These are followed by “The Legal Foundations for the War Against Terrorism” and “The Domestic Battle,” yielding in place to the final, the biggest, the choicest subject of all, “The Global Battle.” Compared with earlier works on the subject (for instance, Walter Laqueur’s Terrorism) this one has shed all the introductory attempts at historical perspective and cultural context. Terrorism is now a fully formed object of more or less revealed wisdom.

There are some low-level oddities about this book that should be noted quickly. Very few efforts are made to convince readers of what is being said: sources and figures are never cited; abstractions and generalizations pop up everywhere; and, except for three essays on Islam, historical argument is limited to the single proposition that terrorism has never before presented such a threat to “the democracies.’ I was also struck that the verb in the book’s subtitle, How the West Can Win, doesn’t seem to have an object: Win what? one wonders. So great is the number of contributors, so hortatory the tone, so confident and many the assertions, that in the end you retain little of what has been said, except that you had better get on with the fight against terrorism, whatever Netanyahu says it is.

No wonder, then, that Mario Cuomo, who consults on foreign policy with Netanyahu, an official of a foreign government, has endorsed the book in a jacket blurb, urging “presidents, premiers, governors, mayors,” to read it for its startlingly “valuable lessons”: that “state-sanctioned international terrorism is purposeful and often conspiratorial, and that the world’s democracies are targets of terrorism.” If Cuomo’s presence in this august company is designed to make him appear serious and presidentabile by association, he really ought to reconsider for a moment. Because the whole book is unfortunately staked on the premise that the Western democracies and their leaders are gullible, soft and stupid, a condition whose only remedy is that they abandon their “Western” essence and turn violent, hard and ruthless. And if, in addition, they could be led by the Netanyahu family, Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Arens (all of them contributors to How the West Can Win), their successful transfiguration would be assured. At that point, however, would a liberal Mario Cuomo stand any chance at all?

In fact, Terrorism: How the West Can Win is a book about contemporary American policy on only one level. It is equally a book about contemporary Israel, as represented by its most unyielding and unattractive voices. An attentive reader will surely be alerted to the book’s agenda from the outset, when Netanyahu, an obsessive if there ever was one, asserts that modern terrorism emanates from “two movements that have assumed international prominence in the second half of the twentieth century, communist totalitarianism and Islamic (and Arab) radicalism.” Later this is interpreted to mean, essentially, the K.G.B. and the Palestine Liberation Organization, the former much less than the latter, which Netanyahu connects with all nonwhite, non-European anticolonial movements, whose barbarism is in stark contrast to the nobility and purity of the Judeo-Christian freedom fighters he supports.

Unlike the wimps who have merely condemned terrorism without defining it, Netanyahu bravely ventures a definition: “terrorism” he says, “is the deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political purposes.” But this powerful philosophic formulation is as flawed as all the other definitions, not only because it is vague about exceptions and limits but because its application and interpretation in Netanyahu’s book depend a priori on a single axiom: “we’ are never terrorists; it’s the Moslems, Arabs and Communists who are.

The view is as simple as that, and it goes back in time to the fundamental and inaugurating denial in Israeli history: the buried fact that Israel came to exist as a state in 1948 as a result of the dispossession of the Palestinians. In the early 1970s there was, I believe, a subliminal recognition on the part of Israel’s leaders that no conventional military option existed against the Palestinians, who number 650,000 inside Israel, 1.3 million in Gaza and the West Bank and 2 million in exile, and that therefore they would have to be done away with by other means. That recognition was certainly the result of the emergence of post-1967 Palestinian nationalism as a force resisting Israel’s occupation of historical Palestine in its entirety.

The principle of “armed struggle” derives from the right of resistance accorded universally to all peoples suffering national oppression. Yet like all peoples (including, of course, the Jews) the Palestinians resorted on occasion to spectacular outrages, in order to dramatize their struggle and to inflict pain on an unremitting enemy. This, I have always believed, was a political mistake with important moral consequences. Certainly Israeli violence against Palestinians has always been incomparably greater in scale and damage. But the tragically fixated attitude toward “armed struggle” conducted from exile and the relative neglect of mass political action and organization inside Palestine exposed the Palestinian movement, by the early 1970s, to a far superior Israeli military and propaganda system, which magnified Palestinian violence out of proportion to the reality. By the end of the decade, Israel had co-opted U.S. policy, cynically exploited Jewish fears of another Holocaust and stirred up latent Judeo-Christian sentiments against Islam.

An interesting article by the Israeli journalist Amnon Kapeliouk in the February 1986 issue of Le Monde Diplomatique suggests that it became a conscious aim of Israeli policy in the mid-1970s to delegitimize Palestinian nationalism in toto by defining its main expression–the P.L.O.–as terrorist, the better to be able to ignore its undeniable claims on Israel. The major consequence of this policy was, of course, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, allegedly carried out to defeat terrorism but in reality designed to settle the fate of the West Bank and Gaza, particularly given the fact that the P.L.O. had scrupulously observed a cease-fire between July 1981 and June 1982.

Yet one of the complexities of the 1982 invasion was that it showed the West a side of Israel hitherto well hidden. All the more reason, therefore, to efface the picture of Sabra and Shatila by waging a full-scale ideological and cultural battle against terrorism–a battle whose main thrust has been, first, its selectivity (“we” are never terrorists no matter what we may have done; “they” always are and always will be), and, second, its wholesale attempt to obliterate history, and indeed temporality itself. For the main thing is to isolate your enemy from time, from causality, from prior action, and thereby to portray him or her as ontologically and gratuitously interested in wreaking havoc for its own sake. Thus if you can show that Libyans, Moslems, Palestinians and Arabs, generally speaking, have no reality except that which tautologically confirms their terrorist essence as Libyans, Moslems, Palestinians and Arabs, you can go on to attack them and their “terrorist” states generally, and avoid all questions about your own behavior or about your share in their present fate. In the words of Benjamin Netanyahu:

The root cause of terrorism lies not in grievances but in a disposition toward unbridled violence. This can be traced to a world view which asserts that certain ideological and religious goals justify, indeed demand, the shedding of all moral inhibitions. In this context, the observation that the root cause of terrorism is terrorists is more than a tautology.

To reduce the whole embroiled history that connects “us” with terrorists (or Israelis with Palestinians) to Midge Decter’s tiny, scornful phrase, “the theory of grievances,” is to continue the political war against history, ours as well as theirs, and leave the problem of terrorism unsolved.

Consider now the rigorous selectivity of this approach. Julie Flint, a reporter for The Guardian of London, described an Israeli intervention in Lebanon in early March of this year, just as Farrar, Straus was getting the Netanyahu compilation ready for the bookstores. Looking for two missing Israeli soldiers, an Israeli military unit accompanied by South Lebanese Army men (Israeli mercenaries) entered the village of Shakra: “Throughout the week, every day at daybreak, the Israelis herded all Shakra’s men into the courtyard of the local school for interrogation. “We’ve spent the whole time sitting on the ground,’ Mr. Nassar a young merchant in the town, just returned from several years’ absence said. “If we stood up they hit us.” Flint’s report continues in terrifying detail; I shall cite it here at length because it is not likely to be found in any American publication, so powerful are the restraints against printing material that openly discredits the Israelis and compromises their antiterrorist stance. It should be set against the items regularly produced by the U.S. media that purport to describe the U.S.-Israeli view of “terrorism,” for example, the handouts given to and dutifully reproduced by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. (A particularly egregious instance was an article on February 16, 1986, in which we were treated to such solecisms as the Israeli intelligence notion of the “terrorilla.”) The evidence from Shakra undermines, to say the least, Netanyahu’s definition of terrorism as applied exclusively to the P.L.O. and the K.G.B.:

The Irish U.N. troops tried to send in water, milk and oranges, but the Israelis and the SLA men threw it all on the ground. Then on Friday, the routine changed: men, women and children –the youngest a day-old baby– were all locked in the courtyard and interrogated in two schoolrooms. Villagers say the first interrogation was with Israeli soldiers and the second with SLA thugs–in a room where bloodstains were still to be seen last week on the floor and on two school desks. Scattered all over the small room were objects villagers said were used in the interrogation–chair legs, wooden sticks, cigarette butts in ash trays still sitting on electric stoves, electric coils, and nails with which the interrogators reportedly pierced ears. Throughout the day, the Irish were refused access to the detainees, although screams could be heard and several people could be seen badly hurt in the schoolyard. In the late afternoon, five men were thrown into the street outside the school, all crying and some unable to stand upright. They were taken to the hospital. Although Unifil declines to discuss the “full documentary evidence’ in its medical report, reporters who visited the five saw they had been brutally beaten and burnt on the back with cigarette ends. Radwan Ashur, a student, had badly damaged hands; friends said his interrogators walked over them in army boots. Another man had his penis burnt with a cigarette lighter. A short way from his school, young men including Mr. Nassar, were assembled at night by the village pond. They said they were thrown into it and then, dripping wet and their hands tied behind their backs, were made to lie until dawn on the floor of an unfinished shop. “You have to tell us everything about this town,” Mr. Nassar was told. He replied: “I don’t know anything. I’ve just come from Liberia.” After the Israelis finally departed late on Saturday having failed to find their men, the security report for Shakra showed that 55 men and six women, one of them pregnant, had been taken away, three houses had been dynamited and many others looted and wrecked, their doors blasted off with grenades. Several dozen cars were stolen.

The point about this little episode (which features the innocent civilians whom the United States loves to defend) is not that it occurs daily, or that such behavior has been characteristic of the Israeli state from the very beginning (as revealed by revisionist Israeli historians Tom Segev and Benny Morris, among others), or that it is increasing in viciousness as the spurious excuse of “fighting terrorism’ serves to legitimize every case of torture, illegal detention, demolition of houses, expropriation of land, murder, collective punishment, deportation, censorship, closure of schools and universities. The point is that such episodes are almost completely swept off the record by the righteous enthusiasm for deploring Arab, Moslem and nonwhite “terrorism.”

In this enthusiasm a supporting role is played by the accredited experts on the Islamic world. Note here how, unlike those scholars of Latin America, Africa and Asia whose naivete leads them to express solidarity with the peoples they study, the guild of the Middle East Orientalists seems to have produced only the likes of Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie and the utterly ninth-rate P.J. Vatikiotis, each of whom contributes a slice of mendacity to Netanyahu’s smorgasbord. Far from offering insights about their area of specialization (which provides them with a living) that might promote understanding, sympathy or compassion, these guns-for-hire assure us that Islam is indeed a terrorist religion. So untoward and humanly unacceptable is this position that The New York Times‘s John Gross refused to recognize it in his review of this book. He therefore especially commended Lewis’s view–Gross paraphrases freely–“that there is nothing in Islam as a religion that is especially conducive to terrorism.” But had he read past the second paragraph of Lewis’s essay, he would have found the great man saying that “it is appropriate to use Islam as a term of definition and classification in discussing present-day terrorism.”

Gross and Lewis are symptomatic of the whole deformation of mind and language induced by “terrorism.” Gross is so ideologically infected with the antinomian view that, on the one hand, no respectable scholar can say racist things and, on the other, one can say anything about Islam and the Arabs if one is a respectable scholar, that he just gives up on reading critically. Lewis, who is by now reckless with the confidence inspired by having The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic and Commentary more or less at his disposal, serves up one falsehood or half-truth after another in his essay. Islam, he tells us, is a political religion, a unique thing. Whereas, he intones, Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross and Moses died before he entered the Promised Land, Mohammed (clever fellow) founded a state and governed it. Those three millennial facts alone are supposed to have determined the whole of Christian, Jewish and Islamic history and culture ever since. Never mind that Jewish and Christian leaders have–to this day– founded and governed states, or that Jews and Christians (quite ignoring the charity of Christ or the misfortunes of Moses) fought battles in the name of Christianity and Judaism that were as bloody as anyone else’s. What matters, says Lewis, is that at the present time there is “the reassertion of this association of politics and Islam,” as if it isn’t clear that Israel is perhaps the most perfect coincidence of religion and politics in the contemporary world, or that Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan time and again connect religion and politics. No, not at all; it is only Moslems, unregenerate combiners, like their founder, of politics and religion, who are guilty of this atavism. It can make you quite angry to read such nonsense.

Terrorism: How the West Can Win is thus an incitement to anti-Arab and anti-Moslem violence. It further inflames an atmosphere in which it is considered natural that when Leon Klinghoffer is senselessly and brutally murdered, The New York Times devotes 1,043 column inches to his death, but when Alex Odeh, no less an American, is just as senselessly and brutally murdered at the very same time in California, he gets only 14 column inches. Have we become so assured of the inconsequence of millions of Arab and Moslem lives that we assume it is a routine or unimportant matter when they die either at our hands or at those of our favored Judeo-Christian allies? Do we really believe that Arabs and Moslems have terrorism in their genes?

The worst aspect of the terrorism scam, intellectually speaking, is that there seems to be so little resistance to its massively inflated claims, undocumented allegations and ridiculous tautologies. Even if we allow that the press, almost to a man or woman, is so traduced by moronic notions of newsworthiness, spectacle and power that it cannot distinguish between isolated and politically worthless acts of desperation and orchestrated attempts at genocide, it is still difficult to explain how or why it is that those who should know better either say nothing or leap on the bandwagon. Only a handful of people, like Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn, seem willing to ask publicly why facts are never discussed or how it has become customary to judge evidence entirely on the basis of what race, party or creed delivers it up. If you say that the United States supplied Israel with the cluster bombs used to kill Palestinian children in Beirut, you, and by extension your statement, are dismissed, not because the statement is untruthful but because you are “a Palestinian (or Arab or Moslem) spokesman,’ as if that fact doomed you irremediably to spreading terrorist lies. But no one says to Claire Sterling and Jillian Becker that their unverifiable claims about “international terrorist conventions’ and various “terrorist agreements,” for which no proof or contents are ever given, are unacceptable as evidence. And other Orientalists do not challenge Lewis and Kedourie for the bilge they regularly spill out on Arab or Islamic culture, which would be considered the rankest racism or incompetence in any other field.

Past and future bombing raids aside, the terrorism craze is dangerous because it consolidates the immense, unrestrained pseudopatriotic narcissism we are nourishing. Is there no limit to the folly that convinces large numbers of Americans that it is now unsafe to travel, and at the same time blinds them to all the pain and violence that so many people in Africa, Asia and Latin America must endure simply because we have decided that local oppressors, whom we call freedom fighters, can go on with their killing in the name of anticommunism and antiterrorism? Is there no way to participate in politics beyond the repetition of prefabricated slogans? What happened to the precision, discrimination and critical humanism that we celebrate as the hallmarks of liberal education and the Western heritage?

Do not try to answer those questions straight out. Instead, get hold of any treatise, article, television transcript, editorial, public proclamation or book on terrorism (virtually any one will do; they’re interchangeable) and ask the author questions you would ask someone who argued that the universe was being run from an office inside the Great Pyramid. The world’s, and our, problems will not disappear at all: they’ll become fully apparent, as now, under the sign of terrorism, they are not. The main task for American intellectuals is not to attack Libya or denounce Soviet communism, but to figure out how this country’s staggering power can be harnessed for communal coexistence with other societies, rather than for violence against them. Certainly such a task cannot be helped by trading in metaphysical abstractions while we charge about the world as if we were the only people who counted. Nor will it be helped by declaring ourselves to be in a perpetual state of siege, partners in this protracted insanity with the Middle East’s diehard rejectionists.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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