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The Terrorism Trap

by Richard J. Barnett Thursday, Sep. 27, 2001 at 5:45 PM

Robert Fisk of the Independent is writing a lot these days about the terrorism trap. His thesis is that the US is falling into one by responding in a very predictable manner. I found it very interesting to note that this thesis predates the current situation by a quite some time. Here Richard Barnett in the December 2, 1996 issue of The Nation an article titled: The Terrorism Trap.

The Terrorism Trap

by Richard J. Barnett

From the December 2, 1996 issue of The Nation.

The war on terrorism was a linchpin of Bill Clinton's

foreign policy rhetoric during his re-election campaign, and at

his first post-election press conference the President has

put it high on his list of international responsibilities.

In August at the Democratic convention the President

thundered against so-called rogue states that were out to spread

panic and destruction in the United States. A week later

the Administration proclaimed U.S. missile attacks on Iraq to

be a courageous blow against terrorism. At the United

Nations General Assembly Clinton called upon the members to

"isolate states that refuse to play by the rules we have all

accepted for civilized behavior." The Leader of the Free

World is recasting himself as Leader of the Civilized World.

The rhetoric is seductive. In a chaotic world for which the


States has yet to articulate clear goals, other than

opening up

economies everywhere to private investment, protecting

access to cheap

resources and staying top dog in the next century,


terrorism serves as the successor myth to International

Communism. The

idea that the Soviet Union was waging a relentless

worldwide struggle to

destroy "the American way of life" was critical for

enlisting public

support for almost fifty years of cold war. As easy as it

was in those

days to label even anti-Communist reformers as Bolsheviks

(Mossadegh in

Iran, for example), designating a brutal Middle Eastern or


government a rogue state is even easier because the

criteria are vague

and they are capriciously applied. (One would think that a

state that

has armed, trained, and supplied torturers in other

countries and

published manuals for assassins would qualify, but nowhere

on the State

Department's list of rogue states has the United States

ever appeared.)

The Clinton Adminstration, boasting of its unique role as


remaining superpower," seeks to legitimize its increasingly


approach to foreign policy by proclaiming the United States

the global

avenger of terrorism.

The war on terrorism is being used not only to unite the

country behind

a confused foreign policy but also to polish the

President's image. Who

dares speak of youthful draft-dodging when the leader of

the civilized

world is hurling missiles at rogues in Iraq? Who has the

nerve to

question why the United States maintains a military force

far more

powerful than that of any conceivable combination of

enemies when there

are more than a half-dozen certifiable rogue states

threatening the

fragile order of the post-cold war world?

But encouraging a panic about international terrorism has


consequences. The most obvious is that it creates a

receptive political

climate for curbing civil liberties. The country has

already been

sufficiently alarmed to enable Clinton and the Republican

Congress to

push through the Terrorism Prevention Act, a legislative


boosting the powers of the federal government to exact the


penalty, limit appeals of convicts on death row, deport


foreigners and wiretap U.S. citizens--all in the name of

making us feel


It is worth remembering the extreme reactions to sporadic

violence that

dot our history. A few anarchist bombs sent in the mail to


citizens triggered the Palmer Raids of 1920, when abou t

4,000 people

were arrested in a single night, many without warrants. A

spate of

protests, unrest and bombings in the sixties and seventies

led to a

burst of domestic spying in the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon


culminating in the infamous COINTELPRO, a vast illegal


operation aimed at the left, the Black Panthers and those

who opposed

the Vietnam War. Public fear of unpredictable violence has

been used by

political leaders again and again to justify centralization


authority, stripping away of citizens' rights, surveillance


executions. Even as both major-party cadidates condemned

Big Government

and promised its disappearance, politicians in both parties

call for

still broader government powers and increased expenditure

to fight the

global war on terrorism.

A second consequence of the Clinton anti-terrorism

posture--it scarcely

deserves to be called a policy--is that it isolates the

United States.

As the Adminstration proclaims its duty to act alone

against rogue

states, it is infuriating other countries whose help is

needed for any

serious effort to reduce the risks of terrorist attacks

around the

world. The unilateral decision to punish Iraq has resulted

in a collapse

of the coalition that was supposed to guarantee the good

behavior of

Saddam Hussein. The heavy-handed measures recently enacted

to compel

unwilling allied governments and foreign corporations to

enforce U.S.

anti-Cuba policy is already making it harder to secure


cooperation to discourage and punish acts of terrorism.

But the most disturbing aspect of Clinton's handling of the


issue is that the President is giving a hyped version of

reality, one

that is at odds with the Adminstration's own published

reports. True,

deliberate acts of violence designated as being "against

U.S. interests"

abroad rose from sixty-six to ninety-nine from 1994 to

1995, and the

number of U.S. citizens killed in such attacks jumped from

four to

twelve. Yet according to the State Department's most recent


report, "Patterns of Global Terrorism," published this past


worldwide deaths due to acts of international terrorism

have in recent

years declined, from 314 in 1994 to 165 in 1995.

The report find no evidence that North Korea has sponsored

attacks since 1987. Syria, although it "has permitted

Iranian resupply of Hezbollah via Damascus" and "provides safe

haven and support" for several terrorist groups, has not

been directly involved in planning or carrying out any attacks

for the past ten years. Hafez Assad's regime "continues to

restrain the international activities of some of these

groups." Nor has Cuba been known to sponsor any international

terrorist incidents in 1995. The report concludes that

except for Iran, the "premier sponsor of international

terrorsism", the other rogue states largely refrained from planning,

supporting or executing acts of terrorism. Phil Wilcox,

State Department coordinator for anti-terrorist attacks,

points out that the "long-term trend towards a reduction in

international terrorism continues." But Cuba, Iran, Iraq,

Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria remain on the official list

of countries supporting "state terrorism."

No evidence has been produced or even alleged to exist that

a foreign

government was involved in the three most publicized

explosions of the

past two years in which U.S. civilians were killed: the

Oklahoma City

bombing, the downing of T.W.A. flight 800 (if it was a

deliberate act)

and the bomb that went off at the Olympics in Atlanta.

Saudi Arabian

officials claim to have hard evidence of Iran's complicity

in the June

bombing of a U.S. military housing complex in Dhahran, in

which nineteen

members of the Air Force were killed, but according to the


Post, U.S. officials are skeptical because the Saudis have

not fully

shared the details of their investigation with the F.B.I.

The Saudi

government appears to be manipulating the information to

serve its

domestic political purposes. Five days before this fall's


Defense Secretary William Perry declared, "We have reached


conclusions about who was responsible."

The State Department contends that the isolation of rogue

states and

increasing international cooperation to apprehend,

extradite and punish

perpetrators of political violence is responsible for the

decline over

the decade in state-sponsored terrorism against U.S.

interests. There

may be something to this, although the more likely

explanation is that

in the post-cold war world even unfriendly governments see

no advantage

in stirring up the United States. Iran still has a policy

of supporting

Hezbollah operations and of assassinating dissidents living

abroad, but

neither U.S. condemnation nor sanctions have deterrred the

regime from

stepping up its efforts.

Like many other activites in the post-cold war world,

terrorism is being

privatized. The evidence supports the view that very few

bombers of

public places are now in the service of governments--fewer,


than in the cold war years. They may work ofr a political

movement, a

crime ring, or as more of them are claiming, for God.

Practitioners of

violence increasingly work for religious sects and

political movements

(largely ethnic and mostly on the right). The private

market in

conventional weapons has greatly expanded. The Internet


instructions in conventional bomb-making to all users. The


Cookbook explains that "making a bomb capable of blowing

the walls

out of a building is easy. You can find what you need in

grocery stores,

hardwares stores and farm supplies."

President Clinton's message about terrorism is that the

problem is of

foreign origin. But in fact most of the acts of random

violence that

victimize Americans are committed not by dark-skinned

foreigners in ski

masks but by fellow citizens. Over the past ten years

bombings and

attempted bombings in the United States have nearly

tripled, increasing

from 1,103 in 1985 to 3,163 in 1994. The targets are

political or

racial. The New York Times reported in August the over the

preceeding two months "white, lower-middle class suburban

people in

Georgia, Arizona and Washington" were arrested as

perpetrators or

attempted perpetrators. The rash of bombings of black

churches over the

past two years sends a clear racist message. In Spokane,

Washington, a

Planned Parenthood office was bombed, and across the West a

variety of

government buildings occupied by the hated Forest Service,

Bureau of

Land Management and Internal Revenue Service have been


Some of our home-grown terrorists belong to militias or


gun-worshipping organizations. These groups have a variety

of agendas:

They don't like gun control. They don't like the federal


messing with their land, or land they think should be

theirs. They don't

like paying taxes. They don't like abortions. They hate

black people,

Jews, gays, foreigners. They are energized by violence.

They have a holy


The shadowy figures who set off bombs in airplanes, office

buildings and

shopping malls have succeeded in introducing all sorts of

people to the

possibility of their own sudden death. But shoppers and


passengers face negligible dangers compared with the daily

risks of

living in crime-ridden, despairing neighborhoods in which

there are no

jobs. The President would rather talk about Qaddafi, Castro

and the

mullahs in Iran, however, than deal with the causes of the


hopelessness and fear that prevail in neighborhoods a few

blocks from

the White House. If he wants to revive decaying inner

cities he has to

acknowledge that they will not be lifted up by either the

Internet or

global trade.

What constitutes a reasonable strategy to discourage or

prevent terrorist acts is not a technical question. It is a

political questions that involves the weighing of risks and

interests. How much freedom and privacy should be sacrificed

in the name of security? That should be a prime subject for

pbublic debate rather than a decision arrived at in secret

negotiations between governments, police, airlines and

makers of sophisticated bomb-detection systems.

We need a less superficial and biased understanding of the

problem we

label as terrorism, a calmer assessment of of how much of a

threat it is

and a more serious effort to understand its causes. For

starters, we

need a much less fuzzy definition. Guerilla attacks,


assassinations, bombings and kidnappings are lumped

together even though

their causes and objectives may be very different, as are

strategies for

discouraging them. The United States fired missiles at Iraq


mistreating people living within its borders and for

violating a U.N.

resolution; at least a hundred other countries qualify

under this weak

justification for bombing.

Hyped rhetoric, though it may serve the President's

purposes, does

nothing to discourage attacks. Indeed, as the Economist has

observed, "The whole point of the terrorist act is to

provoke a reaction

disproportionate to the act itself." The more panic a

terrorist bomb

sets off, the greater the success. Hamas's triumph in the

recent Israeli

election, when it provoked the downfall of Shimon Peres, is

a classic


For a terrorist group with one consuming passion (as in


determination to derail the Middle East peace process),

violence is an

effective weapon because the panic it creates can change


attitudes in ways that serve the group's goals. But a

state, however

heavily armed, is at a disadvantage when it lashes out

violently in

response. Airstrikes and economic sanctions are blunt

instruments that

neither punish the planners and perpetrators of terrorist

acts, who know

how to fade into the night, nor discourage further

violence. Both are

far more likely to hurt innocent people and fuel murderous

rage against

governments reacting in such a manner. Assassination

attempts invite

retaliation in kind even when they do not succeed, and

they expose the

emptiness of claims to moral leadership. Exactly because

the United

States is so powerful, so wealthy and (because of our


dependence on complex technology) so vulnerable to

politically inspired

violence, the Administration should be promoting policies

that would

make the establishment of a genuine rule of law a real

possibility. Of

all nations, the United States has the most to gain in the

long run from

delegitimizing violence as an instrument of political


But pushing an anti-terrorist policy that seeks to break

the cycle of

violence would mean that the United States could no longer

set its own

rules or commit acts on the territory of other nations we

would brand as

terrorism were they to take place on our own.

Another Inauguration Day approaches, and the country badly

needs a more

effective policy, one that better fits reality:


terrorism from abroad is declining. Ideologically tinged


violence is growing. Our national security policy, based


on the threat and use of violence, not only legitimizes the

violence of

terrorists in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their

supporters, it

also advertises the impotence of the United States. The


emphasis on instruments of violence as moral, acceptable,


inevitable, guarantors of security creates a

self-perpetuating culture

of violence and insecurity.

By continuing to spread weapons around the world, the

United States and

its competitors in the arms trade are expanding the

opportunities for

anyone with a grievance to bring death, destruction and

terror to random

victims anywhere, including here. By ignoring the

opportunity to achieve

significant nuclear and conventional disarmament that the

end of the

cold war provides, the United States is signalling that

despite the

weakness of military adversaries, we will continue to base

our security

on the greatest preponderance of military power the world

has ever


A demonstration by the United States of a serious

willingness to

eliminate nuclear weapons could jolt the world into a

radical reversal

of the arms race. Were the next administration to make


moves--not just promises--to reduce our dependency on

violence in the

name of security, it would have an electrifying impact

around the world.

The comprehensive test ban, signed in September after

almost forty years

of negotiation, could have been the key to a new era of

disarmament had

it been preceded by radical cuts in nuclear stockpiles. It

still may not

be too late. Would it end "terrorism" as the State

Department defines

it? No. But it would help create a climate for a lessening

of political


As for domestic terrorism, the conservatives' relentless

bashing of

government and the foolish decision of most Democrats to

run away from

the opportunity to debate what it is and what it ought to


bipartisan credibility to the absurd notion that government

is something

to demean and hate--create a hospitable political culture

for violent,

anarchist fantasies. Ever since the Oklahoma City bombing,

pursuit of

the militias by federal authorities is looking more and

more like

another exercise in investigative overkill. In its zeal to


terrorism it appears that the government is increasingly


indictments on what suspects say rather than what they do,

and that

government informants may be encouraging them to engage in


conspiracy. All this strengthens the views of the

militiamen that they

have found the right enemy. Armed with the Terrorism

Prevention Act, the

Clinton Administration, in the name of national security,

strikes out

ineffectually abroad and at home hacks away at our historic


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