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Myth and Denial in the War Against Terrorism


It dies hard.  It dies very hard.  The notion that terrorist acts against the United States can be explained by envy and irrational hatred, and not by what the United States does in and to the world -- i.e., US foreign policy -- is alive and well. 

The fires were still burning intensely at Ground Zero when Colin Powell declared: "Once again, we see terrorism, we see terrorists, people who don't believe in democracy ..."{1}

George W. picked up on that theme and ran with it.  He's been its leading proponent ever since September 11 with his repeated insistence, in one wording or another, that "those people hate America, they hate all that it stands for, they hate our democracy, our freedom, our wealth, our secular government." (Ironically, the president and John Ashcroft probably hate our secular government as much as anyone.)

One of Bush's many subsequent versions of this incantation, delivered more than a year after 9-11, was: "The threats we face are global terrorist attacks. That's the threat. And the more you love freedom, the more likely it is you'll be attacked."{2}

In September 2002, the White House released the "National Security Strategy", purported to be chiefly the handiwork of Condoleezza Rice, which speaks of the "rogue states" which "sponsor terrorism around the globe; and reject basic human values and hate the United States and everything for which it stands."

As recently as July of this year the spokesman for Homeland Security, Brian Roehrkasse, declared: "Terrorists hate our freedoms. They want to change our ways."{3}

Thomas Friedman the renowned foreign policy analyst of the New York Times would say amen. Terrorists, he wrote in 1998 after terrorists attacked two US embassies in Africa, "have no specific ideological program or demands. Rather, they are driven by a generalized hatred of the US, Israel and other supposed enemies of Islam."{4}

This idée fixe -- that the rise of anti-American terrorism owes nothing to American policies -- in effect postulates an America that is always the aggrieved innocent in a treacherous world, a benign United States government peacefully going about its business but being "provoked" into taking extreme measures to defend its people, its freedom and democracy. There consequently is no good reason to modify US foreign policy, and many people who might otherwise know better are scared into supporting the empire's wars out of the belief that there's no choice but to crush without mercy -- or even without evidence -- this irrational international force out there that hates the United States with an abiding passion.

Thus it was that Afghanistan and Iraq were bombed and invaded with seemingly little concern in Washington that this could well create many new anti-American terrorists.  And indeed, since the first strike on Afghanistan there have been literally scores of terrorist attacks against American institutions in the Middle East, South Asia and the Pacific, about a dozen in Pakistan alone: military, civilian, Christian, and other targets associated with the United States, the latest being the heavy bombing of the US-managed Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, the site of diplomatic receptions and 4th of July celebrations held by the American Embassy.

The word "terrorism" has been so overused in recent years that it's now commonly used simply to stigmatize any individual or group one doesn't like, for almost any kind of behavior involving force. But the word's raison d'être has traditionally been to convey a political meaning, something along the lines of: the deliberate use of violence against civilians and property to intimidate or coerce a government or the population in furtherance of a political objective.

Terrorism is fundamentally propaganda, a very bloody form of propaganda.
It follows that if the perpetrators of a terrorist act declare what their objective was, their statement should carry credibility, no matter what one thinks of the objective or the method used to achieve it. Let us look at some actual cases.

The terrorists responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 sent a letter to the New York Times which stated, in part: "We declare our responsibility for the explosion on the mentioned building. This action was done in response for the American political, economical, and military support to Israel the state of terrorism and to the rest of the dictator countries in the region."{5}

Richard Reid, who tried to ignite a bomb in his shoe while aboard an American Airline flight to Miami in December 2001, told police that his planned suicide attack was an attempt to strike a blow against the US campaign in Afghanistan and the Western economy.  In an e-mail sent to his mother, which he intended her to read after his death, Reid wrote that it was his duty "to help remove the oppressive American forces from the Muslims land."{6}


After the October 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, which destroyed two nightclubs and killed more than 200 people, one of the leading suspects told police that the bombings were "revenge" for "what Americans have done to Muslims." He said that he wanted to "kill as many Americans as possible" because "America oppresses the Muslims".{7}

In November 2002, a taped message from Osama bin Laden began: "The road to safety begins by ending the aggression.  Reciprocal treatment is part of justice.  The [terrorist] incidents that have taken place ... are only reactions and reciprocal actions."{8}

That same month, when Mir Aimal Kasi, who killed several people outside of CIA headquarters in 1993, was on death row, he declared: "What I did was a retaliation against the US government" for American policy in the Middle East and its support of Israel.{9}

It should be noted that the State Department warned at the time that the execution of Kasi could result in attacks against Americans around the world.{10}  It did not warn that the attacks would result from foreigners hating or envying American democracy, freedom, wealth, or secular government.

Similarly, in the days following the start of US bombing of Afghanistan there were numerous warnings from US government officials about being prepared for retaliatory acts, and during the war in Iraq, the State Department announced: "Tensions remaining from the recent events in Iraq may increase the potential threat to US citizens and interests abroad, including by terrorist groups."{11}

Another example of the difficulty the Bush administration has in consistently maintaining its simplistic idé fixe: In June 2002, after a car bomb exploded outside the US Consulate in Karachi, killing or injuring more than 60 people, the Washington Post reported that "US officials said the attack was likely the work of extremists angry at both the United States and Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for siding with the United States after September 11 and abandoning support for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban."{12}

George W. and high officials of his administration may or may not believe what they tell the world about the motivations behind anti-American terrorism, but, as in the recent examples just given, other officials have questioned the party line for years. A Department of Defense study in 1997 concluded: "Historical data show a strong correlation between US involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States."{13}

Jimmy Carter told the New York Times in a 1989 interview: "We sent Marines into Lebanon and you only have to go to Lebanon, to Syria or to Jordan to witness first-hand the intense hatred among many people for the United States because we bombed and shelled and unmercifully killed totally innocent villagers -- women and children and farmers and housewives -- in those villages around Beirut. ... As a result of that ... we became kind of a Satan in the minds of those who are deeply resentful. That is what precipitated the taking of our hostages and that is what has precipitated some of the terrorist attacks."{14}

Colin Powell has also revealed that he knows better. Writing of this same Lebanon debacle in his 1995 memoir, he forgoes clichés about terrorists not believing in democracy:

The USS New Jersey started hurling 16-inch shells into the mountains above Beirut, in World War II style, as if we were softening up the beaches on some Pacific atoll prior to an invasion.  What we tend to overlook in such situations is that other people will react much as we would.{15}

The ensuing terrorist attacks against US Marine barracks in Lebanon took the lives of 241 American military personnel.

The assault upon Beirut in 1983 and 1984 is but one of many examples of American violence against the Middle East and/or Muslims since the 1980s. The record includes: the shooting down of two Libyan planes in 1981; the furnishing of military aid and intelligence to both sides of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, including materials for chemical and biological warfare to Iraq, so as to maximize the damage each side would inflict upon the other; the bombing of Libya in 1986; the bombing and sinking of an Iranian ship in 1987; the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988; the shooting down of two more Libyan planes in 1989; the massive bombing of the Iraqi people in 1991; the continuing bombings and sanctions against Iraq for the next 12 years; the bombing of Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, the latter destroying a pharmaceutical plant which provided half the impoverished nation's medicines; the habitual support of Israel despite the routine devastation and torture it inflicts upon the Palestinian people; the habitual condemnation of Palestinian resistance to this; the abduction of "suspected terrorists" from Muslim countries, such as Malaysia, Pakistan, Lebanon and Albania, who are then taken to places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where they are tortured; the large military and hi-tech presence in Islam's holiest land, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region; the support of anti-democratic Middle East governments from the Shah to the Saudis. 

"How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America?" asked George W. "I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed. I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am -- like most Americans, I just can't believe it because I know how good we are."{16}

To what extent do Americans really believe the official disconnect between what the US does in the world and anti-American terrorism?  One indication that the public is somewhat skeptical came in the days immediately following the commencement of the bombing of Iraq on March 20 of this year. The airlines later announced that there had been a sharp increase in cancellations of flights and a sharp decrease in future flight reservations in those few days.{17}

In June, the Pew Research Center released the results of polling in 20 Muslim countries and the Palestinian territories that brought the official disconnect into question even more dramatically. The polling revealed that people interviewed had much more "confidence" in Osama bin Laden than in George W. Bush. However, "the survey suggested little correlation between support for bin Laden and hostility to American ideas and cultural products. People who expressed a favorable opinion of bin Laden were just as likely to appreciate American technology and cultural products as people opposed to bin Laden.  Pro- and anti-bin Laden respondents also differed little in their views on the workability of Western-style democracy in the Arab world."{18}

The Washington mentality about alleged terrorist motivations also manifests itself in current US occupation policy in Iraq. Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld has declared that there are five groups opposing US forces -- looters, criminals, remnants of Saddam Hussein's government, foreign terrorists and those influenced by Iran.{19}  An American official in Iraq maintains that many of the people shooting at US troops are "poor young Iraqis" who have been paid between $20 and $100 to stage hit-and-run attacks on US soldiers. "They're not dedicated fighters," he said. "They're people who wanted to take a few potshots."{20}

With such language do American officials avoid dealing with the idea that any part of the resistance is composed of Iraqi citizens who simply do not like being bombed, invaded, occupied, and subjected to daily humiliations, and are demonstrating their resentment. Some officials convinced themselves that it was largely the most loyal followers of Saddam Hussein and his two sons who were behind the daily attacks on Americans, and that with the capture or killing of the evil family, resistance would die out; tens of millions of dollars were offered as reward for information leading to this joyful prospect. Thus it was that the killing of the sons elated military personnel. US Army trucks with loudspeakers drove through small towns and villages to broadcast a message about the death of Hussein's sons. "Coalition forces have won a great victory over the Baath Party and the Saddam Hussein regime by killing Uday and Qusay Hussein in Mosul," said the message broadcast in Arabic. "The Baath Party has no power in Iraq. Renounce the Baath Party or you are in great danger." It called on all officials of Hussein's government to turn themselves in.{21}

What followed was several days of some of the deadliest attacks against American personnel since the guerrilla war began.  Unfazed, American officials in Washington and Iraq continue to suggest that the elimination of Saddam will write finis to anti-American actions.

Another way in which the political origins of terrorism are obscured is by the common practice of blaming poverty or repression by Middle Eastern governments (as opposed to US support for such governments) for the creation of terrorists. Defenders of US foreign policy cite this also as a way of showing how enlightened they are. Here's Condoleezza Rice:

{The Middle East] is a region where hopelessness provides a fertile ground for ideologies that convince promising youths to aspire not to a university education, a career or family, but to blowing themselves up, taking as many innocent lives with them as possible. ... We must address the source of the problem.{22}

Many on the left speak in a similar fashion, apparently unconscious of what they're obfuscating. This analysis confuses terrorism with revolution.

In light of the several instances mentioned above -- and others can be given -- of US officials giving the game away, in effect admitting that terrorists and guerrillas may be, or in fact are, reacting to perceived hurts and injustices, it may be that George W. is the only true believer among them, if in fact he is one.  The leaders of the American Empire may well know -- at least occasionally when they're sitting alone at midnight -- that all their expressed justifications for invading Iraq and Afghanistan and for their "War on Terrorism" are no more than fairy tales for young children and grown-up innocents. Officialdom doesn't make statements to represent reality.  It constructs stories to pursue interests. And the interests here are irresistibly compelling: creating the most powerful empire in all history, enriching their class comrades, remaking the world in their own ideological image.

As I've written elsewhere: If I were the president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently. I would first apologize -- very publicly and very sincerely -- to all the widows and orphans, the impoverished and the tortured, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism. Then I would announce that America's global military interventions have come to an end.  I would then inform Israel that it is no longer the 51st state of the union but -- oddly enough -- a foreign country. Then I would reduce the military budget by at least 90% and use the savings to pay reparations to the victims and repair the damage from the many American bombings, invasions and sanctions. There would be enough money. One year of our military budget is equal to more than $20,000 per hour for every hour since Jesus Christ was born. That's one year.

That's what I'd do on my first three days in the White House. On the fourth day, I'd be assassinated.


1.  Miami Herald, September 12, 2001
2.  Agence France Presse, November 19, 2002
3.  Washington Post, August 1, 2003, p.4
4.  New York Times, August 22, 1998, p. 15
5.  Jim Dwyer, et al., Two Seconds Under the World (New York, 1994), p.196; see also the statement made in court by Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, who planned the attack, New York Times, January 9, 1998, p.B4
6.  Washington Post, October 3, 2002, p.6
7.  Washington Post, November 9, 2002; Agence France Press, December 23, 2002
8.  Los Angeles Times, November 13, 2002, p.6
9.  Associated Press, November 7, 2002
10.  Ibid.
11.  Voice of America News, April 21, 2003
12.  Washington Post, June 15, 02
13.  US Department of Defense, Defense Science Board 1997 Summer Study Task Force on DOD Responses to Transnational Threats, October 1997, Final Report, Vol.1., p.31
14.  New York Times, March 26, 1989, p.16
15.  Colin Powell with Joseph E. Persico, My American Journey (New York, 1995), p.291
16.  Boston Globe, October 12, 2001, p.28
17.  Washington Post, March 27, 2003
18.  Ibid., June 4, 2003, p.18
19.  Pentagon briefing, June 30, 2003
20.  Washington Post,  June 29, 2003
21.  Ibid., July 24, 2003, p.7
22.  Ibid., August 8, 2003, p.13

William Blum is the author of "Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II" and "West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir"

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