The Terrorism Trap

The Terrorism Trap


The war on terrorism was a linchpin of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy rhetoric during his re-election campaign, and at his first post-election press conference the President has put it high on his list of international responsibilities. In August at the Democratic convention the President thundered against so-called rogue states that were out to spread panic and destruction in the United States. A week later the Administration proclaimed U.S. missile attacks on Iraq to be a courageous blow against terrorism. At the United Nations General Assembly Clinton called upon the members to “isolate states that refuse to play by the rules we have all accepted for civilized behavior.” The Leader of the Free World is recasting himself as Leader of the Civilized World.

The rhetoric is seductive. In a chaotic world for which the United States has yet to articulate clear goals, other than opening up economies everywhere to private investment, protecting access to cheap resources and staying top dog in the next century, international terrorism serves as the successor myth to International Communism. The idea that the Soviet Union was waging a relentless worldwide struggle to destroy “the American way of life” was critical for enlisting public support for almost fifty years of cold war. As easy as it was in those days to label even anti-Communist reformers as Bolsheviks (Mossadegh in Iran, for example), designating a brutal Middle Eastern or African government a rogue state is even easier because the criteria are vague and they are capriciously applied. (One would think that a state that has armed, trained, and supplied torturers in other countries and published manuals for assassins would qualify, but nowhere on the State Department’s list of rogue states has the United States ever appeared.) The Clinton Adminstration, boasting of its unique role as “sole remaining superpower,” seeks to legitimize its increasingly unilateral approach to foreign policy by proclaiming the United States the global avenger of terrorism.

The war on terrorism is being used not only to unite the country behind a confused foreign policy but also to polish the President’s image. Who dares speak of youthful draft-dodging when the leader of the civilized world is hurling missiles at rogues in Iraq? Who has the nerve to question why the United States maintains a military force far more powerful than that of any conceivable combination of enemies when there are more than a half-dozen certifiable rogue states threatening the fragile order of the post-cold war world?

But encouraging a panic about international terrorism has dangerous consequences. The most obvious is that it creates a receptive political climate for curbing civil liberties. The country has already been sufficiently alarmed to enable Clinton and the Republican Congress to push through the Terrorism Prevention Act, a legislative cocktail boosting the powers of the federal government to exact the death penalty, limit appeals of convicts on death row, deport suspect foreigners and wiretap U.S. citizens–all in the name of making us feel safe.

It is worth remembering the extreme reactions to sporadic violence that dot our history. A few anarchist bombs sent in the mail to prominent citizens triggered the Palmer Raids of 1920, when abou t 4,000 people were arrested in a single night, many without warrants. A spate of protests, unrest and bombings in the sixties and seventies led to a burst of domestic spying in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon eras, culminating in the infamous COINTELPRO, a vast illegal intelligence operation aimed at the left, the Black Panthers and those who opposed the Vietnam War. Public fear of unpredictable violence has been used by political leaders again and again to justify centralization of authority, stripping away of citizens’ rights, surveillance and executions. Even as both major-party cadidates condemned Big Government and promised its disappearance, politicians in both parties call for still broader government powers and increased expenditure to fight the global war on terrorism.

A second consequence of the Clinton anti-terrorism posture–it scarcely deserves to be called a policy–is that it isolates the United States. As the Adminstration proclaims its duty to act alone against rogue states, it is infuriating other countries whose help is needed for any serious effort to reduce the risks of terrorist attacks around the world. The unilateral decision to punish Iraq has resulted in a collapse of the coalition that was supposed to guarantee the good behavior of Saddam Hussein. The heavy-handed measures recently enacted to compel unwilling allied governments and foreign corporations to enforce U.S. anti-Cuba policy is already making it harder to secure international cooperation to discourage and punish acts of terrorism.

But the most disturbing aspect of Clinton’s handling of the terrorism issue is that the President is giving a hyped version of reality, one that is at odds with the Adminstration’s own published reports. True, deliberate acts of violence designated as being “against U.S. interests” abroad rose from sixty-six to ninety-nine from 1994 to 1995, and the number of U.S. citizens killed in such attacks jumped from four to twelve. Yet according to the State Department’s most recent annual report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism,” published this past April, worldwide deaths due to acts of international terrorism have in recent years declined, from 314 in 1994 to 165 in 1995.

The report find no evidence that North Korea has sponsored attacks since 1987. Syria, although it “has permitted Iranian resupply of Hezbollah via Damascus” and “provides safe haven and support” for several terrorist groups, has not been directly involved in planning or carrying out any attacks for the past ten years. Hafez Assad’s regime “continues to restrain the international activities of some of these groups.” Nor has Cuba been known to sponsor any international terrorist incidents in 1995. The report concludes that except for Iran, the “premier sponsor of international terrorsism”, the other rogue states largely refrained from planning, supporting or executing acts of terrorism. Phil Wilcox, State Department coordinator for anti-terrorist attacks, points out that the “long-term trend towards a reduction in international terrorism continues.” But Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria remain on the official list of countries supporting “state terrorism.”

No evidence has been produced or even alleged to exist that a foreign government was involved in the three most publicized explosions of the past two years in which U.S. civilians were killed: the Oklahoma City bombing, the downing of T.W.A. flight 800 (if it was a deliberate act) and the bomb that went off at the Olympics in Atlanta. Saudi Arabian officials claim to have hard evidence of Iran’s complicity in the June bombing of a U.S. military housing complex in Dhahran, in which nineteen members of the Air Force were killed, but according to the Washington Post, U.S. officials are skeptical because the Saudis have not fully shared the details of their investigation with the F.B.I. The Saudi government appears to be manipulating the information to serve its domestic political purposes. Five days before this fall’s elections Defense Secretary William Perry declared, “We have reached no conclusions about who was responsible.”

The State Department contends that the isolation of rogue states and increasing international cooperation to apprehend, extradite and punish perpetrators of political violence is responsible for the decline over the decade in state-sponsored terrorism against U.S. interests. There may be something to this, although the more likely explanation is that in the post-cold war world even unfriendly governments see no advantage in stirring up the United States. Iran still has a policy of supporting Hezbollah operations and of assassinating dissidents living abroad, but neither U.S. condemnation nor sanctions have deterrred the regime from stepping up its efforts.

Like many other activites in the post-cold war world, terrorism is being privatized. The evidence supports the view that very few bombers of public places are now in the service of governments–fewer, certainly, than in the cold war years. They may work ofr a political movement, a crime ring, or as more of them are claiming, for God. Practitioners of violence increasingly work for religious sects and political movements (largely ethnic and mostly on the right). The private market in conventional weapons has greatly expanded. The Internet offers instructions in conventional bomb-making to all users. The Anarchist Cookbook explains that “making a bomb capable of blowing the walls out of a building is easy. You can find what you need in grocery stores, hardwares stores and farm supplies.”

President Clinton’s message about terrorism is that the problem is of foreign origin. But in fact most of the acts of random violence that victimize Americans are committed not by dark-skinned foreigners in ski masks but by fellow citizens. Over the past ten years bombings and attempted bombings in the United States have nearly tripled, increasing from 1,103 in 1985 to 3,163 in 1994. The targets are political or racial. The New York Times reported in August the over the preceeding two months “white, lower-middle class suburban people in Georgia, Arizona and Washington” were arrested as perpetrators or attempted perpetrators. The rash of bombings of black churches over the past two years sends a clear racist message. In Spokane, Washington, a Planned Parenthood office was bombed, and across the West a variety of government buildings occupied by the hated Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Internal Revenue Service have been attacked.

Some of our home-grown terrorists belong to militias or other gun-worshipping organizations. These groups have a variety of agendas: They don’t like gun control. They don’t like the federal government messing with their land, or land they think should be theirs. They don’t like paying taxes. They don’t like abortions. They hate black people, Jews, gays, foreigners. They are energized by violence. They have a holy mission.

The shadowy figures who set off bombs in airplanes, office buildings and shopping malls have succeeded in introducing all sorts of people to the possibility of their own sudden death. But shoppers and airline passengers face negligible dangers compared with the daily risks of living in crime-ridden, despairing neighborhoods in which there are no jobs. The President would rather talk about Qaddafi, Castro and the mullahs in Iran, however, than deal with the causes of the violence, hopelessness and fear that prevail in neighborhoods a few blocks from the White House. If he wants to revive decaying inner cities he has to acknowledge that they will not be lifted up by either the Internet or global trade.

What constitutes a reasonable strategy to discourage or prevent terrorist acts is not a technical question. It is a political questions that involves the weighing of risks and interests. How much freedom and privacy should be sacrificed in the name of security? That should be a prime subject for pbublic debate rather than a decision arrived at in secret negotiations between governments, police, airlines and makers of sophisticated bomb-detection systems.

We need a less superficial and biased understanding of the problem we label as terrorism, a calmer assessment of of how much of a threat it is and a more serious effort to understand its causes. For starters, we need a much less fuzzy definition. Guerilla attacks, political assassinations, bombings and kidnappings are lumped together even though their causes and objectives may be very different, as are strategies for discouraging them. The United States fired missiles at Iraq for mistreating people living within its borders and for violating a U.N. resolution; at least a hundred other countries qualify under this weak justification for bombing.

Hyped rhetoric, though it may serve the President’s purposes, does nothing to discourage attacks. Indeed, as the Economist has observed, “The whole point of the terrorist act is to provoke a reaction disproportionate to the act itself.” The more panic a terrorist bomb sets off, the greater the success. Hamas’s triumph in the recent Israeli election, when it provoked the downfall of Shimon Peres, is a classic example.

For a terrorist group with one consuming passion (as in Hamas’s determination to derail the Middle East peace process), violence is an effective weapon because the panic it creates can change public attitudes in ways that serve the group’s goals. But a state, however heavily armed, is at a disadvantage when it lashes out violently in response. Airstrikes and economic sanctions are blunt instruments that neither punish the planners and perpetrators of terrorist acts, who know how to fade into the night, nor discourage further violence. Both are far more likely to hurt innocent people and fuel murderous rage against governments reacting in such a manner. Assassination attempts invite retaliation in kind even when they do not succeed, and they expose the emptiness of claims to moral leadership. Exactly because the United States is so powerful, so wealthy and (because of our extraordinary dependence on complex technology) so vulnerable to politically inspired violence, the Administration should be promoting policies that would make the establishment of a genuine rule of law a real possibility. Of all nations, the United States has the most to gain in the long run from delegitimizing violence as an instrument of political change.

But pushing an anti-terrorist policy that seeks to break the cycle of violence would mean that the United States could no longer set its own rules or commit acts on the territory of other nations we would brand as terrorism were they to take place on our own.

Another Inauguration Day approaches, and the country badly needs a more effective policy, one that better fits reality: State-sponsored terrorism from abroad is declining. Ideologically tinged home-grown violence is growing. Our national security policy, based overwhelmingly on the threat and use of violence, not only legitimizes the violence of terrorists in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their supporters, it also advertises the impotence of the United States. The overwhelming emphasis on instruments of violence as moral, acceptable, indeed inevitable, guarantors of security creates a self-perpetuating culture of violence and insecurity.

By continuing to spread weapons around the world, the United States and its competitors in the arms trade are expanding the opportunities for anyone with a grievance to bring death, destruction and terror to random victims anywhere, including here. By ignoring the opportunity to achieve significant nuclear and conventional disarmament that the end of the cold war provides, the United States is signalling that despite the weakness of military adversaries, we will continue to base our security on the greatest preponderance of military power the world has ever known.

A demonstration by the United States of a serious willingness to eliminate nuclear weapons could jolt the world into a radical reversal of the arms race. Were the next administration to make dramatic moves–not just promises–to reduce our dependency on violence in the name of security, it would have an electrifying impact around the world. The comprehensive test ban, signed in September after almost forty years of negotiation, could have been the key to a new era of disarmament had it been preceded by radical cuts in nuclear stockpiles. It still may not be too late. Would it end “terrorism” as the State Department defines it? No. But it would help create a climate for a lessening of political violence.

As for domestic terrorism, the conservatives’ relentless bashing of government and the foolish decision of most Democrats to run away from the opportunity to debate what it is and what it ought to be–giving bipartisan credibility to the absurd notion that government is something to demean and hate–create a hospitable political culture for violent, anarchist fantasies. Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing, pursuit of the militias by federal authorities is looking more and more like another exercise in investigative overkill. In its zeal to prevent terrorism it appears that the government is increasingly basing indictments on what suspects say rather than what they do, and that government informants may be encouraging them to engage in criminal conspiracy. All this strengthens the views of the militiamen that they have found the right enemy. Armed with the Terrorism Prevention Act, the Clinton Administration, in the name of national security, strikes out ineffectually abroad and at home hacks away at our historic freedoms.

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