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." President

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 terrorism.

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 years.

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 in Africa."

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 rich country.

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 Angola.

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, 2001.

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 allies."

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 well.

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 Wars.

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.

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