issue 161 - July 1986
Western nations led by the US have joined forces in a new holy war - the battle against terrorism. But is the terrorist menace all it's made out to be? Wayne Ellwood reports.
R. Slaughter / Camera Press
GAVRILO Princip's act of terror changed the world. On a sunny June morning in 1914 the young Serbian nationalist waited nervously on a Sarajevo street corner for the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to pass. When the Archduke Francis Ferdinand's open carriage rounded the corner Princip quickly removed a revolver from his coat pocket. He steadied his shaking hand, raised the gun and fired. The shot plunged Europe into World War One.
The Hapsburg government in Vienna was outraged at what they called an act of Serbian terrorism and swore to destroy the source of this affront to the Empire. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, if you're lucky enough to visit Sarajevo, the Yugoslav city where the Archduke was killed, you might be surprised by what you would find. Gavrilo Princip the terrorist is no more; in his place is Gavrilo Princip the great Serbian patriot. Should you feel the urge you can place yourself in his footsteps (outlined on the sidewalk) and re-enact the 'shot that was heard around the world.' Or you can visit the commemorative display in the local museum honouring Princip as a 'freedom fighter' in the battle against the expansionist Austro-Hungarian Empire.
With Gavrilo Princip's story in mind the current flap over international terrorism takes on an eerie feel of déjà vu. In fact the parallels are as striking as they are disturbing. Above all it emphasizes that there is no consensus on how to define political terrorism. As the familiar cliché now has it, 'one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.'
Terrorists seem to pop up at every turn. South Africa denounces ANC terrorists and bombs their alleged bases in neighbouring Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. The US pledges to support UNITA 'freedom fighters' - 'terrorists' to Angola's MPLA government. Arab terrorists leave a bloody trail through Europe, machine-gunning airports and hijacking planes. Sikh nationalists are suspected of blowing up an Air India jet over Ireland. Nicaragua tries to rouse world opinion against American-backed contras whom President Reagan calls 'the moral equivalent of the founding fathers.' In Northern Ireland the IRA continues an endless round of murders. And in Germany, terrorists from Red Army Faction sporadically bomb US and NATO bases.
And it goes on. The term terrorism is tossed around so freely it's become a meaningless catch-all phrase, a kind of political swear word applied to anyone whose political views and actions happen to differ from those in power. Simply apply the label 'terrorist' and you're a step further along in writing off your political opponents as lunatics or crazies.
Even so, for the public the terrorist message is fear. Though Americans applauded Mr Reagan's April attack on Libya they cancelled their European holidays by the thousands fearing terrorist reprisals. Terrorism implies there is no neutral ground; no one is safe, no place is safe. It's the thin edge of anarchy and social disorder, a symbol of human evil barely covered by the veneer of civilization.
At least that's the image that President Reagan has been carefully promoting since he came to power. His term began in the aftermath of the Iranian hostage incident when US diplomats were held before the eyes of the world for 444 days. For many Americans, Mr Reagan included, this was the nadir of US influence abroad, a black eye for the tough guy on the block. One of his first acts was to warn: 'Let terrorists beware that when the rules of international behaviour are violated our policy will be one of swift and effective retribution.'
But how much does the Reagan obsession with terrorism have to do with reality? And how much is it part of a more familiar battle to maintain US influence and power around the world? We have to begin by asking deeper questions about the causes of terrorism.
Frequently its roots lie in the struggle for national self-determination. The Sikhs, the Palestinians, the Basques, the Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Shi'ite Muslims in Lebanon: all these communities and many others around the world feel their cultural or religious rights are ignored or denied. Not all turn to terrorism as an outlet for their frustrations, and many abhor it. But those few that do find silent support amongst community members who feel their options for peaceful political change have been exhausted.
This kind of terrorism is rooted in the soil of discrimination, racism and poverty. But it is nourished by political powerlessness and thwarted patriotism. That doesn't make it right, but it does mean the reasons behind it must be understood. For example, according to the Wall Street Journal the Shi'ites of Lebanon have traditionally been that country's 'downtrodden second-class citizens.' They are 'saddled with the worst land, crammed into the poorest slums, and stuck on the lowest rung of the political ladder.'
But the problem of more than two million stateless Palestinians is the real core of Middle East violence, (See No place to call home). Exiled from their homeland in 1948 by the newly created state of Israel, Palestinians have been denied a national territory ever since. Half of all Palestinians are young people raised in the squalor of refugee camps where resentment and hatred are encouraged by Islamic extremists. Israel's destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization's (PLO) civilian headquarters in Beirut in 1982 only reinforced their despair. The PLO's attempt to build a vibrant community with schools, libraries and basic self-government was snuffed out. Recession in the Arab oil states has confirmed the bleak view of the future held by thousands of young Palestinians, a deep pessimism made bearable only by thoughts of bloody revenge.
Of course there are other kinds of terrorists as well: Islamic fundamentalists who want to extirpate corrupt Western values from their homeland; and scattered left-wing groups whose mindless use of violence merely trivializes the great egalitarian dreams of socialism. But a greater worry comes from the neo-fascists - Italy's Ordine Nero, Spain's Fuerza Nueva, Britain's National Front, the Ku Klux Klan in the US and Canada. A general shift to the right in the West has encouraged this lunatic fringe of racists and ultra-right nationalists who see violence as an end in itself. In West Germany in 1981 acts of neo-fascist terror reached the highest level since the end of World War Two.
But all this has little to do with the spectre of 'international terrorism' promoted by President Reagan and his Secretary of State George Shultz. In fact, in the increasingly facile jingoism that characterizes Washington's anti-terrorism campaign, the causes of terrorism are never mentioned. Except of course the now familiar neo-McCarthyist line: it's a communist plot, part of the Kremlin's drive to put Soviet tanks in Times Square and bring the free world to its knees. Libya, Syria, Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, Moscow: they are all linked together in an unholy cabal, a renegade band of 'misfits, Looney Tunes and squalid criminals' according to the fertile minds of Mr Reagan's speech writers.
And the public has certainly been convinced of the threat in a recent New York Times/CBS News Poll terrorism was felt to be America's most pressing problem - ahead of unemployment, inflation and the dreaded budget deficit.
Disrupted lives: Children's
drawings from Central America.
There is a crude Old Testament psychology at work here, a cops and robbers dualism that reduces complex social problems to simple demonology. But once accepted as fact, stopping terrorism then becomes easy. It's a question of more hardware and better intelligence.
So to protect American diplomats abroad Washington recently announced a $3.3 billion plan to upgrade security at 139 embassies around the world. According to Robert Oakley of the State Department's Office for Counter-Terrorism and Emergency Planning nearly 2,000 police officers from 32 countries have been trained in anti-terrorist techniques in recent months.
And millions of dollars are being poured into tighter security at airports around the world. As a result we may feel a bit safer as we negotiate the metal detectors in London's Heathrow or Sydney's Kingsford Smith Airport. But we shouldn't. Even former Israeli military intelligence chief Shlomo Gazit says, 'there is no technical-military solution to the problem of terrorism. There is only a political solution.'
But Washington is sticking to its guns. US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Casey says bluntly, 'to seek the causes of terrorism in the behaviour of societies victimized by terrorism is to look in the wrong place. The causes are to be found in the convictions and expectations of the terrorists themselves and in the activities of those states that find it in their interest to support international terrorism - the Soviet Union and its satellites.
It is no accident that this charge of 'state terrorism' has become the latest buzzword in the US lexicon. It fits the crude theory that 'crazy states' are the reason for terrorism. But governments that use violence to muffle critics and stifle democracy haven't just dropped from the sky. These states use terrorism for one purpose: to shore up their own power. And more often than not they are directly supported or maintained by the Soviets or the Americans. Pawns caught in the grotesque rivalry of the super-powers.
So why has terrorism become America's new bogeyman? Part of the answer can be found in the increasingly aggressive US attitude towards the Third World. Terrorism has become an excuse for undermining those regimes the Reagan Administration doesn't like. It acts as an ideological smokescreen behind which the US can flex its muscles again as it did before imperial pride was tarnished by Vietnam. In the words of one of the main anti-terrorism think tanks, the Georgetown Centre for Strategic and International Studies, terrorism provides a 'national catharsis' so American can once again stand tall.
The thinking is almost transparent. By raising the spectre of terrorism, and targeting Libya's leader Muammar Qadhafi as the mastermind of an international terror network, America can lift itself out of the doldrums and stride manfully into the world again.
In 1985 this resurgent national pride overturned two key laws restricting American involvement overseas. Legislation preventing CIA aid to anti-government guerrillas in Angola and Nicaragua was swept away. And soon the anti-communist Angolan leader Jonas Savimbi was being feted in Washington and promised an armful of weapons. The package includes 200 Stinger surface-to-air missiles, sophisticated weapons whose use will escalate the conflict dramatically.
Without US aid to Savimbi's South African-backed UNITA forces Angolans might be able to start rebuilding their war-ravaged nation. Now with Washington's encouragement that is increasingly unlikely.
Mr Reagan's support for anti-Sandinista contra forces in Nicaragua is also stronger than ever. Despite the fact that the contras have been exposed by former Washington Post Central American correspondent. Christopher Dickey (among others), as thugs who kill teachers, nurses, health workers, priests and innocent civilians.
Under the guise of anti-terrorism the US is becoming more deeply mired in Central America. Muammar Qadhafi may be Washington's favourite demon and a rallying point for Mr Reagan's anti-terrorist campaign. But the Sandinistas have become the President's Moby Dick, a single-minded obsession which destroys reason and blocks out reality.
As a result the whole region suffers. US support for El Salvador's Napoleon Duarte has led to 'gross violations of the laws of war and gross abuses of human rights,' according to Americas Watch. The New York-based human rights group continues:
'Aerial bombardment, strafing, monitoring and army ground operations kill, maim and terrorize the civilian population and deprive them of the food they need for survival.'
And Dr Ramon Custodio Lopez, president of the Honduran Human Rights Committee, accuses US soldiers of training Honduran death squads as 'part of joint operation between the CIA and the US Defense Department'.
But the preoccupation with terrorism is not confined to the US. Two other countries are especially agitated by the threat: Israel and South Africa. And both for similar reasons. Israel brands all Palestinians as terrorists and so avoids the more difficult path of negotiation and compromise. And South Africa, in a last-ditch attempt to shore up apartheid, labels its ANC opponents 'communist terrorists'. The US has tried to impose the same tunnel vision on its NATO allies - with some success. Canada has also fallen into line and announced the formation of a new anti-terrorist squad which will be 'in a constant state of readiness and training.' Meanwhile a former Solicitor-General, Robert Kaplan, admits Canadians may have to sacrifice some of their civil liberties in the fight against terrorism.
France, too, is considering tough new measures to infiltrate suspected terrorist groups, even if these threaten traditional freedoms. Francois le Mouel, head of the French Anti-terrorist Co-ordination Unit says: 'We will certainly have to find a difficult balance between our principles of liberty and certain security measures which could impinge upon them.'
In Britain the Emergency Provisions Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act still prompt howls of outrage from civil libertarians. The acts, which are widely used in Northern Ireland, permit plastic bullets, trial without jury and imprisonment without charge for up to a week. But in the wake of the new terrorist paranoia Mrs Thatcher's tough talking law-and-order solutions have won thousands of converts.
In the US itself the anti-terrorist mood has already polluted the domestic political atmosphere. Church groups opposed to their government's Central American policies have reported a rash of mysterious break-ins over the past few years with only papers, documents and mailing lists stolen. New legislation also threatens to turn foreign policy critics into criminals. Anyone supporting groups or countries the Secretary of State deems terrorist could be arrested and charged.
The danger of this anti-terrorist mania is that the cure is worse than the disease. Our own rights of political dissent will be eroded by adopting zealous measures to fight a straw man created in the minds of cold-war propagandists.
Of course real terrorism does exist. Violence is commonplace in today's political life. And that makes the problem all the more complicated. Killing or kidnapping innocent civilians to advance a political goal is morally indefensible. But it is also politically naive - and inevitably self-defeating. Governments simply increase counter-terror tactics and harden their attitude to change. And whatever political support groups like the Palestinians or the Northern Irish Catholics have is inevitably sullied by the brutal crimes of those terrorists who act in their name.
Terrorism is not a solution to legitimate political demands. But until the international community begins to listen seriously to the complaints of those communities where terrorism breeds, the carnage will continue. And all the firepower in the US arsenal will only add to the body count.
This special report appeared in the fear & violence - the roots of terrorism issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.