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America’s Sham War on Terrorism

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Almost a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the war on terrorism continues chugging along. Despite the trillions of dollars that the U.S. government has spent supposedly in response to 9/11, few people have raised questions about the fundamental definition of what the United States is fighting. The U.S. government’s definition of terrorism almost guarantees that the so-called war on terrorism will be a failure — and will last forever.

Federal agencies have an array of definitions for “terrorism”:

  • The Defense Department defined terrorism as “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a revolutionary organization against individuals or property, with the intention of coercing or intimidating governments or societies, often for political or ideological purposes.”
  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation defined terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
  • The State Department defined terrorism as “the use or threat of the use of force for political purposes in violation of domestic or international law.”Since government use of force (based on government edicts and sovereign immunity) is almost automatically lawful, governments by definition cannot commit terrorist acts. For decades, U.S. representatives to the United Nations have been adamant that “state terrorism” is a near impossibility. Private cars packed with dynamite are evil, while guided missiles launched from government jet fighters that blow up cars driven by terrorist suspects are good, regardless of how many children are in the back seat at the time of the “surgical strike.”When the UN General Assembly tried to enact a convention to advance the international war on terrorism in 2002, the effort was paralyzed by conflicts over how to define terrorism. “The United States, backed by most European nations, says the convention should not apply to any acts of violence against civilians committed by the military forces of recognized states — a provision fought by Arab states and others that insist that ‘state terrorism’ should also be penalized,” the Los Angeles Times reported on April 16, 2002.

Double standard

The United States’s official definition of terrorism — that terrorism is a private, not a governmental, crime — drives the U.S. government’s perception of the Middle East conflict. The New York Times noted on April 7, 2002, “Israel, as American officials often note, is a democracy accountable to the norms of international law. The practical effect is that only the Palestinians, who lack a state, are generally labeled terrorists.”

Former President Bill Clinton fully embraced this absurd double standard when he declared in 2009 that “‘terror’ means killing and robbery and coercion by people who do not have state authority and go beyond national borders.” That is the same standard tactic invoked by tyrants and authoritarian regimes throughout history. A few years ago, after the Ethiopian government brutalized protesters, Ethiopian Minister of Information Bereket Simon warned, “Anyone who incites violence, other than those elected, will have to face the law.”

The same double standard has long permeated the thinking of the American ruling class. In the days after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, the Clinton administration launched a full-court press to whitewash federal action two years earlier at Waco. When a journalist stated in April 1995 on CNN that he considered the 1993 federal attack on the Branch Davidians a terrorist act, Labor Secretary Robert Reich rushed to distinguish between what the feds did at Waco and the bombing at Oklahoma City: “We are talking about acts of violence that are not sanctioned by the government — that are not official.” Reich sounded as if the government has a moral magic wand that can automatically absolve law-enforcement officials of any abuse, regardless of how many dead babies are left when the smoke clears. Atrocities committed by the government cannot really be considered to be atrocities — instead, they are merely policy errors — or, more accurately, public-relations mistakes.

The notion that “states cannot be terrorists” extends back at least to the early 20th century. The League of Nations in 1937 defined terrorism as “criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or the general public.” The League’s efforts to build an international consensus against private terrorists ended after Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia and invasion of Poland.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government is continually creating new definitions of terrorism in order to more easily prosecute those it disfavors. The USA PATRIOT Act created the new crime of “domestic terrorism,” defined as violent or threatening private actions intended “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” That definition reaches far beyond the box-cutter crowd. It could take only a few scuffles at a rally to transform a protest group into a terrorist entity. It could allow the government to drop the hammer on environmental extremists (even those not spiking trees), anti-trade fanatics (even those not trashing Starbucks), and anti-abortion protesters (even those not attacking doctors). If the violence at a rally is committed by a government agent provocateur — as happened at some 1960s anti-war protests — the government could still treat all the group’s members as terrorists. Likewise, anyone who donates to an organization that becomes classified as a terrorist entity — be it Greenpeace, the Gun Owners of America, or Operation Rescue — could face long prison terms.

The PATRIOT Act also included a different definition of terrorism for aliens than for U.S. citizens. Aliens are now considered guilty of terrorism if they are convicted of “the use of any explosive, firearm, or other weapon or dangerous device (other than for mere personal monetary gain), with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.” As Micah Herzog noted in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal, “The parenthetical frees common thieves from classification as a terrorist, but the angry boyfriend who intentionally harms his former girlfriend’s car is now in a different class of crime.”

The denunciation of terrorism is often an exercise in demonology — converting a semantic distinction into a pretext for denying the nature of government or the reality of oppression. One grave danger in letting politicians define evil is that they will exempt their own crimes from any onus.

Terrorists cannot compete with governments when it comes to persistently wreaking mass carnage. By raising terrorist attacks to the pinnacle of political evil, the war on terrorism implicitly sanctifies whatever tactics governments use in the name of repressing terrorism. Exaggerating the risk from terrorists puts people at greater risk of destruction from their political overlords. Unleashing governments to fight terrorists is like opening the lion cages at the zoo in the hope that the lions will devour some pesky squirrels. If the squirrels have rabies, they need to be exterminated. But there are better ways to suppress such threats.

“Under color of law”

Government is the only institution that has the privilege of investigating and judging its own killings. It is routine for governments to block external or independent investigations of its actions. Government killings are almost never considered to be murders because government officials have the final word in labeling a shooting as accidental or justified. Even when a government “self-investigation” report is openly derided as a “whitewash” — as the New York Times characterized the first Justice Department report on Waco — the report’s conclusions about the government’s innocence are still repeated far and wide.

Intentions are the great exonerator of government action. Governments almost always conclude that the motives of their own agents are exculpable, regardless of how many people they killed. But a focus on motive as the prime determinant of the morality of action is inherently flawed when judging state actions because politicians and governments routinely misrepresent their motives. It is far easier to count the dead than to determine the thoughts in the minds of the killers.

What a government says to justify its killing is also important. “Under color of law” is a phrase that magically transforms senseless violence into public service. All that is necessary for a government killing to become blameless is for the government to announce — preferably before the funeral or memorial service — that the killing was accidental. For many statists, the only “wrongful government killing” occurs when a government agent shoots someone different from the person he was aiming at.

Any action taken by private citizens that would be considered terrorism should also be considered terrorism if taken by government agents. If a government persistently slaughters innocent civilians, then it is morally equivalent to evil gangs that blow up buses and airplanes. A consistent definition of terrorism will not end the terrorist threat or suddenly make al-Qaeda operatives around the world turn themselves in and plead for mercy. Nor will it lessen the grief of the survivors and relatives of those slain by senseless violence. But it will help citizens better understand the danger of unleashing government agents to scourge terrorists — and anyone else politicians or bureaucrats decide needs whacking.

It is unlikely that either Congress or federal agencies will rush to adopt this proposed definition of terrorism. Instead, citizens will be at risk from rulers who continually create new definitions to sanctify their own power and delegitimize any resistance. Sixteen years ago, FBI Director Louis Freeh announced, “Terrorism is the work of people and groups seeking to further their causes through fear and intimidation.” If that definition had been accepted, then much of the fear-mongering out of Washington since 9/11 would itself have been labeled a terrorist offense.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.