United States and state terrorism

This article is about allegations of US state terrorism. For terrorism sponsored by the United States, see United States and state-sponsored terrorism.

Several scholars have accused the United States of conducting state terrorism. They have written about the liberal democracies' use of state terrorism, particularly in relation to the Cold War. According to them, state terrorism was used to protect the interest of capitalist elites, and the US organized a neo-colonial system of client states, co-operating with local elites to rule through terror. This work has proved controversial with mainstream scholars of both state and non-state terrorism.[1]

Notable works include Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman's The political economy of human rights (1979), Herman's The real terror network (1985), Alexander L. George' Western state terrorism (1991), Frederick Gareau's State terrorism and the United States (2004) and Doug Stokes' America's other war (2005). Of these, Chomsky and Herman are considered the foremost writers on the United States and state terrorism.[2]

Notable works

Beginning in the late 1970s, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman wrote a series of books on the United States' involvement with state terrorism. Their writings coincided with reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations of a new global "epidemic" of state torture and murder. Chomsky and Herman argued that terror was concentrated in the US sphere of influence in developing countries, and documented human rights abuses carried out by US client states in Latin America. They argued that of ten Latin American countries that had death squads, all were US client states. Worldwide they claimed that 74% of regimes that used torture on an administrative basis were U.S. client states, receiving military and other support from the US to retain power. They concluded that the global rise in state terror was a result of US foreign policy.[3]

In 1991, a book edited by Alexander L. George also argued that other Western powers sponsored terror in developing countries. It concluded that the US and its allies were the main supporters of terrorism throughout the world.[4] Gareau states that the number of deaths caused by non-state terrorism (3668 deaths between 1968 and 1980, as estimated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)) is "dwarfed" by those resulting from state terrorism in US-backed regimes such as Guatemala (150,000 killed, 50,000 missing during the Guatemalan Civil War - 93% of whom Gareau classifies as "victims of state terrorism").[5] In Worse Than War, Daniel Goldhagen argues that during the last two decades of the Cold War, the number of American client states practicing mass murder outnumbered those of the Soviet Union.[6] According to Latin Americanist John Henry Coatsworth, the number of repression victims in Latin America alone far surpassed that of the U.S.S.R. and its East European satellites during the period 1960 to 1990.[7][8]

Chomsky concluded that all powers backed state terrorism in client states. At the top were the US and other powers, notably the United Kingdom and France, that provided financial, military and diplomatic support to Third World regimes kept in power through violence. These governments acted together with multinational corporations, particularly in the arms and security industries. In addition, other developing countries outside the Western sphere of influence carried out state terror supported by rival powers.[9]

The alleged involvement of major powers in state terrorism in developing countries has led scholars to study it as a global phenomenon, rather than study individual countries in isolation.[9]


The United States legal definition of terrorism excludes acts done by recognized states.[10][11] According to U.S. law (22 U.S.C. 2656f(d)(2))[12] terrorism is defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience".[13][14][15] There is no international consensus on a legal or academic definition of terrorism.[16] United Nations conventions have failed to reach consensus on definitions of non-state or state terrorism.[17]

According to professor Mark Selden, "American politicians and most social scientists definitionally exclude actions and policies of the United States and its allies" as terrorism.[18] Historian Henry Commager wrote that "Even when definitions of terrorism allow for state terrorism, state actions in this area tend to be seen through the prism of war or national self-defense, not terror.”[19] According to Dr Myra Williamson "The meaning of “terrorism” has undergone a transformation. During the reign of terror a regime or system of terrorism was used as an instrument of governance, wielded by a recently established revolutionary state against the enemies of the people. Now the term “terrorism" is commonly used to describe terrorist acts committed by non-state or subnational entities against a state.[20]

In State terrorism and the United States Frederick F. Gareau writes that the intent of terrorism is to intimidate or coerce both targeted groups and larger sectors of society that share or could be led to share the values of targeted groups by causing them "intense fear, anxiety, apprehension, panic, dread and/or horror".[21] The objective of terrorism against the state is to force governments to change their policies, to overthrow governments or even to destroy the state. The objective of state terrorism is to eliminate people who are considered to be actual or potential enemies, and to discourage those actual or potential enemies who are not eliminated.[22]

General critiques

Professor William Odom, formerly President Reagan's National Security Agency Director, wrote:

As many critics have pointed out, terrorism is not an enemy. It is a tactic. Because the United States itself has a long record of supporting terrorists and using terrorist tactics, the slogans of today's war on terrorism merely makes the United States look hypocritical to the rest of the world.[23]

Professor Richard Falk holds that the US and other rich states, as well as mainstream mass media institutions, have obfuscated the true character and scope of terrorism, promulgating a one-sided view from the standpoint of First World privilege. He has said that:

If 'terrorism' as a term of moral and legal opprobrium is to be used at all, then it should apply to violence deliberately targeting civilians, whether committed by state actors or their non-state enemies.[24][25]

Falk has argued that the repudiation of authentic non-state terrorism is insufficient as a strategy for mitigating it.[26] Falk also argued that people who committed "terrorist" acts against the United States could use the Nuremberg Defense.

Daniel Schorr, reviewing Falk's Revolutionaries and Functionaries, stated that Falk's definition of terrorism hinges on some unstated definition of "permissible"; this, says Schorr, makes the judgment of what is terrorism inherently "subjective", and furthermore, he claims, leads Falk to label some acts he considers impermissible as "terrorism", but others he considers permissible as merely "terroristic".[27]

In a review of Chomsky and Herman's The Political Economy of Human Rights, Yale political science professor James S. Fishkin holds that the authors' case for accusing the United States of state terrorism is "shockingly overstated". Fishkin writes of Chomsky and Herman:

They infer an extent of American control and coordination comparable to the Soviet role in Eastern Europe. ... Yet even if all [the authors'] evidence were accepted... it would add up to no more than systematic support, not control. Hence the comparison to Eastern Europe appears grossly overstated. And from the fact that we give assistance to countries that practice terror it is too much to conclude that "Washington has become the torture and political murder capital of the world." Chomsky's and Herman's indictment of US foreign policy is thus the mirror image of the Pax Americana rhetoric they criticize: it rests on the illusion of American omnipotence throughout the world. And because they refuse to attribute any substantial independence to countries that are, in some sense, within America's sphere of influence, the entire burden for all the political crimes of the non-communist world can be brought home to Washington.[28]

Fishkin praises Chomsky and Herman for documenting human rights violations, but argues that this is evidence "for a far lesser moral charge", namely, that the United States could have used its influence to prevent certain governments from committing acts of torture or murder but chose not to do so.[28]

Commenting on Chomsky's 9-11, former US Secretary of Education William Bennett said: "Chomsky says in the book that the United States is a leading terrorist state. That's a preposterous and ridiculous claim. ... What we have done is liberated Kuwait, helped in Bosnia and the Balkans. We have provided sanctuary for people of all faiths, including Islam, in the United States. We tried to help in Somalia. ... Do we have faults and imperfections? Of course. The notion that we're a leading terrorist state is preposterous."[29]

Stephen Morris also criticized Chomsky's thesis:

There is only one regime which has received arms and aid from the United States, and which has a record of brutality that is even a noticeable fraction of the brutality of Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mao, or the Hanoi Politburo. That is the Suharto government in Indonesia. But....the United States was not the principal foreign supplier of Indonesia when the generals seized power (nor is there any credible evidence of American involvement in the coup). Within the period of American assistance to Indonesia, and in particular during the period of the Carter administration, the number of political prisoners has declined. Finally, the current brutality of the Suharto regime is being directed against the people of East Timor, a former colony of Portugal that Indonesia is attempting to take over by force....not as part of its normal process of domestic rule.[30]

See also


  1. Blakeley, pp. 20-21
  2. Blakely, pp. 20-21
  3. Sluka, p. 8
  4. Sluka, pp. 8-9
  5. Gareau, Frederick Henry (2002). The United Nations and other international institutions: a critical analysis. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 246. ISBN 978-0-8304-1578-6.
  6. Daniel Goldhagen (2009). Worse Than War. PublicAffairs. ISBN 1586487698 p.537
    • "During the 1970s and 1980s, the number of American client states practicing mass-murderous politics exceeded those of the Soviets."
  7. "The Cold War in Central America, 1975-1991" John H. Coatsworth, Ch 10
  8. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (2014). The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I. Haymarket Books. p. xviii. ISBN 1608464067
  9. 1 2 Sluka, p. 9
  10. Gupta, Dipak K. (2008). Understanding terrorism and political violence: the life cycle of birth, growth, transformation, and demise. Taylor & Francis. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-415-77164-1.
  11. Sinai, Joshua (2008). "How to Define Terrorism". Perspectives on Terrorism. Terrorism Research Institute. 2 (4).
  12. U.S. Department of State (February 1, 2010). "Title 22 > Chapter 38 > § 2656f - Annual country reports on terrorism". Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute.
  13. Gupta, p. 8
  14. Sinai, Joshua (2008). "How to Define Terrorism". Perspectives on Terrorism. Terrorism Research Institute. 2 (4).
  15. "Country Reports on Terrorism - Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism". National Counterterrorism Center: Annex of Statistical Information. U.S. State Department. April 30, 2007.
  16. Williamson, Myra (2009). Terrorism, war and international law: the legality of the use of force against Afghanistan in 2001. Ashgate Publishing. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-7546-7403-0.
  17. Rupérez, Javier (6 September 2006). "The UN's fight against terrorism: five years after 9/11". U.N. Action to Counter Terrorism. Real Instituto Elcano of Spain. Archived from the original on April 11, 2011.
  18. Selden p. 4
  19. Hor, Michael Yew Meng (2005). Global anti-terrorism law and policy. Cambridge University Press. p. 20. ISBN 978-0-521-10870-6.
  20. Williamson p. 43
  21. Gareau, Frederick H. (2004). State terrorism and the United States : from counterinsurgency to the war on terrorism. Atlanta: Clarity Press. p. 14. ISBN 0-932863-39-6.
  22. Wright, p. 11
  23. Odom, General William (December 2007). "American Hegemony: How to Use It, How to Lose It". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 151 (4): 410.. Online copy available here
  24. Falk, Richard (1988). Revolutionaries and Functionaries: The Dual Face of Terrorism. New York: Dutton.
  25. Falk, Richard (January 28, 2004). "Gandhi, Nonviolence and the Struggle Against War". The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research. Retrieved 2007-07-10.
  26. Falk, Richard (June 28, 1986). "Thinking About Terrorism". The Nation. 242 (25): 873–892.
  27. Schorr, Daniel (1 May 1988). "The Politics of Violence". New York Times.
  28. 1 2 Fishkin, James S. (September 6–13, 1980). "American Dream/Global Nightmare: The Dilemma of U.S. Human Rights Policy by Sandy Vogelgesang (W. W. Norton)
    The Political Economy of Human Rights Volume I: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism
    Volume II: After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman (South End Press)". The New Republic. 183 (10/11): 37–38.
  29. "American Morning with Paula Zahn". CNN. May 9, 2002. Retrieved 7 July 2011.
  30. Morris, Stephen, Chomsky on U.S. foreign policy, Harvard International Review, December–January 1981, pg. 26.


Further reading

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