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Al-Ahram Weekly Online 1 - 7 November 2001 Issue No.558

Terrorism works

To say that terrorism is the weapon of the weak is a farce. It is the weapon of the strong, says Noam Chomsky, and for the world's superpower, it works

Starting with the common assumption that what happened on 11 September is a historic event -- one which will change history -- the question we should be asking is exactly why is this so? Another question has to do with the "War Against Terrorism". Exactly what is it? And there is a related question, namely, what is terrorism?

By far the most important question that we must ask ourselves after 11 September is what is happening right now? Implicit in this question is the question of what we can do about it. According to The New York Times there are seven to eight million people in Afghanistan on the verge of starvation. That was true actually before 11 September. They were surviving on international aid. On 16 September, the Times reported that "the US demanded from Pakistan the elimination of truck convoys that provide much of the food and other supplies to Afghanistan's civilian population." As far as I could determine, there was no reaction in the US to the demand to impose massive starvation on millions of people. The threat of military strikes right after 11 September forced the removal of international aid workers that crippled the assistance programmes. "The country was on a lifeline and we just cut the line," the New York Times Magazine quoted an aid worker as saying.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which is the main aid programme by far, was able to resume food shipments in early October -- at a much lower level. They do not have international aid workers inside Afghanistan, so the distribution system is hampered. Even this, however, was suspended as soon as the bombing began. The WFP then resumed, but at a slower pace, while aid agencies levelled scathing condemnations of US airdrops of food packets as "propaganda tools which are probably doing more harm than good," the London Financial Times reported.

After the first week of bombing, The New York Times reported on a back page, inside a column on something else, that by the arithmetic of the United Nations, there will soon be 7.5 million Afghans in acute need of even a loaf of bread and there are only a few weeks left before the harsh winter will make deliveries to many areas totally impossible. But with bombs falling, the article said, the current delivery rate is down to half of what is needed. A casual comment, which tells us that Western civilisation is anticipating the slaughter of -- well, do the arithmetic -- between three or four million people.

Meanwhile, the leader of Western civilisation dismissed with contempt, once again, offers of negotiation for delivery of the alleged target, prime suspect Osama Bin Laden, and a request for some evidence to substantiate the US's demand for total capitulation. On the same day as this offer was categorically rejected, the special rapporteur of the UN in charge of food distribution pleaded with the US to stop the bombing to try to save millions of victims. As far as I am aware, that plea went unreported by the media. A few days later the major aid agencies like OXFAM and Christian Aid joined in the plea. This too went unreported.

It looks like what is happening is some sort of silent genocide. It also gives a good deal of insight into the elite culture, the culture that we are part of. It indicates that whatever will happen, we do not know, but plans are being made and programmes implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in the next couple of weeks. Very casually, with no comment, no particular thought about it. That is just kind of normal, here and in a good part of Europe. Not in the rest of the world, though. In fact, not even in much of Europe.

Let us turn to a slightly more abstract question, forgetting for the moment that we are in the midst of apparently trying to murder between three or four million people. Not the Taliban, of course, but their victims.

Let us turn to the question of the historic event that took place on 11 September. I think it was a historic event -- not, unfortunately, because of its scale. Though unpleasant to think about, in terms of the scale, it's not that unusual. It is, however, probably the worst instant human toll of any crime.

Unfortunately, there are terrorist crimes with effects a bit more drawn out that are more extreme. Nevertheless, 11 September was a historic event because there was a change. The change was the direction in which the guns were pointed. That is new. Radically new.

The last time the national territory of the US was under attack, or for that matter, even threatened was when the British burned down Washington in 1814. In press reports following the attacks, it was common to bring up Pearl Harbour, but that is not a good analogy. Whatever you think about it, the Japanese bombed military bases in two US colonies -- not the national territory, which was never threatened. These colonies had been taken from their inhabitants in not a very pretty way. The US preferred to call Hawaii and the Philippines a "territory", but they were in effect colonies.

This time it is the national territory that's been attacked on a large scale, so you can find a few fringe examples, but this is unique.

During these close to 200 years, we, the United States, have expelled or mostly exterminated the country's indigenous population -- that's many millions of people. We have conquered half of Mexico, carried out depredations all over the region, Caribbean and Central America, and sometimes beyond. We conquered Hawaii and the Philippines, killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in the process. Since the Second World War, the US has extended its reach around the world in ways I don't have to describe. But it was always killing someone else, the fighting was somewhere else -- it was others who were getting slaughtered.

In the case of Europe, the change is even more dramatic because its history is even more horrendous than that of the US. The US is an offshoot of Europe, basically. For hundreds of years, Europe has been casually slaughtering people all over the world. That's how they conquered the world -- not by handing out candy to babies. During this period, Europe did suffer murderous wars, but that was European killers murdering one another.

The main sport of Europe for hundreds of years was slaughtering one another. The only reason that it came to an end in 1945 had nothing to do with democracy or not making war with each other and other fashionable notions. It had to do with the fact that everyone understood that the next time they play the game it was going to be the end for the world. Because the Europeans, and the US as well, had developed such massive weapons of destruction that game just had to be over.

But during this whole bloody, murderous period, it was Europeans slaughtering each other, and Europeans slaughtering people elsewhere. There are again small exceptions, but pretty small in scale, certainly invisible in the scale of what Europe and the US were doing to the rest of the world. This is the first change. The first time that the guns have been pointed the other way.

The world looks very different depending on whether you are holding the lash, or whether you are being whipped by it for hundreds of years -- very different. So I think the shock and surprise is very understandable. That is the reason why most of the rest of the world looks at it quite differently. Not lacking sympathy for the victims of the atrocity or being horrified by them, that is almost uniform -- but viewing it from a different perspective. It is something we might want to understand.

Well, let us go to the question of terrorism. What is the "war against terrorism"? The war against terrorism has been described in high places as a struggle against a plague, a cancer which is spread by barbarians, by "depraved opponents of civilisation itself." That is a feeling that I share. The words I am quoting, however, happen to date back 20 years. I am quoting President Reagan and his secretary of state. The Reagan administration came into office 20 years ago declaring that the war against international terrorism would be the core of US foreign policy and describing it in terms of the kind I just mentioned.

And it was the core of US foreign policy. The Reagan administration responded to this "plague spread by depraved opponents of civilisation itself" by creating an extraordinary international terrorist network, totally unprecedented in scale, which carried out massive atrocities all over the world. I will not run through the whole gamut of it, but just mention one case which is totally uncontroversial: the Reagan-US War Against Nicaragua. It is uncontroversial because of the judgments of the highest international authorities: the International Court of Justice, the World Court and the UN Security Council. So this one is uncontroversial, at least among people who have some minimal concern for international law, human rights, justice and other things like that.

The case of Nicaragua is a particularly relevant one, not only because it is uncontroversial, but because it does offer a precedent as to how a law- abiding state would respond -- did in fact respond -- to a case of international terrorism, which is uncontroversial. A case of terrorism that was even more extreme than the events of 11 September. The Reagan-US war against Nicaragua left tens of thousands of people dead, the country ruined, perhaps beyond recovery.

Nicaragua did respond. They did not respond by setting off bombs in Washington. They responded by taking the US to the World Court, presenting a case for which they had no problem putting together evidence. The World Court ruled in Nicaragua's favour, and condemned what they called the "unlawful use of force", which is another term for international terrorism. They ordered the US to terminate the crime and to pay massive reparations. The US, of course, dismissed the court judgment with total contempt and announced that it would not accept the jurisdiction of the court henceforth. Nicaragua then went to the UN Security Council, which considered a resolution calling on all states to observe international law. No one was mentioned but everyone understood. The US vetoed the resolution. It now stands as the only state on record which has been condemned both by the World Court for international terrorism and has vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on states to observe international law.

Nicaragua then went to the UN General Assembly, where there is technically no veto, but a negative US vote amounts to a veto. The General Assembly passed a similar resolution -- with only the US, Israel, and El Salvador opposed. The following year Nicaragua took its case again to the General Assembly. This time the US could only rally Israel to the cause, so two votes opposed observing international law. At that point, Nicaragua had exhausted all available legal measures, concluding that they do not work in a world that is ruled by force.

Terrorism, on the other hand does work, and is the weapon of the strong. It is a very serious analytic error to say, as is commonly done, that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Like other means of violence, it is primarily a weapon of the strong -- overwhelmingly, in fact. It is held to be a weapon of the weak because the strong also control the doctrinal systems and their terror does not count as terror.

Excerpts taken from a lecture given by professor Chomsky on 18 October sponsored by the Technology and Culture Forum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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