On the Preeminence of State Terrorism,
Past and Present
by Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, February 2006
By any generally applicable standard-i.e.,
excluding the fraudulent but widely used "terrorism is what
somebody else does" criterion-state terrorism is vastly more
destructive than anti-state and individual and small group terrorism.
This is the basis for distinguishing between the two as "wholesale"
versus "retail" terrorism. Wholesale trade implies large
scale business operations that deal with many smaller retail operators.
The retailers have little capital and do business with a small
set of local customers. State terrorists apply their violence
over a wide terrain using the large resources of the state, and
they can employ a broader and more cruel range of techniques of
intimidation, including devastating weapons like napalm, phosphorus,
depleted uranium munitions; cluster, thermobaric and 500-pound
bombs; advanced delivery systems like helicopter gun-ships and
cruise missiles; and torture.
Retail terrorists operate more narrowly
in space, with fewer personnel, limited resources, and working
with relatively unsophisticated weaponry and delivery systems.
As the Argentinian National Commission on Disappeared Persons
stated in the aftermath of that country's era of military rule
and state terrorism (1976-1983), the terrorism of the military
regime was "infinitely worse than that which they were combatting."
The 9/11 attack was an extreme outlier in the record of retail
terror, whereas massacres of similar or larger size by state terrorists
have been numerous.
Retail terrorists also use torture only
occasionally and on a small scale. But for state terrorists torture
is big business and is an important part of their overall effort
at intimidation. In Argentina under military rule, there were
an estimated 60 separate detention centers at which torture was
administered to the victims of this terrorist state (Amnesty International,
"Testimony on secret detention centers in Argentina,"
1980). As is well known, the United States today practices torture
at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq, and the
Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and sends many others to torture
centers in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere
in the process of "extraordinary rendition." Israel
has used torture on an administrative basis for decades, compellingly
exposed in a major Sunday Times (London) study almost 30 years
ago ("Israel and Torture: An Insight Inquiry," June
19, 1977), but already long-standing and institutionalized. Noam
Chomsky and I showed back in 1979 that 26 of the 35 countries
that were then using torture on an administrative basis were U.S.
client states. This was rampant state terrorism, carried out under
U.S. sponsorship (see Chomsky and Herman, The Washington Connection
and Third World Fascism, South End Press, 1979). Under U.S. auspices
torture is now once again flourishing and has even become a growth
As noted, state terrorists also kill on
a much larger scale than anti-state and private terrorists. In
an admittedly crude computation I did some years ago, the ratio
of major killings of state terrorists to the CIA's estimate of
all terrorist killings from 1968-1980 was found to be over 500
to 1 ("Killings by State and Nonstate Terrorists: Numbers
and Orders of Magnitude," Herman and O'Sullivan, The "Terrorism"
Industry, Pantheon, 1990). The ratio of Israeli state killings
of Palestinians to Palestinian killings of Israelis was long over
20 to 1, and only declined to 3 to 1 in the second Intifada. New
York Times reporter James Bennet claimed a decline from 25-1 in
the first Intifada to 3-1 in the second ("Mideast Turmoil:
Mideast Balance Sheet," NYT, March 12, 2002). In Iraq, Saddam
Hussein undoubtedly killed scores of thousands of his own citizens
and ran a notorious torture operation, but the United States beats
Saddam even in his home state, with credit for a million or more
Iraqi civilian dead via sanctions that killed more civilians than
"all the weapons of mass destruction in human history"
(Karl and John Mueller, "Sanctions of Mass Destruction,"
Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999), and a "shock and awe"
and follow-up capital intensive pacification program that all
independent analysts estimate to have killed many more civilians
than the insurgency. U.S. operatives simply stepped into Saddam's
shoes as torture managers in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.
State terrorism is also preeminent, not only because of its vastly
larger scale and use of more ferocious tactics and weapons, but
also because it is very commonly either causal, inducing a derivative
retail terrorism, or the mechanism that protects intolerable conditions
that might themselves be considered a form of terrorism. It was
evident in Latin America from the 1950s onward that the National
Security States that were emerging in the U.S. backyard, and with
U.S. sponsorship, were supporting and enforcing terrible economic
conditions for the masses, to the advantage of transnationals
and local businesses. These states were regularly denounced by
representatives of the indigenous Catholic church in documents
with evocative titles like "The Cry of the People" and
"The Marginalization of the People" that focused on
what they described as the forced "atomization" and
fragmentation of the people, referred to now as "flexible"
labor markets. (A classic account is Penny Lernoux's book entitled
Cry of the People, Penguin, 1980.)
After the U.S.-organized overthrow of
the democratic government of Guatemala in 1954, unions and peasant
organizations were destroyed by a repressive and militarized state
serving local and expatriate elites. As historian Piero Gliejeses
has written, "Only violence could maintain the status quo."
In one telling church document it was asserted that the National
Security State was "creating a revolution that did not previously
exist." In other words, the military regimes in power were
helping the business community brutalize the populace to the point
of provoking a violent response. This would then be quelled by
terrorisms "infinitely worse" than those the inhuman
and arguably terroristic economic policies provoked-but only the
derivative and lesser violence would be called "terrorism."
This process of creating terrorists and
then killing them-and decimating the civilian population "sea"
in which the terrorist "fish" swim-was clearly evident
in Vietnam and is also conspicuous in Iraq today. In Vietnam the
United States, struggling to avoid popularly supported rule by
Ho Chi Minh and his Communist Party, imported a dictator from
the U.S. and supported him in a vicious war of pacification that
literally forced the South Vietnamese Viet Minh into armed resistance
(a major theme in Gareth Porter's The Perils of Dominance). When
that pacification war failed, the United States stepped in with
a direct aggression that not only destroyed the country in order
to "save" it, but by its murderous tactics and weaponry,
which included the deliberate destruction of peasant rice crops
by chemical warfare (Operation Ranch Hand) and killing several
million people, kept creating new cadres ready to die fighting
the savage aggressor.
A similar dynamic has been evident in
Iraq, where the initial joy at the removal of Saddam Hussein was
rapidly transformed by the U.S. failure to provide security or
the means of life to the citizenry and by its self-serving economic
and political actions, but also and increasingly in response to
the brutal tactics and racist behavior of the U.S. invaders-occupiers.
Abu Ghraib was a dramatic manifestation of the attitude and behavior
of the invaders, but more important was the daily invasion of
homes and the bullying and humiliation of Iraqis in the streets
and at checkpoints, and the lavish use of firepower that killed
or injured tens of thousands of civilians standing in the way.
As Congressperson John Murtha recently stated, "We put 150,000
people outside their homes in Fallujah. If you remember in Jordan,
the bomber said the reason she became a bomber was because two
of her relatives were killed in Fallujah. We lost the hearts and
minds of the people."
These murderous effects are increasing
as the Bush administration steps up its air war to try once again
to quell the insurgency while keeping U.S. casualties down as
it struggles for "victory" before the next election.
Seymour Hersh notes, "A key element of the drawdown plans,
not mentioned in the President's public statements, is that the
departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower,"
with the likelihood that "the overall level of violence and
the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are
stringent controls over who bombs what." Airstrikes by U.S.
forces rose almost fivefold in 2005, and more are likely to follow
State Terrorism in the 7th Century BC
State terrorism goes back a long way,
but in its most dramatic earlier manifestations it has a clear
family resemblance to state terrorism today. Assyria in the 8th
and 7th centuries BC was a militarized state, with advanced military
technology for the time that pioneered "shock and awe"
tactics. The Assyrians "brought to perfection a systematic
terrorization of their adversaries. The accounts of their campaigns
enumerate with wearisome monotony the punishments inflicted after
each victory; to flay men alive, to impale them by hundreds, to
cut off arms, legs, noses, and ears, and then to keep their mutilated
rivals shut up in cages-such was the invariable custom of their
generals. Small wonder that the very names of the Assyrians inspired
panic terror, and that the mere approach of their armies often
forced strong kingdoms and cities to surrender and beg for mercy"
(M. Rostovtzeff, The Ancient World, vol. 1).
Have we progressed in humanistic behavior
in warfare since the Assyrians? Certainly the United States and
Israel intend that their military prowess and threats will terrify
people who stand in their way and induce quiescence. Both recognize
that it is sometimes necessary to use military force to teach
troublesome peoples a lesson on the futility of resistance. "Shock
and awe" in the initial attack on Iraq was openly designed
to induce surrender, and so was the 1999 bombing war against Yugoslavia.
Of course our generals do not "flay
men alive," impale them, cut off arms, legs and noses, and
keep mutilated rivals shut up in cages (although they keep damaged
torture victims in cages). On the other hand, modern technology
makes it possible to do the equivalent of flaying men alive and
cutting off their limbs and noses, at a distance, via napalm,
phosphorus, fragmentation bombs, fuel-air and large bombs, cannon,
and rapid fire guns. One only has to explore the Internet or watch
Al Jazeera to see numerous hospital cases or street or grave scenes
of people burned beyond recognition or with body damage that would
equal or exceed anything the Assyrians could produce. And what
can be seen via these non-mainstream media information sources
is clearly a small fraction of the burned, crushed, and dismembered.
One "humanistic" advance is
that in the more democratic world of today, flaying or napalming
enemy soldiers and civilians would horrify and arouse into an
opposition force large numbers in the countries dispensing this
violence. So at this point in the evolution of human society such
military behavior would not be acceptable-if it could be seen
and understood. But now we arrive at the role of the media and
the "humanitarian intervention" intellectuals in keeping
the flayed, impaled, and limbless equivalents out of sight and
putting the deadly enterprises that damage and kill them in a
It works as follows. First, the leaders
of the targeted people are demonized and the populations themselves
are often condemned as "willing executioners." Their
leaders may be brought to trial and their crimes, real and alleged,
will be heavily publicized with gruesome details, real and alleged.
The media and establishment intellectuals play a crucial role
here in focusing on the demons with great indignation, accepting
official claims of sincere efforts to settle matters peaceably,
the ominous threat that the demon target will commit local genocide
or might attack the United States itself with his weapons of mass
destruction, and the benevolent and humanitarian intent of the
government once again about to unleash massive state terror. This
regular pattern of apologetics, that includes the acceptance and
dissemination of serious disinformation, makes it easier for the
home public to accept harsh treatment of the population about
to be attacked.
Second, the government-media-intellectuals
axis uses (and misuses) words that put the attack and attacker
in a favorable light and denigrate their targets. The word "terrorism"
is used only to designate retail terrorist actions and retail
responses to state violence, at least where the state terrorism
is carried out by the United States or one of its allies or clients.
Argentina's "infinitely worse" state terrorism was never
designated terrorism by U.S. officials or in the New York Times
in the years 1976-1983; only the retail terrorism was so named,
and the paper even had flattering articles on the "moderates"
among the generals who were ruling and managing the infinitely
worse terrorism. Argentina was a U.S. client state. Similarly,
Israel never commits terror-it only "retaliates" and
engages in "counter-terror." This is pure ideological
bias, but is an important part of the management of public opinion.
Third, and supporting the use of "terrorism"
only in reference to retail terror, is the distinction between
deliberate killing and "collateral damage." Retail terrorists,
like suicide bombers, deliberately kill civilians, whereas with
bombing raids on "suspected" Vietcong, Taliban, Hamas,
or Iraqi insurgent hideouts, any civilian killings are allegedly
inadvertent rather than deliberate, hence in a different and higher
moral class. This is a fallacy in terms of practice, logic, morality,
and the law. As regards practice, many bombing raids have been
clearly intended to kill-the civilian deaths at Hiroshima, Dresden,
and Tokyo in World War II were clearly deliberate, and in many
other cases civilian deaths are either more than acceptable (as
in areas supporting the enemy) or of no concern except as a public
relations problem. As General Gregory Newbold said about the killings
at the wedding ceremony at Kakrak in Afghanistan in July 2002,
"This is an area of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and
Al Qaeda," and many similar statements, as well as the evidence
of many hundreds of attacks on civilian sites, indicate something
other than concern for civilian casualties in all three recent
U.S. wars of aggression. It is good, even essential PR to claim
an interest in avoiding civilian casualties, but only apologists
for state terror will take these assurances at face value.
In terms of logic and morality, if bombing
raids on civilian sites, based frequently on unverified rumor
and dubious sources, regularly kill large numbers of civilians,
the fact that the individual victims were not targeted doesn't
make the deaths inadvertent and undeliberate-they occurred with
a high probability value, which makes them intended in logic and
also in the law. As Michael Mandel points out in his excellent
discussion of the collateral damage apologetic for killings, the
law-even in the state of Texas-has long found that killing a third
party while intending to kill somebody else does not exempt the
killer from being guilty of murder (How America Gets Away With
Murder, Pluto, 2004). But in the Western media and for Western
establishment intellectuals killings under the rubric collateral
damage are treated differently than those of retail terrorists,
giving an aura of innocence if not virtue to the state terrorist's
slaughter of large numbers of "inadvertent" victims.
Fourth, the word bias runs parallel with
the level of attention and indignation. The victims of "terrorism"
are "worthy" victims and get extensive and sympathetic
treatment that can arouse public sympathy and help justify the
attacks on the officially-identified terrorists in programs of
"counter-terror." In the case of Argentina, 1976-1983,
there was minimal attention in the U.S. media to the plight of
the many thousands tortured in those 60 detention centers or slaughtered
by the state terrorists. The New York Times, for example, never
reviewed or even mentioned the 1980 Amnesty International reports
"Testimony on secret detention centers in Argentina,"
or "Guatemala: A Government Program of Political Murder,"
and "Disappearances: A Workbook." Nor did it ever review
Penny Lernoux's Cry of the People. This was the U.S. backyard
and the terror states were U.S. clients, so powerful exposes of
the horrors taking place in these states would be attending to
"unworthy" victims, and the New York Times and its media
colleagues largely avoid this.
The same is true of the media's and establishment
intellectuals' treatment of the unworthy victims of Israeli terrorism
on the West Bank and U.S. terror in Iraq. The Israeli case is
remarkable as Israel has been pretty straightforwardly stealing
Palestinian land and water and ethnically cleansing for years
in gross violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and numerous
UN Security Council and International Court rulings. But in the
U.S. media the Palestinians are terrorists and the ethnically-cleansing
Israelis are the victims. This miracle of racist and immoral bias
is built into the media treatment of these issues-the Palestinian
victims get slight attention and little sympathy, with regular
demands that they cease attacking those who the "international
community" allows to ethnically cleanse them. The attention
and sympathy go to the victims of the suicide bombers; and there
is no demand that the Israelis cease their ongoing dispossession,
let alone return stolen land and water to the untermenschen.
The Media's Service to the State
In dealing with Iraq, the media had already
established a remarkable record of service to the state before
the March 2003 invasion by swallowing disinformation on Iraq's
WMD and links to Al Qaeda. It is a crushing indictment of the
media that at the time of the U.S. attack a large fraction of
U.S. citizens believed that Saddam had WMD, had links to Al Qaeda,
was involved in 9/11, and posed a serious security threat to the
United States. (Even now 48 percent still think that Saddam "was
a serious threat to U.S. security," Wall Street Journal Online,
December 29, 2005.) The media also simply ignored the fact that
the Bush administration had violated the UN Charter and committed
the "supreme crime" in its invasion, and they soon took
it as fact that creating a democracy in Iraq was now the Bush
aim. The causal link between U.S. violence and the growth of the
insurgency was rarely suggested in the media, and they quickly
made the insurgents into "terrorists" fighting a U.S.
striving to bring "stability" and "democracy"
As always, the media played down and kept
largely out of sight the fact that most Iraqi civilian casualties
were victims of U.S. violence. Of course the fact that all the
fighting flowed from the invasion was unmentioned. The stress
has been on deaths caused by the insurgents, and in parallel with
the official silence on overall casualties, those numbers have
been largely kept out of sight. When a major study of civilian
casualties was published in the Lancet, which gave a conservative
estimate of 100,000 civilians deaths attributable to the invasion-occupation,
the media largely ignored it, and where they did discuss it on
a back page, they went to pains to criticize its methodology,
although that same methodology had been used and cited earlier
without criticism by U.S. and British officials. When Bush recently
acknowledged publicly that 30,000 Iraq civilians had died in the
fighting, the media reported the Bush figure on the front page
without debating the number or methodology, and without comparing
it with the now 15-month-old (and thus even more understated)
The destruction of Fallujah was a major
event in a now operative U.S. policy that has been called "urbicide"-the
killing of cities. Town after insurgent-friendly town has been
attacked furiously and with heavy fire-power, with minimal media
attention. One critical report notes that "the pleas of American
victims [of Katrina] were eventually heard loud and clear but
those of people trapped inside Tal Afar or forgotten around its
peripheries [90 percent of the inhabitants fled the town] are
lost in the ether.... There are no convoys of aid-bearing trucks
and planes, stuffed with food and blankets headed in their direction.
Even to be acknowledged at all would be a step up" (Linda
Heard, "Tal Afar Under Media Carpet," September 13,
The media treatment of Fallujah is a microcosm
of the abysmal totality. This was a Guernica on a vast scale,
in which numerous war crimes were committed, a sizable city destroyed,
several thousand civilians killed, several hundred thousand people
made homeless, illegal weapons employed, hospitals destroyed and
medical personnel and patients mistreated, among other matters.
The embedded journalists didn't even uncover the story of the
use of phosphorus-that was dug up by an outsider-and when it was
forced into the public domain journalists treated it not as a
war crime but as a PR setback for "our side." A classic
is the press treatment of the takeover of the Fallujah General
Hospital, where the troops "kicked the doors in" with
"patients and hospital employees rushed out of rooms by armed
soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied
their hands behind their backs." It was alleged that the
hospital presented a problem in that they provide "inflated
casualty figurespropaganda they believe for the Iraqi insurgents"
(Richard A. Oppel, Jr., "Early Target Of Offensive Is a Hospital,"
NYT, November 8, 2005; a photo accompanies the article showing
patients and doctors being tied up and questioned).
Nowhere in this article is it mentioned
that such treatment of a hospital and its patients and personnel
violates international law (nor does it or any accompanying article
mention a nearby hospital destroyed by bombs, in an even more
obvious violation of international law), nor is there any editorial
page questioning of this tactic or the rest of the Guernica treatment.
That the media can normalize the murder of Fallujah and the escalating
urbicides across Sunni territory shows clearly how the media's
work underpins state violence and can allow that violence to go
very far in violation of both the law and widely accepted morality.
Modern weapons and cooperative media institutions
have worked together to facilitate state terrorism and the commission
of acts of violence against distant civilians that are easily
competitive with the Assyrians "flaying men alive" and
cutting off limbs and noses. The incentives to do this on the
part of contemporary state terrorists rests on motives not far
off from those of the Assyrians: material gain, the desire to
possess land and resources held by others, and a mix of racist
and religious feelings and power hunger.
It may be true that democratic sentiment
today militates against such horrible behavior, but that humanizing
force is kept at bay by oligarchic institutions: governments representing
elite interests lie about their true aims and create demons and
threats that must be destroyed and removed; a military establishment,
weapons contractors, and transnational business collective provides
the primary support base for these governments and their policies
and lies; and an elite-dominated media and small body of establishment
intellectuals work hard to keep their own state's victims out
of sight and convince the majority that their state's terror is
"counter-terror" reacting to a real threat, and that
any nasty results of their own state's terror are regrettable
Thus, under contemporary conditions, despite
an impressive and growing but as yet ineffective democratic resistance,
state terrorism flourishes, and "shock and awe," which
was only regional in the time of Assyrian hegemony (and even the
Roman), has been globalized. The hope of the future is that the
only remaining contesting superpower-democratic opinion-along
with pockets of local or regional resistance, will gain strength
sufficient to halt the predations of the militarized superpower,
now out of control and so zealously striving to impose its will,
its domination and privileged position, and its favored neoliberal
rules on others across the globe that the response it provokes
is becoming equally global.
Edward S. Herman is a professor emeritus
of finance, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is
the author of numerous books including The Political Economy of
Human Rights (with Noam Chomsky). His lastest is The Myth of the
Edward S. Herman page