The Politicization of Terror
September 11 and American historical selectivity
by Andrew Hartman
Z magazine, December 2001
September 11 will forever be synonymous with terrorism. If
Americans lacked a clear definition of terrorism prior to the
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, those events
have now generated an unwelcome familiarity with terrorism. Defining
terrorism is not simple, but for the sake of clarity, here is
a definition of the term that most would accept: terrorism is
intentional violence or the threat of violence perpetrated on
a civilian population to inflict fear in the pursuit of a political
agenda. Unfortunately, clarity in definition has not translated
into a clear use of the term. U.S. policy-makers and opinion-makers
alike have long abused the use of the word "terrorism."
On September 28, the United Nations Security Council was granted
the arbitrary power to define terrorism and to determine which
countries harbor terrorists. Britain's ambassador to the UN, Jeremy
Greenstock, confidently defined a terrorist as "something
that looks like a terrorist and makes noise like a terrorist."
Bush also seemed to own a clear definition of terrorism when
he stated, "any nation that continues to harbor or support
terrorism will be regarded by the U.S. as a hostile regime."
Unfortunately, current U.S. policy-makers are using the crisis
of terrorism to achieve political goals that do not include abolishing
Bush addressed the nation and a joint session of Congress
on September 20 to prepare the nation for the "War on Terrorism."
Bush is not the first president to confront the issue of terrorism
before a nationwide audience. Jimmy Carter, in his State of the
Union speech in 1980, referred to the 50 American hostages in
Iran as "innocent victims of terrorism." Terrorism and
counter-terrorism have been American policy issues for over 20
The historical notion of terrorism in the U.S. has been subjected
to biased selective memory. The definition of terrorism our leaders
have created is not factual, but based on "a series of accepted
judgments." The accepted judgment in America is that only
our stated enemies are capable of terrorism. American historical
selectivity has washed our actions, and the actions of our friends,
down the drain of denial-actions that should be construed as terrorism.
This politicization of terrorism is not a new phenomenon.
Countries that work against the pronounced interests of the U.S.
have routinely and specifically been listed as countries that
harbor terrorists. Many of these countries warrant their spot
on such a list. However, the bar is lowered considerably when
the actions of the U.S. and its clients are measured. If the U.S.
expects to be taken seriously on a global scale in terms beyond
force or the threat of force, we need to attempt to uphold a single
standard for human behavior.
In so doing, any list of terrorist countries needs to include
the U.S. The U.S. has consistently used what should be considered
terrorism as a means to an end. The definition of terrorism should
not be confined to the work of independent networks. State-sanctioned
terrorism is also a very real phenomenon, and should be included
in the "War on Terrorism." The atrocity committed against
the U.S. on September 11 cannot be used to justify violence perpetrated
against civilian populations to attain a political goal-even if
that goal is to "fight terrorism." Unfortunately, the
"war on terrorism" has become the war on America's enemies.
To qualify these statements, I will examine the politicization
of Cuba and Iraq's spots on the State Department's list of countries
that harbor terrorists-a study that outlines U.S. hypocrisy. I
will then discuss the roots of U.S. counter-terrorism policy,
founded during the Reagan Administration.
The U.S. and Cuba
Cuba is among seven countries that continue to "earn"
the right to be on the State Department's list of countries that
harbor terrorists (Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and
Sudan are the other six).
Linking Cuba to terrorism is an extreme example of the U.S.
politicization of terrorism. The historian Norman Davies attempted
to exact the theme of historical selectivity. His first model
of historical selectivity is propaganda: "the deliberate
and systematic technique of presenting only those facts and falsehoods
which suit a particular political goal." American intellectuals
who disseminate America's collective awareness of historical matters
learned early on "the need to support the power structure."
Cuba has been a thorn in the side of U.S. policy since its
revolution over 40 years ago. Their military operations in Africa
during the Cold War are a large contributor to them being branded
a "rogue state," along with the other nations that act
outside the realm of U.S. interests. State Department "rogue
states" and "terrorist states" go hand in hand;
make one list, and you are guaranteed a spot on the other list.
Cuba sent forces to Angola in 1975 and helped defend the People's
Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) until its eventual
victory in 1988. The U.S. Iabeled Cuba's actions as "Cuban
military imperialism," thus beginning the construction of
Cuban linkage to terrorism. Cuba, in the tradition of Che Guevara,
was committed to the struggle against global imperialism and interested
in advancing nationalist independent movements. In so doing, Cuba
acted against the wishes of the Soviet Union, although the Soviets
helped fund and arm the MPLA. Cuban insider Jorge Risquest stated
in 1988 that Cuba participated because Angola was "the only
genuinely independent, non-tribalist, and non-racist movement
The MPLA invoked UN Charter Article 51 to call on Cuba to
help them defend Angola from both internal and external forces,
which included South Africa and U.S. proxies. During the 13 years
of Cuban military support in Angola, Cubans helped stop several
annexation invasions by South Africa. The military defeat of South
Africa helped destabilize and humiliate the South African apartheid
regime, contributing to the fall of the racist government. In
July 1991, Nelson Mandela thanked Cuba. Many in southern Africa
believe Cuba was a main force in ending apartheid. When Fidel
Castro traveled to New York City for the UN's 50th anniversary
celebration, he was welcomed in the predominantly black neighborhood
of Harlem where he spoke at a Riverside Church celebration. They
were celebrating the fall of apartheid, and Castro's speech was
interrupted on numerous occasions due to prolonged applause. During
the war, the U.S. press focused on Cuba's intervention and falsely
documented Cuban atrocities, later refuted by CIA Chief of Operations
in Angola, John Stockwell, who wrote, "The only atrocities
we were able to document had Cubans as victims rather than criminals."
While some have a difficult time accepting Cuba's military presence
in Angola as a benevolent, humanitarian intervention, their actions
certainly do not warrant the terrorist label. Cuba had its reasons
for being there. A huge percentage of Cuba's population came from
the African region of Angola, which was a heavily targeted slave
market during the Atlantic slave trade. Cuba's only "misdeed"
was working against the U.S.
To comprehend the role of selectivity in America's understanding
of Angola and its connections to terrorism, we need to examine
the role of the U.S. and its proxies. The proportionality of atrocities
committed will help us understand the propaganda model of selectivity.
Angola became another Third World country brutally destroyed during
the Cold War, and the picture of U.S. complicity is not pleasant.
The West was not willing to give up this former Portuguese
colony because of its valuable resources. The U.S. supported the
Portuguese attempts to subvert independence from the beginning.
"By January 1962 outside observers could watch Portuguese
planes bomb Africa villages, visit the charred remains of towns
like Mbanza M'Pangu, and identify 750-pound napalm bomb casings
by its 'Property U.S. Air Force' label." Continuing the flow
of resource extraction was a factor in Angola. Cabinda Gulf Oil
(a subsidiary of U.S. Gulf Oil Company at the time) discovered
extensive oil deposits in Angola in 1966. By the early 1970s,
Angola was the fourth largest oil producing country in Africa.
Foreign investors were excavating diamonds and other valuable
mineral deposits. Besides the U.S. and Portugal, Japan, Britain,
France, and Germany all had major investments in this mineral
Also, in terms of Cold War proximity, the CIA began planning
its secret war in Angola soon after complete withdrawal from Vietnam.
Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in 1975, saw Angola only in
terms of global politics, and was the main impetus behind the
war in Angola. Uncomfortable with recent events and frustrated
by the humiliation in Vietnam, Kissinger was seeking opportunities
to challenge the Soviets. Kissinger tried to "foment and
sustain a civil war in Angola simply to convince the Russians
that the American tiger could still bite." Angola became
the answer to turning the tide of East-West relations back to
the West despite lack of CIA evidence implicating Soviet intervention
In "fomenting" this war, Washington used tribal
rivalries and began to fund any Angolan rebel group willing to
combat the MPLA. The most prominent of these rebel groups, and
the most vicious, was Jonas Savimbi's UNITA. American policy-maker
Jeane Kirpatrick referred to Savimbi as "one of the greatest
heroes of our time, a true freedom fighter." Rather than
a "freedom fighter," Savimbi is more aptly described
as a "fascist, a murderer, and a liar," by Peter Hain,
the British Minister responsible for Africa. Savimbi's gangs systematically
destroyed the social, economic, and political framework of the
nation. It is estimated two million Angolans died during the war.
When the South African army fell in 1988, the U.S. continued to
aid UNITA and withheld recognition from the legitimate Angolan
government. Savimbi continues terrorist operation in the war-plagued
nation of Angola to this day. The Angolan government blames UNITA
for derailing a train that killed 100 civilians on August 13,
South Africa also played an unsavory part in this war, supported
every step of the way by the U.S. South Africa's extreme militarism
went hand in hand with its white supremacy and overall strategy
of destabilization in the southern end of the continent. South
Africa backed the contra war in Mozambique that killed or maimed
250,000 and created over one million refugees. South Africa subverted
independence in Namibia with its counterinsurgency war. The apartheid
military had 120,000 troops stationed in Namibia in the 1970s
and 1980s. In 1975, South Africa intervened in Angola with the
support of the CIA. The U.S. had traditionally supported South
Africa, in large part due to Kissinger's renowned racist "Tar
Baby" policy (NSSM39). "Tar Baby" articulated the
U.S. position in Africa: Black Nationalist movements were an unsuitable
alternative to continued colonial rule. "Tar Baby" was
the impetus behind Washington's million-dollar sales of military
aircraft to the South African government in Pretoria. The South
African military was notorious for its brutality-terrorists in
every sense of the word. Support from the U.S. gave South Africa's
apartheid terrorists legitimacy.
When the South African and UNITA terrorists were not enough
to quell the MPLA and Cubans, the CIA recruited an undercover
army composed of U.S. and European mercenaries to fight the MPLA.
George Cullen, a CIA-funded mercenary from Britain, was notorious
for his cruel and racist actions. He gunned down 14 fellow African
mercenaries to make a point. Anyone willing to continue this dirty
war was good enough for Kissinger and the CIA-as long as the war
continued. Angola is still suffering the effects of never-ending
war. In 1999, it was estimated there were twice as many people
in need of assistance in Angola as there were in Kosovo. In 2000,
a new round of human rights abuses were committed as the country
returned to full-scale armed conflict. Angola may never recover.
But in the U.S., Angola is barely a blip on the radar screen.
We don't know much about the Angolan situation, and what we do
know certainly does not implicate the U.S. While Cuba remains
politically targeted as a country that harbors terrorists, the
United States terrorist actions in Angola have been covered up.
The media's adherence to the propaganda model of selectivity is
apparent. The prestigious U.S. newspapers were not critical of
U.S. policy in Angola. Never was the terrorist label attributed
to UNITA, South Africa, and certainly not to the CIA-recruited
mercenaries-only Cuba. The inhumane economic sanctions levied
against Cuba by the U.S., economic measures to instill fear in
the population to achieve a political agenda, is a form of economic
terrorism. But this is never recognized as such and as Fidel Castro's
Cuba consistently refuses to adhere to the U.S. agenda, it officially
remains a country that "harbors terrorists."
The U.S. and Iraq
Iraq has been on the State Department list of countries that
harbor terrorists since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Iraq merits
its place on any list of terrorist states. Besides proof that
they harbor known members of Al Qaeda, Iraq's actions as a state
are aptly described as state-sanctioned terrorism. In 1988, Saddam
Hussein launched a poison gas attack against the Kurds of Northern
Iraq, killing 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja. The Kurds were
being punished for their participation in the Iran-Iraq war of
1980-1988 on the side of Iran. At a televised public meeting on
February 18, 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Secretary
of Defense William Cohen invoked this atrocity to justify a new
wave of U.S. bombings: Hussein was guilty of using weapons of
mass destruction against his own people, the ultimate atrocity.
What Albright and Cohen failed to mention, and what the press
failed to call them on, was that when Hussein gassed the Kurds
at Halabja, the U.S. had friendly relations with Hussein, and
1988 was actually the peak year of U.S. military aid to Iraq.
When ABC TV correspondent Charles Glass revealed the site of Hussein's
program of biological warfare, the State Department denied it.
Most of the biological and chemical weapons Hussein used had their
roots in the U.S. and Great Britain. One of the deadly pathogens
was traced to the army's center for germ research in Fort Detrick,
Maryland. Not only was the U.S. complicit in Hussein's terrorist
behavior, it consistently used that terrorist behavior to justify
its own terrorism on the people of Iraq.
Although this is rarely mentioned, one of Hussein's biggest
mistakes in the eyes of the West was devoting a substantial portion
of Iraq's huge export earnings to human services and economic
development. Domestic policies like these, especially in oil rich
Third World countries, are never viewed approvingly by Washington.
The interests of Washington in Iraq must be the interests of foreign
investors, not the domestic population. Before the Gulf War, Iraq
enjoyed free health care and free education, creating a standard
of living higher than any other Arab nation. Iraq's literacy rate
reached 80 percent, a sizable achievement. All that came to an
end when Iraq was bombed back into the Third World during the
Gulf War, during which more than twice the high explosive tonnage
was used on Iraq than the entire Allied air forces used during
World War II.
An embargo has been sanctioned against the people of Iraq
since the Gulf War. The U.S. government has intentionally targeted
the civilian population in Iraq as a means to an end. The U.S.
destroyed Iraq's water treatment infrastructure during its bombing
campaign. It continued its attack on Iraq's water supply by cutting
off water treatment supplies as a component of the embargo, knowing
full well that it would ravage the Iraqi population, predominantly
Iraqi children. Declassified documents from 1991 indicate U.S.
cruelty: "Iraq depends on importing specialized equipment
and some chemicals to purify its water supply, most of which is
heavily mineralized and frequently brackish to saline. "
The document continues to state that without the vital commodities
necessary to purify its water supply, which are blocked by the
embargo, there will be a severe shortage in pure drinking water.
These same declassified documents spell out the possibilities
of these sanctions: huge increases in disease that could reach
the proportion of an epidemic. The policy-makers also note that
these sanctions will acutely affect the children in Iraq. They
were correct in their estimation: according to UNICEF, an average
of 5,000 children under the age of 5 die each month in Iraq.
On May 12, 1996, as the cruel realities of the sanctions became
more apparent, Leslie Stahl of ABC's "60 Minutes" asked
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about accusations that the
sanctions were killing 5,000 children per month. Albright responded,
"We think the price is worth it." This response cannot
be that different from Osama bin Laden's recent spine-chilling
declaration that, in effect, "Americans will never feel security.
" Any country with Hussein as its leader may belong on a
list of terrorist countries, but the U.S. also uses terrorism
as a political tool in its continuous oppression of the Iraqi
population. The propaganda model of selectivity allows for such
politicization. Facts that indict the U.S. are conveniently ignored.
Reagan's "Anti-terrorism is Terrorism"
When Reagan came to power in 1981, new Secretary of State
Alexander Haig announced that the new Administration would replace
Carter's so-called "human rights" foreign policy with
anti-terrorism. In 1984, the White House Office of the Press Secretary
released Reagan's anti-terrorism statement. It begins, "In
the past fifteen years, terrorism has become a frightening challenge
to the tranquillity and potential stability of our friends and
The Reagan administration's foreign policy more resembles
terrorism than any other administration's policies. During the
1 980s, as Noam Chomsky points out, "the U.S. was well in
the lead in spreading the cancer they were demanding must be extirpated.
" The U. S. trained, armed, and funded the very same terrorist
network that is being held responsible for the attacks on the
World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Reagan Doctrine-a plan
to increase the cost of Soviet support of Third World socialist
governments-overwhelmed any semblance of anti-terrorism policies.
The CIA, working closely with the huge Pakistan intelligence service
(ISI), and a coalition of other countries, including Saudi Arabia,
Egypt, and France, covertly developed these "freedom fighters"
recruited from across the Arab world, who referred to themselves
as the Mujahidin
("holy warriors"). Unfortunately, these "freedom
fighters" were tough to control and immediately contributed
to what the CIA refers to as "blowback." The U. S. and
its allies became targets of the Mujahidin, as we know all too
Reagan's counter-terrorist initiative included the "Aircraft
Sabotage Act" of 1984. This legislation attempted to "deal
with certain criminal acts relating to aircraft sabotage or hijacking."
One such example of aircraft sabotage might include Iranian airliner
flight 655, shot down over Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf
on July 3, 1988, killing 290 people. Iran took the case to the
UN International Court for Justice, stating that the naval vessel
that shot it down "breached its stated neutrality" in
the region, and in violating Iran's sovereignty, committed an
"international crime." There was one significant problem
with Iran's case: the USS Vincennes was the ship charged with
shooting down the airplane, and the U.S. was the country charged
with violating Iran's sovereignty. Being the dominant world superpower,
and the leader in anti-terrorism, the U.S. was not about to be
held responsible for 290 dead Iranians. The facts show, despite
a Pentagon cover-up, which Washington was forced to admit to when
Iran sued the U.S., that the plane was shot down in broad daylight
and well within the commercial airline course over international
waters-but facts are irrelevant when the U.S. is the guilty party.
The New York Times editorialized two days later that "while
horrifying, it was nonetheless an accident." In 1983, when
a South Korean airliner was shot down over the Soviet Union, the
message of the media was different. A New York Times editorial
headlined "Murder in the Air" read, "there is no
conceivable excuse for any nation shooting down a harmless airliner."
This appeal to high principle is only allowed when our enemies
are violators of the human good.
Reagan's anti-terrorism policy also stressed, "International
forums, such as the United Nations, take a balanced and practical
view of who is practicing terrorism and what must be done about
it." The Contras, created and backed by the U.S., and responsible
for numerous atrocities in fighting its war against the Sandinista
government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, were considered terrorists
by those who took this "balanced and practical view."
On January 5 and 6, 1986, the New York Times published stories
detailing charges that the Sandinistas supplied arms to terrorists
in the guerrilla attack on the Palace of Justice in Colombia.
When the Colombian government accepted Sandinista proof of denial,
the New York Times failed to follow up on the story. American
readers were necessarily impressed-the Sandinistas were terrorists.
The Contras, trained at the U.S. School of the Americas at
Fort Benning, Georgia, systematically destroyed Nicaragua in the
same fashion UNITA pillaged Angola. The Sandinista government
had raised the standard of living to higher than that of any other
Central American country, but at the cost of expelling some foreign
investors. The CIA-backed Contras reversed these efforts. The
U.S. and the Contras tortured and killed thousands, mined Nicaraguan
harbors, and cut off food supplies to the Nicaraguan countryside.
Former State Department official William Blum correctly calls
the covert actions that were responsible for the deaths of millions
throughout Central America an "American Holocaust."
Nicaragua took the U.S. to the World Court in 1986, heeding
Reagan's call for terrorists to be brought before an "international
forum, such as the United Nations." The Court condemned U.S.
actions as an "unlawful use of force." Secretary of
State George Shultz ignored the anti-terrorism policies of his
boss as he rebuked those who advocated "utopian, legalistic
means like outside mediation, while ignoring the power element
of the equation."
Analogies and Commentary
September 11 has most often been compared to Pearl Harbor-an
analogy that beckons the emotions of an America under siege. It
is natural to seek the use of analogies to further understand
a current situation. Princeton political scientist Yuen Foong
Khong has done an extensive study on the cognitive use of analogies
in the decision-making process of policy-makers. Khong might argue
that the Bush administration invoked the Pearl Harbor analogy
to prepare itself and the country for the high stakes of America's
"war on terrorism." World War II was a time of incredible
sacrifice-the analogous use of Pearl Harbor, in addition to calling
the current state of affairs a "war," is intended to
illicit such a sacrifice.
George Bush has effectively declared permanent war. The new
war knows no boundaries, as it transcends both space and time.
Bush's war menacingly lacks clearly defined goals. While Pearl
Harbor prepared the country for a world war against very definable
enemies, September 11 is involving America in an infinite war
against a vague, shifting enemy.
The atmosphere of fear created by the terrorist threat has
given Bush carte blanche to do as he pleases. Reactionary economic
policies such as the capital gains tax cut, are being draped in
patriotism by congressional opportunists. Anti-terrorism measures
are sweeping through Congress, limiting constitutional freedoms
Americans have taken for granted. On October 11 the Senate passed
broad anti-terrorist legislation that "significantly enhances
the power of law enforcement agencies to conduct searches, wiretaps
and other forms of electronic surveillance." While the terrorist
attacks revealed the folly of Bush's lucrative Star Wars plans,
he is manipulating his newfound anti-terrorism coalition relationship
with Russian President Vladimir Putin to enact a new wave of Star
If peace and security are what we desire, then the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict is a good analogy. Israel's anti-terrorism policy is
obviously failing. Beyond the illogical assassination policy,
it is impossible for Israel to hope for peace when their government's
policy is to continue expanding Israeli communities and bulldozing
Palestinian homes while encircling and suffocating the Palestinian
population. This is a recipe for violence. Increasing the levels
of despair will only incite more Palestinians. On a global level,
much of the Arab and Muslim worlds perceive the U.S. as Palestinians
view Israel. U.S. foreign policy is suffocating the Arab and Muslim
worlds in its ever-increasing rush to control the world's limited
supply of fossil fuels. Further encirclement of the Arab and Muslim
worlds will only exacerbate the problem, which is exactly what
we are witnessing as a result of our bombing program in Afghanistan
and resulting anti-American protests.
If anything positive can be taken from September 11, maybe
the realities of terrorism will awaken the American public. Maybe
Americans will come to realize the sheer horror of violence for
political gain. Maybe Americans will stop allowing its own government's
terrorist policies. Unfortunately, the propaganda model of historical
selectivity has strong roots in America. Most likely, America's
historical selectivity will continue. But that is no reason to
give up hope.