“Us” and “Them”: Who and What is a Terrorist?
by Mina Hamilton
October 2, 2003
Terrorist: The word explodes in our consciousness with a visceral blow. Lurking right behind these nine letters are thoughts and images so vivid, so unbearable that our skin creeps. Terrorists: they who on 9/11 caused beautiful, precious human beings to leap to their deaths, they who buried bright young lives under a thundering avalanche of rubble, they who murdered innocent people, causing their flesh to become hot, unbearably hot, their clothes and hair to burn, their skin and lungs to singe. Then, screaming in agony, these innocents were roasted to death.
Who does not hate a terrorist?
The oddity: We hate them yet there is considerable confusion regarding who and what one is.
A common definition: The terrorist is an individual acting outside the norms of law. He or she acts violently. He or she sows terror. The terrorist kills innocent civilians in order to spread chaos and fear.
Look at individual cases and this neat definition quickly evaporates. The 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the cold-blooded murder of 69-year-old, wheel-chair bound, American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer was a despicable act. It was rightly condemned by then President Reagan and the US media as a ghastly deed perpetrated by terrorists.
Yet what American has heard of Jamal Fayid, another victim of terrorism? This paralyzed, 37-year-old man, who could not eat, speak or move without assistance, was buried under the rubble of a building bulldozed during the Israeli assault on Jenin in 2002. As the Israeli IDF revved up their bulldozers preparing to destroy the building in which Fayid was trapped, Fayid's mother, aunt and two sisters begged for the soldiers to give them time to get the paralyzed man out of the building. Their pleas were to no avail. Fayid was buried alive. Another despicable, terrorist act, yet this one, aside from a brief reference in a Human Rights Watch report went unnoticed by President Bush and most of the US press. (1)
Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 is widely seen as another act of terrorism. Indeed, it was a heinous crime, now broadly bruited about as justifying the Iraq War. But during Gulf War I the US sowed the Iraqi desert with approximately 315 tons of depleted uranium, a highly toxic, radioactive substance that has already caused devastating birth defects in the southern part of Iraq. (2) This poisonous material will continue to be toxic for centuries. It threatens the genetic integrity of generations of innocent Iraqis and yet its use is barely mentioned in the US press, much less classified as a terrorist act, at least by "our" side. (The amount of depleted uranium dispersed in Gulf War 11 is still unknown).
One thing is clear as the late Edward Said pointed out, " 'we' are never terrorists no matter what we may have done; 'they' always are and always will be." (3)
How do some human beings so readily fall within this hated category and others never, never do? Why do we so despise the 'other' terrorists and fail to see our own?
Part of this blindness is the steady, let's-distort- the-hearts-and-minds-of-Americans role of the President, his spokesmen, and the establishment media. The unrelenting din of we are Good and they are Evil takes its toll. The drumbeat of propaganda dims the ability of the neo-cortex to make distinctions.
As with Alzheimer's patients the dendrites in many an American brain is, apparently, shriveling up. How else can we explain the nonsense falling out of the mouths of various Congressmen and military brass at the September 23 House Armed Service Committee hearings on Bush's $87 billion budget request for Iraq?
There they all were glibly talking about how Iraqi children are happily waving at our troops or how the latest Gallup poll in Iraq (partially funded by the American Enterprise Institute, an institute well-known for its fair and objective surveys!) shows 70% support for the US or how, according to General Abizaid, the Central Command Commander, "It's not a quagmire. The troops know we are winning." And then J. Paul Bremer the 111's brilliant summary, "Saddam was a terrorist. We have to fight and defeat these terrorists somewhere." (4)
Over the last several decades the world has seen the terrible distortions the use and misuse of the word terrorist has produced in analysis and discussion of the Palestine/Israel war.
A Palestinian suicide bomber who blows up a bus is incontrovertibly a terrorist. Everybody (in the US) knows that. Case closed.
Yet an Israeli soldier, whose 60-ton, US-supplied tank has been hit by a stone thrown by a kid or kids, who then shoots several ten-year-olds dead and wounds scores of others, is not a terrorist. He is defending Israel.
To whisper, to gently ask, can it be that this person might be a terrorist? is to be beyond the pale, to be an anti-Semite.
Prima facie, an Israeli cannot be a terrorist, just as, prima facie, an American cannot be a terrorist.
Reasonable discourse on the Palestine/Israel War is almost impossible within the charges and counter-charges regarding terrorism. The same blindness has begun to distort perceptions of Iraq.
Read the New York Times accounts of each attack on the UK/US occupation troops and either an administration spokesmen, a general, or the journalist himself invariably says, 'we don't know who did it, but it's the responsibility of remnants of Saddam's army, the Baathist party, militant fanatics of Islam and terrorists.'
It's time to open the painful topic of who are the terrorists here, amongst us? What about the case of what Noam Chomsky has called state terrorism? How do we define the top brass and the foot soldiers when a state operates outside the norms of international law and conducts a war that a huge body of world opinion sees as illegal? (Though, of course, the initiating state always, categorically, denies such illegality.) When one sovereign nation invades another sovereign nation and when, in the course of an illegal, unjust, and aggressive war, innocent civilians die, who are the terrorists then?
Are the US troops in Iraq terrorists? Are the individual perpetrators of this illegal war terrorists? This question would be totally abhorrent to the average American, particularly those whose loved ones are serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Our soldiers sweating in the sweltering 130F degree desert are cruelly surprised by the violent and merciless cauldron into which they have been wantonly tossed. Doubtless, most of them would honestly prefer to be mowing the lawn or taking their sons to soccer practice. They don't deserve our opprobrium.
Nor can we fairly blame the clueless 18-year-old enlistee or 26-year-old reservist. Some poor dude in Alabama believed the Administration's lie that 9/11 and Saddam were linked and enlisted with enthusiasm. Another wanted a college education or a job. He has never heard of Amy Goodman, he has never read an independent newspaper and has not the knowledge or experience or confidence to question the lies that Fox news and the President of the United State routinely purveys. Do these men and women, once they show up in Iraq and starts blasting away at innocent civilians at a checkpoint, deserve the brand, terrorist? I don't think so.
But where do we draw the line? At what point should these men and women be held to a higher standard of responsibility? For how many more years must the war drag on, before we apply a different standard? Before we say, now there is enough information available, now, men and women of conscience must stand up and say, I won't go.
Certainly, Nuremberg made it clear: One of the findings of that court in its 1945 trial of 21 Nazi war criminals was that "to plan or instigate an aggressive war is a crime." (5) In subsequent trials, the additional principle was clearly stated: Ignorance is not a justification. "I didn't know" and "I was just following orders" didn't save SS officer Adolf Eichmann. He was still guilty.
What about the pilots? What is their guilt?
They are a step away - or 30,000 feet away - from the act of destruction. And they are married to a fearsome technology that itself propagates many a lie.
If the quick rush of missiles comes from inside the sleek, gleaming aluminum-and-titanium fuselage of a F-14 Tomcat, a plane shaped like a hornet, its insides packed with lasers, global positioning devices, and computers, it's under belly bulging with heat-seeking supersonic missiles, then this wonder of 21st century cannot be about death. It's about technology. It's beautiful, awesome and wondrously sterile. It's too beautiful to be about the ugliness of blood and gore. Skulls shattered into a thousand bits, wet pieces of brain smashed against walls, weeping mothers, and screaming babies are not in this equation.
That rush of brilliant orange flame pouring forth from a Tomahawk cruise missile is not terror. It's about efficiency and power. It's about a power seemingly so limitless, so devastating it could only be on the side of good. Otherwise how could this power have been vouchsafed to us?
The pilot or machine gunner inside the wondrous machine is almost irrelevant -- a minor punctuation mark to the glory of a plane that can scream through the air at Mach 2. Yes, the pilot has skills as one would expect from the approximately $2 million the US military invest in each pilot's training. He has the amazing skills, for example, of landing said plane on an aircraft carrier at 150 mph, the pilot on hair-trigger alert, ready to be jerked to a back-cracking standstill or to immediately take off again, if the cables stretched across the aircraft carrier deck don't grab the plane's tail hooks in time. Quite a feat! Yet, the functions of the pilot's brain are more and more being taken over by the wondrous array of computers, lasers, and radar, of, as military techies say, "digital reconnaissance capabilities" and "avionics suites."
The fabulous, extraordinarily precise, machines do the work, the human performs his ancillary functions as mechanically and anonymously as the machine performs its, the human little more than an innocent handmaiden. One military history book even boasts: "Previously, pilots were forced to rely on their brains to process the information obtained by their radars and eyes, and build a mental image of the evolving situation…now the Rafale's avionic suite has taken over the processing role." (6)
What would the Nuremberg principles say about this man who no longer has a "processing role"? (Hey, isn't that the thinking role?)
What if, by chance, the pilot's payload lands on a market place incinerating dozens of innocent, women and children? The US apologists say it was not the intent of the pilot to cause collateral damage and kill civilians. No, his aim was a clean, swift, surgical strike against a military target.
Is he spared the title of terrorist because he did not deliberately kill or target those innocents? Is he spared responsibility because it was the computer's fault? Or was it the person who fed data into the computer's fault? Or the fault of the person who read the satellite map from which the targets were selected?
Or is the plane itself that which embodies terror? Is the plane the terrorist?
A true patriot would say it cannot be. To attribute terror to these beautiful machines, these pinnacles of American technology, would be to doubt technology. To say that these fantastic, gleaming creations could make mistakes and kill innocent civilians is heresy because it undercuts the claim of precise, surgical warfare -- the linchpin of our integrity, our goodness.
It is this technology that has freed us from blood and gore - no matter what Al Jazeera or the left-wing academics say. No people die in America's surgical, clean, innocent wars.
That's one view. Another, from the ground: There are rivers of blood dripping into the desert and thousands grieve just the way the loved ones and family members of those killed in the World Trade Center attack grieve. Some 7300 to 9100 Iraqi civilians are dead because of Gulf War 11 and someone must be held accountable. (7)
Furthermore, the precision of these weapons is one of those myths still blinding the gullible American public, but, as countless human rights observers in Baghdad during the war have noted, residential areas, markets, mosques, apartment buildings and farmhouses were routinely bombed leaving behind screaming mothers and bloody children shredded by shrapnel. (8)
Is Bush, the Commander-in-Chief, who ordered the building of these deadly machines and launched this ghastly war in the Middle East a terrorist? What about Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, Powell and the other architects and instigators of this illegal war of aggression? What about the Generals who follow their bidding?
It's painful, deeply painful - and frightening - to think that we are under the governance of a pack of terrorists. Besides, they do ordinary American stuff like eat pretzels and watch football and, presumably, love their families and dogs.
Initially, I flinch from saying that these men are the equivalent of those who most people in the West would, in an instant, say, these are terrorists, the true terrorists: The suicide-bombers.
When fire comes out of the flesh and blood of a human who has transformed himself into a suicide bomber and that human's body explodes splatting big, bloody chunks of flesh around, when hunks of that human body careen off to smear pavements, to leave behind brains, teeth, bones and guts, to collide with and blend into the chunks of the bodies of his victims, to join in an unholy, dreadful joining with other crushed and mangled and gore-drenched bodies, the perpetrator has done the unforgivable. He has made visceral the so carefully shrouded act of murder. He has bloodied our vision. We cannot escape his mayhem.
Perhaps worse yet, he or she has mocked technology. He says, See with a few chemicals, chemicals as simple as a mix of fertilizer, I, too, am powerful. I, too, can kill.
This is no longer beautiful. It is ugly. It has undone the perfection of technology. This human has said, Look how powerful I am and look how puny is your technology - it could not stop me. This human has dared to say your machines no longer matter. This human has dared to say all your brilliant scientists hunched over their desks at Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, Sandia and other weapons labs were wasting their time. Their tube-launched, optically-stacked, wire-guided, infra-red-seekers and anti-tank missiles have morphed into the dreams of madmen. The glorious erection has shriveled.
Ultimate sin: this terrorist says, dares to say, With my body I do what your machines of death have been doing all along. The terrorist says for all to hear what the US has been so fiercely denying behind the camouflage of our beautiful, exquisite, precise machines: We are death. We are gunning down gorgeous, delicate, fabulously original humans, including children, including many, many children, children utterly innocent of any crime. This suicide-bomber terrorist says, We bring bloody corpses. We bring grief and sorrow. We are death, like you. Like you.
The suicide-bomber terrorists say human life is not sacred or precious, human flesh is worthless, a scrap of inconsequential matter blocking my path, a disposable unit of flesh in the headlights of an idea. Just what, in fact, the pilot inside the F-14 implicitly says each time his plane takes off from an aircraft carrier. Of course, in the case of the latter this unacceptable, horrifying message is sanitized with phrases like "collateral damage" and "war is messy" and "it was worth it" and "bringing democracy to Iraq."
The US government must name the pilot, the soldier, the machine gunner as patriot and the other, the suicide-bomber as terrorist. This alien, mad terrorist has ripped aside the veil of nice, comforting conventions about defense and offense. He has penetrated deep inside the belly of empty words. He catches in the headlights of his desperate, awful act words like patriotism, honor and freedom and shows them to be an accumulation of letters that no longer carry meaning. His 'jihad' is our 'patriotism.'
The suicide-bomber shows us the maggots of war. He stuffs those maggots up our nose and into our ears, our mouth, our hearts.
No wonder the US military establishment must destroy them.
In a certain sense the US President and his cronies in Washington are worse than the suicide bomber. Yes, worse -- because they sow terror, murder and mayhem from the comfort and safety of their wood paneled offices. They do not sacrifice their own lives. They are not protesting an occupation or defending a country - unless you believe the sordid, thoroughly discredited, lies regarding WMD's and the Al Qaeda links. These homegrown purveyors of death remain tucked comfortably into their lives of privilege. They are safe in their smug knowledge of their multimillion-dollar bank accounts. Still, still, they lust after monetary gain, oil, empire and power.
They destroy the innocent lives of US soldiers. They obliterate Iraqis (and Afghanis and Palestinians and Columbians, among scores of other nationalities). They murder and kill wantonly like vicious boys setting fire to dogs or castrating cats. Because of their access to the US's vast military might, the once-great US technology, they sow infinitely more terror and suffering than the suicide-bomber. They smash, needlessly, cruelly, thousands and thousands and thousands of precious lives.
It's tempting to say these, our so-called leaders, are the true terrorists.
Yes, we must condemn a Bush or a Wolfowitz. They are criminals who should be tried before the International Court of Justice or some specially constituted tribunal akin to the Nuremberg Council. Loathsome as these US death-makers are, to leave the argument here would be to buy into the comforting Hollywood-Bush fantasy of Good guys and Evil ones, except now the Evil ones would be Bush et al. Such an approach would involve an escape from the unpleasant complexities of moral ambiguity in the modern world.
Ultimately we must ask what about the rest of us? What about our docile deliverance of our tax dollars to the IRS and the hungry maw of the military machine? Is that a terrorist act?
What are we when we turn our heads aside and look not on the aircraft carriers pregnant with slaughter, when we ignore fire-breathing missiles, the maiming cluster bombs, the deadly depleted uranium munitions, all of which we finance, all of which kill innocent civilians?
What is our guilt? Our responsibility?
Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) Human Rights Watch, “Israel, the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, & Palestinian Authority Territories, Jenin: IDF Military Operations,” May 2002, p.22
(2) Fahey, Dan, Depleted Uranium (DU) Exposures, Swords to Plowshares, Inc., National Gulf War Resource Center, Inc., and Military Toxics Project, Inc., 1998, p.ii.
(3) Said, Edward W., Blaming the Victim: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, 1988, p. 154.
(4) C-Span, Live Coverage of Armed Services Committee Hearing, September 24, 2003.
(5) www.courttv.com, "Interview with Nuremberg Trial Prosecutor, Drexel Sprecher."
(6) Williams, Mel, Editor, The Superfighters: The Next Generation of Combat Aircraft, 2002, p.35.
(8) Pilger, John, “Lies and More Lies,” September 29, 2003, Znet.org.