The Threat Of Global State Terrorism
Retail vs wholesale terror
by Edward S. Herman & David Peterson
Z magazine, January 2002
We are living in a very dangerous time, but for reasons almost
exactly the opposite of those conventionally accepted. The consensus
view in the United States right now is that the danger lies in
the terror threat from Bin Laden and his network, and perhaps
other terrorists hostile to the West. But Bin Laden and his network,
though evidently formidable terrorists, cannot compete in terrorizing
with states, and especially with a highly militarized superpower.
His is a "retail" terror network, like the IRA or Cuban
refugee terrorist network: it has no helicopter gunships, no offensive
missiles, no "daisy cutters," no nuclear weapons, and
although its death-dealing on September 11 was remarkable (although
down from the initially estimated 6,000 or more to below 3,900),
it was unique for a non-governmental terrorist organization.
Really large-scale killing and torture to terrorize-"wholesale"
terrorism-has been implemented by states, not by non-state terrorists.
The reason people aren't aware of this is that states define terrorism
and identify the terrorists, and they naturally exempt themselves
as always "retaliating" and engaging in "counter-terror"
even when their own actions are an exact fit to their own definitions.
And their mainstream media always follow the official lead. The
U.S. Code definition-"any activity...dangerous to human life...intended
to intimidate or coerce a civilian population...[or] to influence
the policy of a government by intimidation"-surely fits U.S.
policy toward Iraq, where the incessant bombings and "sanctions
of mass destruction" have been designed to intimidate the
Iraqi people and influence Iraqi government policy. This serious
terrorism has been killing more children per month than the total
casualty figure for the September 11 terrorist attacks, but in
this country it is Iraq that, if not terrorizing, is a terrorist
threat getting what it deserves. This distorted perspective is
made possible by a mainstream media that serves state policy by
focusing attention on Hussein's efforts to develop "weapons
of mass destruction," while keeping pictures of dying Iraqi
children out of sight.
As another illustrative case, Israel has been using torture
on an administrative basis for at least 25 years, a feat no retail
(non-state) terrorist could duplicate. This, and the U.S. policy
toward Iraq, are wholesale terrorist operations, carried out on
a large scale over an extended period of time, as only the institutions
of state terrorism are capable of doing. As the 1984 Alfonsin
National Commission on the Disappeared explained after reviewing
the record of the deposed military regime of Argentina, which
had tortured and killed thousands in over 300 detention centers
from 1976 to 1983, that regime's (wholesale) terrorism was "infinitely
worse" than the (retail) terrorism it was combating.
The real danger to world peace and security arising out of
the events of September 11 lies in the responsive wholesale terrorism
that will result-and already is resulting-from the resurgent aggressiveness
of the United States, with its excessive military power, its global
interests that can be served by a forward military policy, its
self-righteousness and habituation to getting its way, and the
absence of any country or group of countries able to contain it.
This country is also especially dangerous by virtue of its being
perhaps the most religiously fundamentalist in the world (ranging
from the Christian Right and its various militia-like sects to
the blind patriotic fervor in the wake of September 11 to belief
in close encounters of the third kind, angels, and End Times);
and with a population that, with the help of the mainstream media,
can be brought to approve or ignore any level of external violence
that the leadership deems useful. We may recall that the United
States is the only country that has used nuclear weapons and has
threatened their further use many times. Its employment of chemical
weapons more than competes with Saddam Hussein's use in the 1980s,
one of the U.S. Iegacies being some 500,000 Vietnamese children
with serious birth abnormalities left from a decade of U.S. chemical
warfare in the 1960s.
The September 11 bombing was a windfall for the Bush administration
and military-industrial complex, so much to their advantage that
theories have been circulating suggesting that the U.S. Ieadership
engineered, or at least failed to interfere with, the bombings.
We don't accept the purported evidence for this, but we do believe
that after the initial shock at their failure to protect U.S.
citizens from attack, the leadership realized that this was what
they had been waiting for as a substitute for the Soviet Threat
to justify a new projection of U.S. power. In fact, the "war
against terrorism" may prove to be more serviceable as a
tool for managing the public than the Soviet Threat, given its
open-ended and nebulous character.
The Soviet Threat gave the United States a Cold War propaganda
cover to justify its support of numerous military dictators and
other goons of convenience who would serve U.S. economic and political
interests. Thus, in the name of fighting both Soviet "expansionism"
and "terrorism" the United States supported terrorist
states that engaged in really serious terrorism, combating a lesser
(retail) terrorism that was frequently a response to that state
terrorism. One document produced by the Catholic Church in Latin
America in 1977, made the telling observation that the military
regimes needed to employ terror because the ruthless economic
policies that they encouraged, their "development model,"
which featured helping foreign transnationals by giving them a
"favorable climate of investment" (i.e., crushing labor
unions), "creates a revolution that did not previously exist."
It is hardly a coincidence that "liberation theology,"
with its "theology from the underside of history" and
its "preferential option for the poor" (Gustavo Gutierrez),
was born out of the turmoil and victimization of this era of U.S.-sponsored
In the earlier period the United States got away with claims
that it was opposed to and was fighting terrorism, while it was
actually supporting "infinitely worse" terrorisms. The
mainstream media allowed the government to define terrorism and
name the terrorists; so, for example, the New York Times regularly
referred to the retail terrorism in Argentina as "terrorism,"
but never called the infinitely worse state terrorism in that
country by its right name. And the Times-and the rest of the mainstream
media- rarely discussed the ugly details of Argentinian state
terrorism, never related it to any development model, and failed
to express indignation over it. Also, they never referred to the
Nicaraguan contras or Savimbi's UNITA as terrorists or the United
States as a sponsor of terrorism for giving them support.
In the Cold War years, also, the media never questioned the
alleged objectives of U.S. interventions. If the U.S. government
claimed back in t e early 1950s that it was overthrowing the elected
government of Guatemala for fear of Soviet control and to stop
the spread of communism, the media never doubted this; they never
suggested that this was a fraudulent cover for the desire to protect
the United Fruit Company, to dispose of an annoyingly reformist
and independent government, and resulted from an arrogantly imperialistic
government's refusal to brook any opposition in its backyard.
The media served then as uncritical propagandists for the "war
against communism," featuring the alleged threats and focusing
heavily on the progress of that notorious intervention. They made
the destruction of a democratic government and introduction of
a police state into a noble venture that saved the United States
from a wholly fabricated threat.
Sound familiar? It should, as the media are doing the same
job of protecting state actions today. If their government says
that what it is doing in Afghanistan is a "war against terrorism,"
that is what the media label it. If the Administration hints at
extending the war on terrorism to Iraq as one of its state sponsors,
the media talk about this only in terms of strategy, whether allies
will go along, and possible repercussions. They never suggest
that the attack on Afghanistan was itself an act of terrorism,
or beyond that, an act of aggression done in straightforward violation
of the UN Charter and international law. They never suggest that
Iraq has been a victim of very serious state-sponsored terrorism
for more than a decade, in which 23 million Iraqis have served
as hostages to be starved into rebellion. Never. Although what
this country does may fit the official U.S. definition of terrorism
with precision, the supposedly free and independent media exempt
its actions from the label as a matter of course.
As they did back in 1950-1954 in reference to Guatemala, the
mainstream media focus on U.S. claims regarding enemy maneuvers
and sinister plans (back then, Red infiltration; today, the location
and tricks of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda); the planning and military
activities of the forces supported by the United States (back
then, the "contra" army invading Guatemala from Somoza's
Nicaragua; today the military successes of the bombing and "coalition"
fighting on the ground in Afghanistan); who is winning and losing
in the fighting and diplomatic maneuvering. There was no discussion
in the earlier years of objectives other than that supposed "war
against communism"-such as the welfare of United Fruit, or
the U.S. objection to any social democratic reforms or independent
state in its backyard-just as today the media will not discuss
the Bush administration's broader agenda-gaining access to and
control over the Caspian Basin's enormous oil and natural gas
resources, or using anti-terrorism as the rationale for going
after any global target, or to help create a moral environment
that will serve to advance its domestic programs.
Just as the Cold War provided a cover for U.S. support of
a "real terror network," so now the "war against
terrorism" is providing a cover for a similar and rapid gravitation
to contemporary goons of convenience like Russia's Putin, Pakistan's
Musharraff, and Uzbekistan's Karimov. Putin is a major wholesale
terrorist, whose political career has been built on terrorizing
Chechnya; Musharraff is a military dictator who previously was
closely allied with the Taliban; and Karimov is another holdover
dictator from the Soviet era, whose only virtue is a willingness
to serve the "war on terrorism." Just as the media back
in 1954 never discussed the fact that that first generation contra
invasion of Guatemala, allegedly to "free" Guatemala,
was being organized in Somoza's "unfree" Nicaragua,
nor questioned U. S. support of that dictator, so today the media
never ask the obvious question: How can a new order of democracy
be created by supporting and consolidating the power of dictators
and wholesale terrorists?
The "war against terrorism" has given a freer hand
to terrorist governments that are "with us," like Russia's
but also that of Israel, whose leaders quickly recognized their
improved political position after September 11 and greatly intensified
their violence in the occupied territories. China has also joined
the fight against terrorism, and is expected to "use the
international war against terror for a new crackdown on the Turkic-speaking
Uighurs," and "arrests in the region have increased
significantly" since September 11 ("China using terror
war against separatists," UPI, October 11, 2001). The new
"war" has encouraged governments across the globe to
ask for military support from the United States to fight their
own "terrorists," and the Bush administration has already
come through with aid to the Philippines and Indonesia in these
local struggles. So it looks very much as if insurgents anywhere,
if they don't happen to be supported by Washington as "freedom
fighters," will be transformed into targets of the new "war
against terrorism," now to be fought on a global basis. Whereas
in the Cold War years these insurgents were tied to Moscow in
preparation for supporting states like Argentina, which would
then crush them; now they will be branded "foreign terrorist
organizations" or linked to Bin Laden, or perhaps that won't
even be necessary in the New World Order-just call them terrorists,
flash pictures of the victims of the World Trade Center, and bomb
In the earlier years, also, as the government wanted the public
mobilized to the frightful threat posed by the disarmed Guatemala,
the media beat a steady and incessant drum, day in and day out.
Similarly, since September 11, the Bush administration wanting
the public frightened and mobilized to support its new and open-ended
war, the media have provided incessant and frightening-as well
as hugely biased-coverage of "A Nation Challenged,"
as the New York Times's daily section would have it, or "At
War With Terror," in the Philadelphia Inquirer's regular
account. The public is led to believe that the Pitiful Giant has
had its back against the ropes in its struggle against retail
terror, a truly frightening situation; whereas in the earlier
case, a social democratic government threatening United Fruit
and U.S. prerogatives, but linked to Moscow, provided the media
with grist for creating public panic, and justifying U.S. aggression.
In the earlier case, after the elected government of Guatemala
was overthrown in June 1954, and was replaced by a puppet that
proceeded to dismantle all the human rights and social gains brought
by democracy, media attention to Guatemala disappeared, and it
stayed invisible as a counterinsurgency state, built on wholesale
terror, took over and has remained in place for almost half a
century. The media helped overthrow the democratic government,
and in the years that followed they kept the public unaware that
under U.S. auspices, with U.S. funding, training, Green Beret
participation in counterinsurgency campaigns, and diplomatic support,
a terror state was built, aided, and protected (for details, Michael
McClintock, The American Connection: State Terror and Popular
Resistance in Guatemala [Zed, 1985]). The same pattern was observable
in the case of Nicaragua in the 1980s: huge media attention to
the Sandinista government's "threat of a good example"
that followed U.S. support of the Somoza dictatorship for 45 years;
then after the ouster of the Sandinistas, with the crucial aid
of U.S. direct and sponsored terrorism, the media once again lapsed
This media practice allows the United States to carry out
a hit-and-run policy, without any serious public cost to its leadership,
as the public is kept in the dark about the fact that this country
has "run" following its extended and devastating "hit,"
because media attention falls to close to zero.
This should clue us in on the likely developments in Afghanistan
after this fearsome military challenge is met-and the United States
and its anti-terrorist "coalition" can celebrate another
victory in which they created a desert and called it peace. There
is a great deal of talk now of "nation-building" and
modernizing Afghanistan, but that is now, when the establishment
needs to fend off suggestions that it is better at killing and
starving people than it is at spreading democracy and development
that helps them. But Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Kosovo, and
many other cases, teach us that there will be no nation-building
at all, although building oil and natural gas pipelines and military
bases is another matter.
Once the great military victory is achieved, budget priorities
will hardly extend out to Afghanistan, any more than they did
to other victims of imperial violence. Official attention will
disappear and the media can be counted on to shift their focus
elsewhere. Call it a law of the free press, which falls in line
whenever duty calls and boldly follows the flag and priorities
of the elite and government establishment. If these call for nation
destruction, and then a silent exit, so be it.
Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst. His most
recent book, co-edited with Philip Hammond, is Degraded Capability:
The Media and The Kosovo Crisis. (Pluto Press, 2000). David Peterson
is a freelance writer.
S. Herman page