March 09, 2021
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Terror And Just Response

Though terrorism is rightly feared everywhere, and is indeed an intolerable "return to barbarism," perceptions about its nature differ rather sharply in the light of sharply differing experiences.

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Terror And Just Response

September 11 will surely go down in the annals of terrorism as a defining moment. Throughout the world, the atrocities were condemned as grave crimes against humanity, with near-universal agreement that all states must act to "rid the world of evildoers," that "the evil scourge of terrorism" -- particularly state-backed international terrorism -- is a plague spread by "depraved opponents of civilization itself" in a "return to barbarism" that cannot be tolerated. But beyond the strong support for the words of the US political leadership -- respectively, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and his Secretary of State George Shultz [1] -- interpretations varied: on the narrow question of the proper response to terrorist crimes, and on the broader problem of determining their nature.

On the latter, an official US definition takes "terrorism" to be "the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature...through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear."[2] That formulation leaves many question open, among them, the legitimacy of actions to realize "the right to self-determination, freedom, and independence, as derived from the Charter of the United Nations, of people forcibly deprived of that right..., particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes and foreign occupation..." In its most forceful denunciation of the crime of terrorism, the UN General Assembly endorsed such actions, 153-2.[3]

Explaining their negative votes, the US and Israel referred to the wording just cited. It was understood to justify resistance against the South African regime, a US ally that was responsible for over 1.5 million dead and $60 billion in damage in neighboring countries in 1980-88 alone, putting aside its practices within. And the resistance was led by Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, one of the "more notorious terrorist groups" according to a 1988 Pentagon report, in contrast to pro-South African RENAMO, which the same report describes as merely an "indigenous insurgent group" while observing that it might have killed 100,000 civilians in Mozambique in the preceding two years.[4] The same wording was taken to justify resistance to Israel's military occupation, then in its 20th year, continuing its integration of the occupied territories and harsh practices with decisive US aid and diplomatic support, the latter to block the longstanding international consensus on a peaceful settlement.[5]

Despite such fundamental disagreements, the official US definition seems to me adequate for the purposes at hand,[6] though the disagreements shed some light on the nature of terrorism, as perceived from various perspectives.

Let us turn to the question of proper response. Some argue that the evil of terrorism is "absolute" and merits a "reciprocally absolute doctrine" in response.[7] That would appear to mean ferocious military assault in accord with the Bush doctrine, cited with apparent approval in the same academic collection on the "age of terror": "If you harbor terrorists, you're a terrorist; if you aid and abet terrorists, you're a terrorist -- and you will be treated like one" The volume reflects articulate opinion in the West in taking the US-UK response to be appropriate and properly "calibrated," but the scope of that consensus appears to be limited, judging by the evidence available, to which we return.

More generally, it would be hard to find anyone who accepts the doctrine that massive bombing is the appropriate response to terrorist crimes -- whether those of Sept. 11, or even worse ones, which are, unfortunately, not hard to find. That follows if we adopt the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others -- more stringent ones, in fact -- plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.

To illustrate what is at stake, consider a case that is far from the most extreme but is uncontroversial; at least, among those with some respect for international law and treaty obligations. No one would have supported Nicaraguan bombings in Washington when the US rejected the order of the World Court to terminate its "unlawful use of force" and pay substantial reparations, choosing instead to escalate the international terrorist crimes and to extend them, officially, to attacks on undefended civilian targets, also vetoing a Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law and voting alone at the General Assembly (with one or two client states) against similar resolutions. The US dismissed the ICJ on the grounds that other nations do not agree with us, so we must "reserve to ourselves the power to determine whether the Court has jurisdiction over us in a particular case" and what lies "essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the United States" -- in this case, terrorist attacks against Nicaragua.[8]

Meanwhile Washington continued to undermine regional efforts to reach a political settlement, following the doctrine formulated by the Administration moderate, George Shultz: the US must "cut [the Nicaraguan cancer] out," by force. Shultz dismissed with contempt those who advocate "utopian, legalistic means like outside mediation, the United Nations, and the World Court, while ignoring the power element of the equation";"Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the bargaining table," he declared. Washington continued to adhere to the Shultz doctrine when the Central American Presidents agreed on a peace plan in 1987 over strong US objections: the Esquipulas Accords, which required that all countries of the region move towards democracy and human rights under international supervision, stressing that the "indispensable element" was the termination of the US attack against Nicaragua. Washington responded by sharply expanding the attack, tripling CIA supply flights for the terrorist forces. Having exempted itself from the Accords, thus effectively undermining them, Washington proceeded to do the same for its client regimes, using the substance -- not the shadow -- of power to dismantle the International Verification Commission (CIVS) because its conclusions were unacceptable, and demanding, successfully, that the Accords be revised to free US client states to continue their terrorist atrocities. These far surpassed even the devastating US war against Nicaragua that left tens of thousands dead and the country ruined perhaps beyond recovery. Still upholding the Shultz doctrine, the US compelled the government of Nicaragua, under severe threat, to drop the claim for reparations established by the ICJ.[9]

There could hardly be a clearer example of international terrorism as defined officially, or in scholarship: operations aimed at "demonstrating through apparently indiscriminate violence that the existing regime cannot protect the people nominally under its authority," thus causing not only "anxiety, but withdrawal from the relationships making up the established order of society."[10] State terror elsewhere in Central America in those years also counts as international terrorism, in the light of the decisive US role, and the goals, sometimes frankly articulated; for example, by the Army's School of the Americas, which trains Latin American military officers and takes pride in the fact that "Liberation Theology...was defeated with the assistance of the U.S. Army."[11]

It would seem to follow, clearly enough, that only those who support bombing of Washington in response to these international terrorist crimes -- that is, no one -- can accept the "reciprocally absolute doctrine" on response to terrorist atrocities or consider massive bombardment to be an appropriate and properly "calibrated" response to them.

Consider some of the legal arguments that have been presented to justify the US-UK bombing of Afghanistan; I am not concerned here with their soundness, but their implications, if the principle of uniform standards is maintained. Christopher Greenwood argues that the US has the right of "self-defense" against "those who caused or threatened...death and destruction," appealing to the ICJ ruling in the Nicaragua case. The paragraph he cites applies far more clearly to the US war against Nicaragua than to the Taliban or al-Qaeda, so if it is taken to justify intensive US bombardment and ground attack in Afghanistan, then Nicaragua should have been entitled to carry out much more severe attacks against the US. Another distinguished professor of international law, Thomas Franck, supports the US-UK war on grounds that "a state is responsible for the consequences of permitting its territory to be used to injure another state"; fair enough, and surely applicable to the US in the case of Nicaragua, Cuba, and many other examples, including some of extreme severity.[12]

Needless to say, in none of these cases would violence in "self-defense" against continuing acts of "death and destruction" be considered remotely tolerable; acts, not merely "threats."

The same holds of more nuanced proposals about an appropriate response to terrorist atrocities. Military historian Michael Howard proposes "a police operation conducted under the auspices of the United Nations...against a criminal conspiracy whose members should be hunted down and brought before an international court, where they would receive a fair trial and, if found guilty, be awarded an appropriate sentence." Reasonable enough, though the idea that the proposal should be applied universally is unthinkable. The director of the Center for the Politics of Human Rights at Harvard argues that "The only responsible response to acts of terror is honest police work and judicial prosecution in courts of law, linked to determinate, focused and unrelenting use of military power against those who cannot or will not be brought to justice."[13] That too seems sensible, if we add Howard's qualification about international supervision, and if the resort to force is undertaken after legal means have been exhausted. The recommendation therefore does not apply to 9-11 (the US refused to provide evidence and rebuffed tentative proposals about transfer of the suspects), but it does apply very clearly to Nicaragua.

It applies to other cases as well. Take Haiti, which has provided ample evidence in its repeated calls for extradition of Emmanuel Constant, who directed the forces responsible for thousands of deaths under the military junta that the US was tacitly supporting (not to speak of earlier history); these requests the US ignores, presumably because of concerns about what Constant would reveal if tried. The most recent request was on 30 September 2001, while the US was demanding that the Taliban hand over Bin Laden.[14] The coincidence was also ignored, in accord with the convention that minimal moral standards must be vigorously rejected.

Turning to the "responsible response," a call for implementation of it where it is clearly applicable would elicit only fury and contempt.

Some have formulated more general principles to justify the US war in Afghanistan. Two Oxford scholars propose a principle of "proportionality": "The magnitude of response will be determined by the magnitude with which the aggression interfered with key values in the society attacked"; in the US case, "freedom to pursue self-betterment in a plural society through market economics," viciously attacked on 9-11 by "aggressors...with a moral orthodoxy divergent from the West." Since "Afghanistan constitutes a state that sided with the aggressor," and refused US demands to turn over suspects, "the United States and its allies, according to the principle of magnitude of interference, could justifiably and morally resort to force against the Taliban government."[15]

On the assumption of universality, it follows that Haiti and Nicaragua can "justifiably and morally resort to" far greater force against the US government. The conclusion extends far beyond these two cases, including much more serious ones and even such minor escapades of Western state terror as Clinton's bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, leading to "several tens of thousands" of deaths according to the German Ambassador and other reputable sources, whose conclusions are consistent with the immediate assessments of knowledgeable observers.[16] The principle of proportionality therefore entails that Sudan had every right to carry out massive terror in retaliation, a conclusion that is strengthened if we go on to adopt the view that this act of "the empire" had "appalling consequences for the economy and society" of Sudan so that the atrocity was much worse than the crimes of 9-11, which were appalling enough, but did not have such consequences.[17]

Most commentary on the Sudan bombing keeps to the question of whether the plant was believed to produce chemical weapons; true or false, that has no bearing on "the magnitude with which the aggression interfered with key values in the society attacked," such as survival. Others point out that the killings were unintended, as are many of the atrocities we rightly denounce. In this case, we can hardly doubt that the likely human consequences were understood by US planners. The acts can be excused, then, only on the Hegelian assumption that Africans are "mere things," whose lives have "no value," an attitude that accords with practice in ways that are not overlooked among the victims, who may draw their own conclusions about the "moral orthodoxy of the West."

One participant in the Yale volume (Charles Hill) recognized that 11 September opened the second "war on terror." The first was declared by the Reagan administration as it came to office 20 years earlier, with the rhetorical accompaniment already illustrated; and "we won," Hill reports triumphantly, though the terrorist monster was only wounded, not slain.[18] The first "age of terror" proved to be a major issue in international affairs through the decade, particularly in Central America, but also in the Middle East, where terrorism was selected by editors as the lead story of the year in 1985 and ranked high in other years.

We can learn a good deal about the current war on terror by inquiring into the first phase, and how it is now portrayed. One leading academic specialist describes the 1980s as the decade of "state terrorism," of "persistent state involvement, or `sponsorship,' of terrorism, especially by Libya and Iran." The US merely responded, by adopting "a `proactive' stance toward terrorism." Others recommend the methods by which "we won": the operations for which the US was condemned by the World Court and Security Council (absent the veto) are a model for "Nicaragua-like support for the Taliban's adversaries (especially the Northern Alliance)." A prominent historian of the subject finds deep roots for the terrorism of Osama Bin Laden: in South Vietnam, where "the effectiveness of Vietcong terror against the American Goliath armed with modern technology kindled hopes that the Western heartland was vulnerable too."[19]

Keeping to convention, these analyses portray the US as a benign victim, defending itself from the terror of others: the Vietnamese (in South Vietnam), the Nicaraguans (in Nicaragua), Libyans and Iranians (if they had ever suffered a slight at US hands, it passes unnoticed), and other anti-American forces worldwide.

Not everyone sees the world quite that way. The most obvious place to look is Latin America, which has had considerable experience with international terrorism. The crimes of 9-11 were harshly condemned, but commonly with recollection of their own experiences. One might describe the 9-11 atrocities as "Armageddon," the research journal of the Jesuit university in Managua observed, but Nicaragua has "lived its own Armageddon in excruciating slow motion" under US assault "and is now submerged in its dismal aftermath," and others fared far worse under the vast plague of state terror that swept through the continent from the early 1960s, much of it traceable to Washington. A Panamanian journalist joined in the general condemnation of the 9-11 crimes, but recalled the death of perhaps thousands of poor people (Western crimes, therefore unexamined) when the President's father bombed the barrio Chorillo in December 1989 in Operation Just Cause, undertaken to kidnap a disobedient thug who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Florida for crimes mostly committed while he was on the CIA payroll. Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano observed that the US claims to oppose terrorism, but actually supports it worldwide, including "in Indonesia, in Cambodia, in Iran, in South Africa,...and in the Latin American countries that lived through the dirty war of the Condor Plan," instituted by South American military dictators who conducted a reign of terror with US backing.[20]

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