The “Terrorism” Industry The Experts and Institutions That Shape Our View of Terror

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The “Terrorism” Industry The Experts and Institutions That Shape Our View of Terror


This book is about cultural processes that make certain victims important, their trials and tribulations heartrending, and that mo-bilize public opinion on their behalf, but that cause other victims to remain unnoticed or even to be transmuted into victimizers. The power of focused attention to arouse empathy and passion was dramatically illustrated in the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-80, where the seizure and detention of fifty-three U.S. citizens in Iran was given priority media treatment on a daily basis for many months.

These were, of course, American citizens, and their long captivity and the continuous discussions and negotiations in pursuit of their release made for dramatic and excellent news copy. But the intense focus on the hostages also served important domestic political interests that sought a “reawakened America,” a termination of détente, and a buildup of U.S. military forces and the arms industry.

By contrast, in other cases of victimization of Americans that do not coincide with these larger interests and demands, the media are less attentive. The rape-murder of four American churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980, for example, got much less American press coverage than the murder of the Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko, and the killing of American priests in Guatemala, Honduras, and the Philippines has received negligible media attention. These cases of muted media interest in victimized Americans coincided with a national policy of support for the regimes doing the killing. Sustained media interest seems to require a combination of victimization of Americans (or non-Americans, such as Popieluszko, Sakharov, or Sharansky, for that matter) and the perceived advantage of attention and publicity by powerful groups in the United States.

The Iran hostages and the U.S. women and priests mentioned above could all be said to have been victims of terrorism, as that word has been defined in standard dictionaries and by Western authorities. But it is evident that their treatment by the press was markedly different. A major theme of the present book is that the designation of terrorist is a highly political choice, and that visibility, attention, indignation, and counterterrorist action in the West follow a political and self-serving agenda. We will explore in detail this bias and agenda, the semantics and model that have been developed to serve Western ends, and the West’s use of and need for something called “terrorism.” We give a great deal of attention to the army of experts and the supportive institutions that serve to expound, rationalize, and propagandize the Western terrorism agenda. We also examine the mass media’s role in portraying terrorism in accord with Western needs.


It is our view that the West’s experts and media have engaged in process of “role reversal” in their handling of the terrorism question. That is, their focus haqs been on selected relativly small-scale terrosists and rebels, including some genuine national liberation movements whose constituencies are the main virtims of serious and large-scale terrosism; and they have identified the main terrorists of the world as victims engaging in "counterterror". If this seems startling, the reader should reflect on the fact that in November of the "more notorious terrorist groups" in the wold, whereas RENAMO, which the same report admit killed over 100,000 Mpzambiquan civilians between 1986 and 1988, is identified merely as an “indigenous insurgent group” that engages in domestic terrorist violence. The report from which the 100,000 figure is drawn, however, claims that RENAMO’s role is purely destructive, and that it lacks a program or any observable indigenous base. There is also overwhelming evidence that RENAMO’s activities have been crucially dependent on South African aid, training, radio communication, and general support, and that it has been a proxy instrument of that government’s policy of destabilizing the African front-line states.° RENAMO’s killings and other violence should make it a strong contender for ranking as the world’s most notorious terrorist organization, and South Africa the premier state sponsor of terrorism, vastly more important in this category than Libya. But RENAMO is rarely if ever listed as a terrorist organization by Western terrorism experts, and South Africa itself, which bears primary responsibility for the death of an estimated million people in Angola and Mozambique alone in the 1980s,° is regularly identified by U.S. government officials, establishment experts, and mass media as a victim of terrorism, not a terrorist state.

Readers may also ponder the fact that the National Police, National Guard, and Treasury Police of El Salvador, who have been implicated in thousands of cases of rape, torture, and murder of civilians in the 1980s, have been receiving U.S. funds and training under the authority of the Anti-Terrorism Assistance Act, passed by Congress in 1983 to combat “international terrorism.” A 1986 report by a research team sent to El Salvador by two U.S. church-based groups to investigate U.S. aid to the Salvadoran police noted that arrests by the police are

  • commonly conducted by police officers in unmarked vehicles with darkened glass windows. The use of such vehicles also mirrors traditional death squad tactics. ... Many declarations [from political prisoners and human rights organizations] indicate varying degrees of physical abuse including beatings, blindfolding, suffocation, and rape between the moment of arrest and arrival at police headquarters. This first phase of interrogation is usually done before the captors identify themselves to the detainee as police officers.

The delegation visited the Committee of the Mothers of the Disappeared, and spoke with committee member Maria Teresa Tula,

  • “who testified about her recent abduction by four unidentified men, and her subsequent interrogation, beating, and repeated rape. Tula was again arrested on May 28, the day after our visit with her. She was charged with being a terrorist an was subsequently imprisoned.” (See appendix A for further information on this case of counterterrorism in action.)

Marfa Teresa Tula was one of nine human rights workers arrested by the Treasury Police in May 1986 and charged with terrorism. Since 1986, the government of Guatemala has also been the recipient of funds under a U.S. government “counterterrorism” program, although the ruling Guatemalan army, like the Salvadoran police, has killed many more unarmed civilians in the 1980s than did the PLO, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof gang, Abu Nidal, Qaddafi, and Carlos the Jackal combined.

Although we will be focusing heavily on the “invisible” victims of terrorism and the biases of the Western terrorism experts and media, we do not approve or condone in any way the indiscriminate acts of violence that the Western experts on terrorism, government officials, and press attend to with great energy. Attacks on unarmed civilians in plane hijackings, bombs set off in public places, and the like are inexcusable, and attempts must be made to deter and control such actions whatever their causes and whoever the perpetrators. Immediate practical measures of prevention and control are necessary, and punishment must be meted out in accord with the rule of law. We do not believe that savage penalties will be useful or are morally justifiable for the crimes of hijacking and hostage-taking per se, although damage to individuals and property that occurs in such actions is a different matter (and is treated severely in existing law). We also believe that a policy of refusal to negotiate with terrorists is foolishly unbending, poses excessive danger to hostages, and is unsustainable. The powers who claim to follow this policy do so erratically.

We believe, too, that a great deal of the terrorism inflicted on the West has its roots in Western acts and policies. We do not deny the necessity of protecting against terrorist acts as they occur, but see urgently important to unerstand the underlying causes of these acte if, in the long run"terrosim" is to be reduced. We condend in this book that the West inflicts far more terrosism than indures, and that this point is obscured by its ability to define itself as victim while its victims either remain invisible or are branded terrorists. If this is true, and if it is also true that a substantial part of anti-Western terrorism is a response to Western terrorism, then the main solution to the terrorism problem for the West is clear: stop doing it.

We would like to express our thanks to the following individuals for providing us with information or for critical reading of the manuscript: Chip Berlet, Nicholas Bell, Nicholas Busch, Noam Chomsky, Bob Figlio, Howard Goldenthal, René Haquin, Roy Head, Mary Herman, Albert Mokhiber, Diana Johnstone, Wes McCune, Ben O’Brien, Robin Ramsay, Ellen Ray, Diana Reynolds, Bill Schaap, Elmar Weitekamp, and Lou Wolf. We are also grateful to our editor at Pantheon, Jim Peck, for much cogent advice. The authors alone are responsible for any remaining errors.