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.