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State Terrorism and Bush’s War

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ON OCTOBER 18, President George W. Bush declared, “So long as anybody’s terrorizing established governments, there needs to be a war.” Bush thereby signaled his acceptance of the legitimacy of almost every government in the world.

Bush’s war on terrorism is a moral crusade. This is clear from his constant references to “the evil ones” and his perennial promise to “rid the world of evil.” Bush also declared that wiping out terrorist networks “is our calling. This is the calling of the United States of America, the most free nation in the world.”

The more righteous Bush’s rhetoric, the more cloudy the thinking behind U.S. policy becomes. While almost all Americans support tracking down and punishing the al-Qaeda terrorist network, few nondemented Americans favor a U.S. crusade to violently suppress almost all resistance to any government in the world. Yet this is what Bush’s comment about “established governments” would entail.

The Declaration of Independence proclaims that governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed [and] that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive … it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

Bush’s comment on going to war against anybody “terrorizing established governments” would put him firmly on the side of the worst bootlickers among the Tories in the years before the American Revolution. Bush’s standard would focus all the attention on the abuses of people who tarred and feathered tax collectors rather than on the injustice of the taxes the British king sought to impose on the colonists. With his affection for military tribunals, Bush would shrug off as irrelevant the British habit of dragging Americans off to England, where they were almost automatically convicted by kangaroo courts. The highest crime would be the resistance to the king — and not the wrongful conduct of the king’s henchmen and lackeys.

Congress and the Bush administration define terrorism as actions intended “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” Terrorism is what private citizens do to governments, while “public service” is what governments inflict upon private citizens. At times, the Bush administration seems almost more concerned with the victimization of governments than with the killing of people. But the worst part of the 9/11 attacks was the number of people who were killed — not the attempt by the al-Qaeda terrorist network to influence the foreign policy of the U.S. government.

President Bush proclaimed that there is a “moral and ideological divide”: on the one side, the United States and other anti-terrorism governments — and on the other side, the dregs of humanity. However, the U.S. government’s righteousness ignores recent history.

At the time of Bush’s indignation, the United States was still effectively allied with the Kosovo Liberation Army, an entity the U.S. State Department denounced for “terrorist actions” in 1998 but relabeled “freedom fighters” to sanctify the 1999 U.S. bombing campaign against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. At the same time that Bush went ballistic over “terrorists” mailing anthrax to government offices, the U.S. government was conducting a chemical-warfare campaign in Colombia, fumigating much of the countryside with deadly herbicides to suppress coca production — sickening children and ruining many law-abiding farmers in the process.

The issue of “state terrorism” is a nonstarter for the United States — except insofar as a state government allegedly aids a private terrorist organization to launch attacks in foreign lands. Apparently, as long as a government slaughters only its own subjects, it is entitled to honorary membership in the U.S. war on terrorism. How else could Syria join the anti-terrorism crusade?

A myopic focus on private terrorists risks giving a green light to far more dangerous government abuses. A core fallacy at the heart of the war on terrorism — as opposed to attacking and destroying al-Qaeda — is that terrorism is worse than anything else imaginable. Unfortunately, governments around the world have committed far worse abuses than al-Qaeda or any other terrorist cabal.

In a December 11 speech at the Citadel Military Academy, Bush proclaimed, “They love only one thing — they love power. And when they have it, they use it without mercy.” While Bush was denouncing terrorists at that particular moment, his description fits at least as well many of the “established governments” in the world.

Since September 11, when terrorists killed 3,000 people in the United States, governments around the globe have slaughtered far more innocent civilians. Whether it is Russians killing Chechen civilians, or Zimbabwean government thugs murdering white farmers, or other African governments slaughtering people simply to keep up their reputation, governments continue doing what governments do best. Because governments’ slaughtering subjects is the common experience of humanity — along the same line as the sun’s rising in the east — nongenocidal killings by governments rarely receive much news coverage.

Mass murder was the most memorable achievement of many governments in the 20th century. The Black Book of Communism, a 1997 French scholarly compendium, detailed how 85 million to 100 million people came to die at the hands of communist regimes in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere.

Professor R. J. Rummel, in his book Death by Government, declared, “Almost 170 million men, women, and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners” during the 20th century.

How many people were killed by terrorists in the 20th century? Probably fewer than a hundred thousand — depending on the definition of terrorism.

If killing innocent civilians is the touchstone of a definition of terrorism, then the U.S. government might itself get snared. In an October 24 speech, Bush proclaimed, “Our military is conducting a campaign to bring the terrorists to justice, not to harm the Afghan people. While we are holding the Taliban government accountable, we’re also feeding Afghan people.”

Numerous experts estimate that the U.S. bombing campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda has killed more than 3,500 Afghan civilians — more than died in this country in the 9/11 attacks. What is the moral difference between dying in the crash of a hijacked airliner and dying when U.S. war planes mistakenly flatten a village? And while the United States has provided large amounts of food aid to starving Afghans, the disruption caused by the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda may result in more fatalities than those prevented by U.S. aid.

U.S. government spokesmen have repeatedly insisted that the United States did not intend to kill innocent people in Afghanistan — implying that such killings somehow become morally irrelevant. But that is scant consolation to surviving relatives and to those left maimed or blinded by wayward U.S. bombs. The fact that the U.S. government is convinced that its intentions are sacrosanct does not give it a license to kill.

Bush has rightly condemned private terrorist attacks on innocent civilians and others. However, when the perpetrators of terror are wearing government uniforms, the Bush administration has too often lost its voice. That most governments have sovereign immunity for most of their crimes does not make their abuses any less heinous to their victims.

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 tactic governments use in the name of repressing terrorism. But in the long run, people have far more to fear from governments than from terrorists.

Bush’s labeling of attacks on any “established government” as a justification for counterterrorism ignores the fact that many governments are little more than criminal conspiracies against their victims. The United States was created as a result of popular uprisings and attacks on an established government that was far less oppressive than many current regimes in Africa and Asia.

The word “terrorism” must not become an incantation that miraculously razes all existing limits on government power. State terrorism will remain a far greater threat to most of humanity than will private terrorists. And if the war on terrorism empowers tyrants around the globe, the anti-terror carnage will far exceed the 9/11 casualty count.

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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.