Exposing the Terrorism Trap
an interview with Michael Parenti
by David Ross
International Socialist Review,
I'd like to start out with the title of your new book. What do
you mean by the terrorism "trop?
The acts of terrorism that took place on September 11 must be
seen in a wider context. The reason these people attacked us are
twofold. First there are the immediate causes. They're driven
by an apocalyptic religious ideology. But at the same time the
question comes up, "Why did they attack the United States?"
Bush says it's because we're so free and prosperous. Well, Denmark
is a lot freer and a lot more prosperous than we are, so is Sweden,
so are a number of other Western European countries, but they
are not being attacked in this same way. So we must try to look
at the larger conditional causes of terrorism. The terrorist groups
that have arisen in the Middle East and Central Asia have emerged
from societies in which all popular coalitions and democratic
movements have been destroyed by U.S. interventionism: Turkey,
Yemen, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan,
and others. In country after country where democratic forces have
tried to mobilize for political and economic democracy, where
student leaders, labor union leaders, farm and peasant communal
collective leaders, independent journalist, liberal clergy, women's
rights advocates, various groups of people who have fought for
social change in a democratic direction, these reformist democratic
forces have been the object of the worst sort of oppression over
the last half century. Democratic interests have been destroyed
or left with nothing to hold on to.
Finding their economies, their cultures,
and their societies spinning or sinking beyond their grasp, finding
themselves with no control over their lives, many of these people,
in a mixture of hope and desperation, turn to a kind of totalizing
religious solution. One that actually preaches direct action and
revenge against the evil empire, in this case, as they see it,
America. But it's really not America that's doing this to them,
it's the U.S. ruling class. America itself is a entity of 260
million people, of many diverse groups most of whom do not want
to see their tax dollars expended and the blood of their sons
and daughters spilled in far off places, the names of which they
don't even know, and usually cannot even find on the map. They
wonder why so much is spent on war and so little on things like
local education. Their schools are falling apart. The roof on
the school is leaking and the kids don't have sufficient textbooks,
and school materials. And that's not just in inner cities. I know
schools in California, in suburban areas, where the art teachers
go out with their own money and buy art supplies for the students
because the budgets have been cut back so much. And they're wondering
why we have so much public poverty and so much private wealth,
so much civilian poverty and so much military glut and military
U.S. Ieaders have built military bases
all over the world. It seems U.S. forces have got to be everywhere,
all over the world, occupying countries from Bosnia to Macedonia,
to Kosovo, to Afghanistan, to Tashkent, more and more places at
the taxpayer's expense. Meanwhile the quality of life in the U.S.
is being neglected and deteriorating. So it's not really true
that Americans are clamoring for empire. Despite the monopoly
propaganda of the corporate media and national security state,
Americans do at times question the terrible costs and burdens
of empire. But during times of crises, real or fabricated, our
leaders manage to convince people to rally mindlessly around the
flag, telling them, "this is for democracy," "this
is for our national security," "we've got to do this
to fight terrorism." Well, what's happened? U.S. forces went
into Afghanistan, destroying much of that already battered country-all
supposedly to catch Osama bin Laden. They never caught him, and
now they say, "Oh that's not very important anyway, we don't
really have to catch him." The White House is now predicting
that al Qaeda is planning some other terrorist strikes of major
magnitude, coming soon. So what exactly was accomplished by waging
war upon a weak impoverished battered country? People say, "Well
what would you do? I would go out and hunt the terrorist cells,
specifically. I wouldn't go out and bomb whole cities and villages.
That's like trying to catch a flea with a giant sledgehammer.
But that policy has served George Bush and his reactionaries in
Washington quite well under the guise of this terrorism battle.
While the rest of us, you and I, saw September 11 as a horrible,
horrible tragedy, they saw it as a golden opportunity and they've
been pushing their reactionary agenda ever since. The first thing
George II did to fight terrorism after September 11, was to call
for an additional tax cut for the very rich. And the next thing
he did was to jack up the military budget even more, another 50
billion until now it's dose to 400 billion dollars. None of this
enhances our security against terrorism.
What are the real motives behind US. foreign
I believe the real motives behind most
of U.S foreign policy-these may not be the only concerns or the
only interests-but the major basic motives as measured by the
kinds of countries U.S. Ieaders support and the kinds of countries
or political movements they try to destroy is to keep the world
safe for the Fortune 500. To make sure that the transnational
corporations and international global finance capital continues
to control the land, labor, resources, and markets of most of
the world, and ultimately, all of the world on terms that are
extremely favorable to them. The goal is to destroy, to obliterate,
to thwart any social movement or national leader who is trying
for an alternative way of using the land, the labor, the natural
resources, the markets, the capital of his or her country.
The most recent example is Hugo Chavez
in Venezuela. Why is Chavez being portrayed as an unstable, wild-eyed
demagogue? It's a very repetitive, rather obvious and predictable
formula. A country tries to get out from under the U.S. global-dominated
economic system. They want to develop their own society in their
own way and you immediately begin to demonize their leaders. You
talk about the leader being a "mercurial strong arm,"
"a strong man," "erratic," "dangerous,"
"a repressive autocrat," "another Hitler,"
"anti-American," and "anti-West." But it doesn't
make somebody anti-American if they criticize U.S. policy and
want to develop in their own way, a way that would be more beneficial
for their people. If I criticize U.S policy and say, "I don't
like what our leaders are doing in Iraq and Yugoslavia,"
"I don't like it bombing civilian populations," that
doesn't make me anti-American. If I criticize what Israel is doing
in the West Bank, in Jenin, in Hebron and other places, that doesn't
make me anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. That makes me anti- the particular
leaders who are making the particular policies in Israel or in
the U. S. right now.
I'm opposed to those policies. That's
not being bigoted against America, or Israel, or France, or China.
If I don't like Chinese policy in the business zones that they've
set up and a number of areas, that doesn't mean I'm an anti-Asian,
and a racist against the Chinese people. That is just a manipulative
kind of labeling. To oppose the policies of a government does
not mean you are against the country or the people that the government
supposedly represents. Such opposition should be called what it
really is: democracy, or democratic dissent, or having a critical
perspective about what your leaders are doing. Either we have
the right to democratic dissent and criticism of these policies
or we all lie down and let the leader, the Fuhrer, do what is
best, while we follow uncritically, and obey whatever he commands.
That's just what the Germans did with Hitler, and look where it
What are the domestic repercussions from
the so-called "war on terror?"
I already alluded to some of them. The
war on terror has enabled the Bush Administration to ram through
the USA PATRIOT Act, which defines terrorism so broadly that one
could almost say that the conversation we are having right now
is aiding and abetting terrorism, and they could try to make a
case against us. I'm not exaggerating. This "law" gives
the CIA the right, once again, to operate with domestic surveillance,
which they've never really stopped doing, which they've been doing
in the U.S. all through these years.
But now they can be less sub-rosa about
it. They can be more open and go and do whatever they want. It
gives them the powers to suspend habeas corpus, to suspend our
civil rights whenever they want. Well let me tell you, if under
the guise of fighting terrorism they think they're going to take
away our right to dissent, and our right to a trial by jury, and
our right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, they've
got another thing coming because millions of people do not agree
with that hysterical, stupid, USA, so-called, PATRIOT Act. It
has nothing to do with patriotism. It is an act which that gaggle
of wimps they call the U.S. Congress stampeded and ran into line
to vote for by an overwhelming majority because they had to show
themselves as out there fighting terrorism.
What do you believe are the real structures
of economic and political power in the United States?
The real structures of economic and political
power rest with the powers of very big moneyed interests that
finance right-wing think tanks, pay the big paid lobbyists in
Washington, and bankroll most of the big elections. If you want
to run for any really important federal office-even for the U.S.
House of Representatives-to wage a viable electoral campaign in
one congressional district now cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The moneyed power also exists in a whole
set of auxiliary institutions. The representatives of corporate
America sit on the Boards of Regents, and Boards of Trustees that
rule our universities and colleges. Corporate America owns the
major media. They control the economy. They control the job market,
the technology, interest rates, financial institutions. They have
tremendous influence over Congress.
People say, "Oh, do you have a conspiracy
theory, do you think people really gather together in a room and
meet each other?" Certainly they meet all the time. They
meet at the Bohemian Grove and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco.
They meet at the Knickerbocker Club in New York. They meet at
the White House. They meet at the Council on Foreign Relations.
They meet at the Trilateral Commission and elsewhere. They're
constantly meeting and confabulating, and selecting the right
people for the right positions, the big policy-making positions
in government. They're constantly setting up policies, what to
do and how to do it and how this best protects the powers-that-be
and the money-that-is. They don't rule entirely the way they would
like to. If they ruled entirely as they'd like to, they would
have wiped out social security twenty years ago. They still have
to deal with the popular vote to some degree and these are precious
That's about all we've got left, these
few rights, and sometimes not even that, as dissent is repressed
or blocked out of the media. And the vote is devalued when there's
nobody worth voting for. Here in California we are faced with
one man named Simon who's running for Governor whose a total right-wing,
big-money conservative. He's running against Gray Davis, who calls
himself a Democrat, who is another conservative, big-money individual
who sold his soul to the energy companies and the like. So, you
often don't have a vote. I'm voting for the Green Party candidate,
Peter Camejo, just as a protest vote because neither of these
other two people are worth anything.
In your book you respond to the often-heard
statement that everything changed after 9-11. What didn't change
after September 11?
Many of the terrible things we talked
about, or if they have changed, they've changed for the worst.
The government is still constantly looking for ways to restrict
our rights and our freedoms. The government is still giving multibillion-dollar
tax write-offs to the top one percent of the population at the
expense of the rest of us. You know every time they get a tax
break that means that portion of the tax burden shifts onto our
backs, onto the backs of the ordinary working people in America.
The government is still out there trying
to destroy the environment and undermine the Clean Air Act, and
the Clean Water Act as imperfect and insufficient as those Acts
are-trying to roll them back. They're still trying to go after
Social Security. They're still sending troops, money and military
materials all over the world to suppress other people who are
trying to build better lives for their own countries, trying to
get some land reform, trying to get a new kind of government that
would give education to the common people, that refuses to sell
all the public resources off to the big corporations for a song.
U.S. Ieaders, in the service of the big corporations, continue
to undermine movements and governments that are trying to develop
in more democratic ways, responsive to the needs of their people.
So I haven't seen all that much really
changing since September 11. Now, of course, for the people who
are directly impacted by the tragedy, who lost loved ones and
such, their lives have changed forever and this is something they'll
live with for the rest of their lives.
Do you believe our corporate-capitalist
system is reformable? And if not, what is your vision of an alternative
political-economic system that would be more just and egalitarian?
I see I a system in which the people who
do the labor, who work and create the value in society, should
be the ones who have the say as to how it will be used. And that
means you've got to have elections that are not money driven but
are really based on issues with clear alternative perspectives
which will allow people to vote. You've got to have voting systems
that are not restrictive, not an obstacle course designed to disenfranchise
the poor and the dissident. You've got to have free open ballot
access to a variety of parties. You should have proportional representation,
which means that if a political party gets 15 percent of the vote,
they will get roughly 15 percent of the representation in the
State Assembly or the Congress, or wherever it may be. You should
get rid of the Electoral College, which elects the president with
550 votes or so. You should have a direct election of the president
by direct popular vote, so that every vote counts equally regardless
of its location.
You should also have a whole change in
our priorities. The corporations should be heavily taxed. They
used to provide about 20-30 percent of the national revenue, and
today they provide more like 6-7 percent, if that. Many of the
biggest corporations don't even pay taxes. They even get a negative
tax refund because they haven't paid any taxes-they have so many
tax write offs, they actually get refunded for taxes they never
even paid! What a system.
I would also put under public ownership
some of the basic industries in our society: the utilities, the
energy companies, and this sort of thing. I would develop alternative,
renewable, sustainable, energy systems: tidal energy, thermal
energy, wind energy, solar power energy. These things are not
pie-in-the-sky things. I hear that by 2030 Germany is going to
be moving toward a point where a third or half of their national
energy sources are going to come from wind. Denmark is doing the
same thing. There are countries all over the world doing the same
thing. There are houses in the United States, literally thousands
of them, that are heated either partially are totally by solar
power. One could go on. There's no mystery as to what could be
done. The alternatives are there. They're not just in blueprints.
They're actually being put into operation in communities.
I would support family farming and communal
farming, which is often the safest farming. It's the best, and
is often very efficient. It may not have that immediate, high-powered,
mass productivity that the big agribusiness farms have, but the
commodities that come out are usually safer and cleaner. They're
not ridden with genetically engineered foods or pesticides, or
not as much. The family farm and the communal farm uses the water
on its own land so they don't poison it and spray it to the same
degree as big agribusiness. They care for the land. In the long
run they're more efficient. They don't just do cosmetic farming.
They don't just discard a third of the crop because it might have
some scratches on the skin of the potato or it looks irregular
in its shape. They sell those potatoes too.
I would democratize our universities so
that they're not run by a small group of rich businessmen who
stand with ideological control over much of the faculty and administration.
I would have the universities run by committees of faculty and
administrators and students and staff, all of them having a say
in things. It might be a little more difficult, sometimes a little
messier, sometimes very wonderful and very rewarding, but it would
be at least more democratic, more creative and more equitable
so the universities wouldn't be serving as instruments of the
big corporations as they increasingly are becoming.
That's just scratching the surface. I
would take the corporate media and remind them that they are using
the public domain, the airwaves. These airwaves are the property
of the people of the United States. In fact they now want to sell
the airwaves themselves, the actual air. They want to sell that
and make that the private property of the corporate media. There
are plans afoot to do that very thing. They're going in the other
direction. They want to privatize our water systems, so we have
to pay exorbitant prices for our water. There are now communities
in India were these poor struggling families are paying 30~0 percent
of their income just for water. The globalizing corporate goal
is to do the same here. They're looking for commodities that people
can't do without that they can grab hold of. Anything in the public
sector that is being produced by the state, by the government,
for the people, creating jobs and spending power, creating a tax
base, fulfilling human needs- but without making a profit for
the moneyed class-is hated by that class.
They want to move in and grab hold of
everything, be it education, health, medical care, water supplies,
electrical utilities, whatever else. Privatize, privatize, deregulate,
and hand it over to the moneybags. They will charge whatever the
market will bear. They will do these sorts of things and the rest
of us will be their economic slaves, working just to buy the basic
necessities of life. That's their goal, the thirdworldization
of America-and everywhere else. They just want to get richer and
richer and make us work harder and harder for less and less. That's
what globalization and the "free market" are all about.
David Ross is a grassroots activist who
has worked on the Nader campaign, corporate accountability, U.S.
imperialism, and environmental issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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