Begs to Differ has suggested that I blog on terrorism. I have been meaning to for some time in part because my MIT professor Noam Chomsky has claimed (not necessarily his exact words) that America is the greatest terrorist nation in the world. This sort of claim would typically be greeted with outrage by Americans but, given how he means it, his claim is one that deserves serious consideration.
There are at least two relevant terms, terrorism and terrorist in evaluating Chomsky's view. The Merriam-Webster OnLine dictionary "defines" terrorism as "the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion." It doesn't define "terrorist." Answers.com "defines" terrorism as follows: "The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." Answers.com sees a terrorist as "One that engages in acts or an act of terrorism." You who have been following this blog know that dictionaries do not actually define words but are at best guides to usage but that's what we actually want here.
In the "definition" of terrorism Answers.com speaks of the acts as being "unlawful" We might go a step further and say that terrorist organizations are unlawful in that they are not established via any conventional legal process such as being created by a recognized political state. In any event, I shall take the position that any military or extra-military organization is capable of committing acts of terrorism without being terrorist organizations per se. In fact, my morning paper reports that the US military is investigating a Marine unit's alleged unprovoked killings (see the National/International section) of civilians. This is little different, assuming this event happened, from an extra-legal Palestinian organization using a suicide bomber to kill civilians in Israel. The deaths are as real. The actions are equally illegal by all normal standards of judgment (remember that the US military is investigating the case). And the actions were directed at civilians or noncombatants, a term I prefer to use.
The terrorist organizations we normally think of -- Al Queda, Hamas, the IRA, etc. -- come into being because they cannot field conventional armies to do battle. Al Queda was formed in part out of the Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan. The latter were a military organization of the revolutionary sort and they fought the Russian military directly. Al Queda is incapable of fighting the US military in a similar way (except for occasional skirmishes in Afghanistan and allegedly also in Iraq). So, it resorted to the use of suicide pilots and crews to hijack and then fly airplanes containing noncombatants into buildings containing noncombatants, at least in the case of the WTC attacks. And, had Hamas or the PLO tried to form a conventional army to attack Israel, Israel would have nipped such actions in the bud with pre-emptive attacks. So, if they are to fight against Israel, one of their most effective methods is to use terrorist attacks on noncombatants such as shelling noncombatants from outside Israel or use of bombs planted in Israel or carried in by suicide bombers. The point would presumably be to convince the people to pressure the government to find some accommodation with the Palestinian people. Now that Hamas is a part of that government. the issues have become more complicated.
The US and British forces during WW2 were not above the use of terror. The Brits firebombed Dresden in a clear attempt to kill civilians and scare hell out of those not killed. And the US dropped two A-bombs on cities in Japan in a clear attempt to kill civilians and scare the hell out of those not killed. These were terrorist acts by anyone's criteria. So, in the case of the US, we have a history of occasional deliberate attacks by our conventional military forces on noncombatants either at the direction of its leaders (the two A-Bombs) or as extra-legal acts by rogue military units.
Chomsky takes the position that the motives of any government or extra-legal organization in taking action against others are irrelevant to evaluating the morality of the actions since every such group has motives it views as lofty. The Palestinian-Israeli case provides a perfect example of the futility of evaluating motives for each side can make a credible case at least from the perspective of outsiders. Instead of looking at motives, Chomsky would argue we should look at the results. In the case of terrorism, we look at whether or not the actions taken kill noncombatants and/or scare hell out of (i. e., terrorize) noncombatants.
Taking this view, we must look at US bombing campaigns of the last three Administrations. We have killed noncombatants in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan and perhaps other places. In the case of the first Iraq war, perhaps because it knew that the press was taking a close look at the killings of noncombatants, the military emphasized how "smart" its weapons were. We were given show and tell movies to prove the point but after the war it turns out that the smart weapons were, in general, not as smart as advertised. In any event, in the current Iraq war, the US has killed many noncombatants and by normal legal standards, given that this war was built on a fabric of Administration lies, misrepresentations, and factual mistakes, we are arguably responsible for any deaths of noncombatants on analogy with the notion of "being an accessory to murder." If we hadn't started this damn war, none of these people would have been killed, at least not in the way they were. So, arguably we are responsible for them all.
In any event, knowing that many will not accept my "accessory to murder" argument, let us just consider deaths of noncombatants by US military actions whether deliberate (rare, I would think or hope) or not. Tote up the deaths of noncombatants in the current Iraq war. Add them to similar such deaths in Afghanistan. Add them to those of the previous Iraq war. Add the results to deaths in former Yugoslavia. When you add all these deaths up, it is clear that no organization of any sort has killed as many noncombatants as the US during this time period. One reason is that we fight more wars than anyone else -- an odd sort of thing for a peace-loving nation to do . In some of these cases, we probably did intend to scare hell out of noncombatants in an effort to coerce them into causing a change of government. My memory is dimming but I believe that was the point of our bombing in Yugoslavia Minor (what's left of the original). And, it worked. Milosovic was eventually booted out. Keeping this murderous bastard around was getting too costly.
I am uncomfortable with Chomsky's claim that the US is the greatest terrorist nation in the world since it depends on twisting the notion of "terrorist"about 90 degrees for most alleged "terrorist" acts were not done specifically to terrorize and/or kill noncombatants. However, like the deadly side-effects of certain medicines, the side-effects of our military actions have been to terrorize and/or kill noncombatants whether these effects were deliberate or not. For this reason, we must be very careful about going to war against anyone to make sure that the side-effects on noncombatants are justified by the positive effects of taking action and negative effects of not doing so. The Bush Administration appears to have considered only the positive effects of invading Iraq and vastly over-rated those while lying or misrepresenting the evils of Saddam in defense of its actions. For this reason, I see their engagement in Iraq as so irresponsible as to be borderline criminal.