The author presents a decidedly provocative viewpoint on a subject that he knows well as a result of years of experience in dealing with the phenomenon as a career diplomat. His take, we think, will prove to be controversial, but we will defend to the bitter end the right to make available the pages of this journal to just that kind of expression of opinion. Read it with an open mindand then let us, and the author, have .Ed.
"In an imperfect world, terrorism,
Bonhoeffer goes down in history in the admirable company of persons like Erskine Childers (executed by the British for membership in the IRA) and Steve Biko (beaten to death by South African police for membership in the ANC), along with countless other protagonists of causes now generally applauded as liberation movements. Many Germans defended their participation in Nazi atrocities on the grounds that they were simply following orders, taking the position that if any agency was guilty of crimes against humanity, it was the German state. The Nuremberg tribunal rejected this defense. In so doing, the tribunal implicitly concluded that the ultimate arbiter of the legitimacy of a violent act must be the conscience of the activist himself. Whether he is later hailed as a freedom fighter or vilified as a terrorist should be irrelevant to his purpose.
The German law that condemned Bonhoeffer was invalidated by international action in two arenas. First, Germany lost the war. If the story ended there, it could be dismissed with the cynical axiom that history is written by the winners. However, the Allies went on to convene the Nuremberg trials, which held Naziism up against a broader ethical standard and condemned it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, long acclaimed as a patriot by the world at large, was belatedly vindicated by his own country, which exonerated him in 1996.
Terrorism has a simple, comprehensive definition: It is illegal political violence. But no practical or ethical purpose is served by characterizing all of its practitioners as terrorists. Each case is unique. Each terrorist action occupies only one point on the spectrum of political violence. History teaches us that violence is the ultimate determinant; society depends on law, and law depends on the apparatus to enforce it. Thus, government necessarily exercises violencecontrolled, legal violence.
Legality is the imponderable element in the equation. Over the millennia, mankind has evolved an ethical consensus based on equal treatment for all. The major religions of the world are grounded in this maxim. When national law violates this consensus, its victims very often have no pacific recourse. In recent centuries nations have built up an extensive body of international law, but the means of enforcement remain to be established.
The world of today is awash in persons and entities whose actions meet this definition of terrorism. Most governments have had to deal with violent challenges to their authority. Many have responded in kind. Human rights organizations catalog those that routinely torture and assassinate dissidents at home and abroad, in clear violation of international convention and often their own national law. The governments of Iran and Libya allegedly have been particularly zealous in the pursuit of dissidents, "blasphemers" (such as Salman Rushdie), and targets as incongruous as the wife of the captain of the U.S.S. Vincennes, a warship that mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf.
Determining such policies has special interest for Americans, who have become the prime target of terrorist activity. From 1979 to 1995, there were 360 documented attacks on American diplomatic and consular posts, ranging from sniping incidents to hostage taking to assassination to truck bombing. Since 1970, U.S. airliners have been hijacked, attacked on the ground, and blown up in midair. U.S. military facilities have been bombed with heavy loss of life, notably at a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, an office in Saudi Arabia in 1995, and an apartment building in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Terrorism has also appeared in the United States, as in the bombing of New York's World Trade Center in 1993 and the Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Thus far, foreign terrorists have not taken full advantage of America's open society. The Islamist group headed by Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, convicted in 1996 of conspiring to blow up various prominent sites in New York City, was apprehended before they carried out any of their plans. The leader of the Palestinian group convicted of setting the destructive charges at the World Trade Center at the World Trade Center, Ahmad Ramzi Yousef, proved to be amateurish in keeping a cover story and was soon identified.
Perhaps there are grounds for hope that the United States derives some measure of protection at home by virtue of that very openness. A multicultural society provides foreign political movements with invaluable opportunities for organizing, recruiting, propaganda, weapons training, and importantly, the collection of funds from American sympathizers. The freedom that foreign activists enjoy in the United States, then, may paradoxically act as an insurance policy that will head off most terrorism on U.S. soil.
Abroad it is another story. The United States is seized with the immediate problem of preventing the murder of its citizens overseas and with the long-range objective of directing dissident energies into less destructive channels. Accurate intelligence is not enough. The brilliance of the police work, for example, that led to the presumed destroyers of a Pan Am airliner over Scotland came too late to save the lives of its passengers.
The decision, however, of the Reagan Administration not to ratify the Protocols, on the grounds that they could be cited to legitimate terrorism, suggests that a rise to the status of superpower has converted the United States from a revolutionary nation in 1776 to a status quo state two centuries later.
America's mainstream media have failed to make clear that the United States itself figures prominently in the ranks of international lawbreakersthis in aid of maintaining the status quo. Going back at least to 1637, when English colonists massacred several hundred Pequot Indians in Connecticut, American leaders have committed American lives and resources to questionable military actions, clandestine operations against foreign governments, attempts to assassinate foreign heads of state, and in at least once instance (Operation Phoenix in Vietnam) conduct of an enterprise that can only be characterized as a death squad.
Further, the United States has incurred indirect culpability by lending financial, logistical, and political support to the repressive actions of various right wing factions and regimes around the world. In this way, Washington seems to have shared responsibility for such operations as the 1985 attempt by Saudi operatives to kill Shiite dignitary Fadlallah in Beirut with an attendant death toll of eighty persons and the 1981 massacre of some 600 peasants by U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers at El Mozote. Additionally, one can cite the extralegal operations of Israel's counter terrorist agencies, including the systematic torture of Palestinian suspects (as alleged by Amnesty International) and assassinations by undercover units operating in the Occupied Territories (as proclaimed by the Likud Party in the 1992 elections).
Perhaps someor even allof these U.S.-supported actions were ethically or strategically defensible, but their justification is not the issue here. The point is that the United States must come to recognize that most anti-American terrorism is a direct consequence of American foreign policy. Operating unilaterally or, when convenient, through complaisant allies and a toothless UN, since World War II the United States has intervened in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. The purpose of such policy initiatives has been to promote actively political conditions said to be vital to the national interest or conducive to world peace.
It is no coincidence that most costly incidents of anti-American terrorism in recent years took place in the Middle East. Perhaps the most extreme example of post-World War II American paternalism is U.S. determination to deny hegemony over that oil-rich area to any rival power. This commitment to a precarious status quo puts the United States in opposition to the perceived interests of the regimes in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and to the currents of Islamism and Arab nationalism throughout the region.
While professing to act as the impartial protagonist of peace and justice in the Middle East, Washington has aligned itself with only two of the several competitors in a chaotic regional power struggle. Its first and foremost ally is Israel; its secondary ally is the faltering clique of reactionary rulers in the Arabian Peninsula.
The United States treats the opponents of these two sets of allies as automatically constituting opponents of America itself, to the extent that every American intervention in the region, however evenhanded in concept, ends up as an American engagement on the side of its chosen allies. When President Clinton sent cruise missiles against Baghdad in June 1993 as punishment for a putative Iraqi assassination attempt in Kuwait on former President Bush, Arab commentators contrasted America's readiness to bomb Muslims in Iraq with its reluctance to bomb Christians in Bosnia, even though the nation had denounced the latter for practicing ethnic cleansing.
A number of Third World countries continue their long and convulsive passage from colonialism to full independence. Part of the cost in making this change evidently must be paid in blood, mainly by the people of the Third World nations directly concerned, but also as an adjunct to the process by the nationals of any country that seeks to intervene. Here the United States's actions in the Middle East illustrate the point. And this being the case, the question arises as to what policy options are best calculated, above all, to reduce the toll in human lives.
Under isolated circumstances, reprisal can be morally justifiable and tactically effective. During the Civil War, President Lincoln halted the Confederate practice of killing black Union troops and their white officers by threatening retaliatory executions of Confederate prisoners of war. In that situation, justice was on the side of the Union. But today in the Third World, violence is most often the inevitable expression of legitimate grievances against local oppression or foreign interference. The violence can be attenuated only by political and economic reform, not by counter violence.
President Reagan enunciated the doctrine of counter violence when he ordered the raid on Tripoli: "There should be no place on earth where terrorists can practice their deadly skills." This sentiment has a ring to it, but it usually ends badly. America's so-called surgical strikes always manage to kill more innocent civilians than terrorists. And they complicate relations with American allies. Worst of all, such strikes raise the level of anti-Americanism around the world.
If the United States steps back from military reprisal in response to terrorist action, it still has the option of economic sanctions. These measures seem to have contributed to resolution of the racial conflict in South Africa, although only when combined with a monumental change of heart by the white establishment. U.S.-sponsored sanctions against Iraq and Iran have had no identifiable effect on the policies of their government, while inflicting illness and death on thousands of Iraqi children and opening the door to the charge (by Christopher Hitchens) that the American definition of a terrorist is a "swarthy opponent of U.S. foreign policy."
The United States has not only supported Israel in its application of the double standard to its Arab adversaries, but it has committed the same mistake on its own account. In late 1985, the United States supported a Security Council resolution outlawing the abduction of a country's citizens by another country. Yet in November 1989, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Barr told a Congressional committee that the national interest sometimes requires the United States to ignore international law. He gave as an example the need to authorize the FBI to pursue non American fugitives abroad. American authorities have, indeed, abducted Palestinian hijackers from Cyprus and from Malta.
A strong argument can be made in some cases for extralegal abductions. The case of Adolf Eichmann comes to mind. It seems unlikely, however, that the United States would ever be understanding of foreign action against its own legal residents, particularly if they were IRA activists.
No nation, however powerful, is qualified or entitled to be the policeman of the world. Fortunately, if U.S. policy is not always democratic, the American political system is and it enjoys the system's capacity to learn from experience. In the context of terrorism, when South Africa's Nelson Mandela was honored at a Washington dinner in 1990, his hosts included three U.S. Senators who had voted five years previously to condemn his African National Congress as a terrorist organization.
American Diplomacy Vol. 2 , Fall 1997