The United States, a terrorist nation

By Robert Jensen

Published in Austin American-Statesman · September, 1998

[This article appeared in the Austin (TX) American-Statesman, September 1, 1998, p. A-9.]

U.S. officials and terrorism “experts” are filling the airwaves with talk of the threat that terrorism poses in the coming century. They have part of it right — terrorism will remain a threat. What they forget, ignore or deny is that the biggest perpetrator of terrorism on the world scene is the United States.

The United States, a terrorist nation?

That may seem like an odd statement to many, maybe even lunatic. It may seem treasonous, perhaps even blasphemous. But it is, unfortunately, one of those painfully obvious truths that, as a nation, we rarely allow ourselves to understand. And, just as obvious, is the fact that we will continue to suffer the terrorist attacks of others until we come to terms with this.

There is no one widely accepted definition of terrorism, though I suspect many would agree that the core of the concept involves the intentional killing of civilians or military personnel to effect political change, outside the widely accepted conventions of warfare and international law.

In reality, the term is used in the United States with a footnote: Terrorism is that kind of killing, unless it is the United States pulling the trigger.

So, the bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are quite rightly labeled terrorist attacks and, quite rightly, condemned. But our retaliatory attacks on a base in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan are widely viewed here as heroic acts. Yet in legal terms, both sets of attacks are clearly outside international law. No matter how much administration officials obfuscate that reality, the U.S. cruise missile attacks were illegal under the UN charter, which allows for military action only in self-defense against an armed attack before the Security Council has a chance to act. The United States didn’t even go through the motions of seeking Security Council action, as the charter requires in cases such as this. The administration’s claim that this act of “self-defense” conforms to the UN charter is laughable, though widely accepted.

This is nothing new in U.S. history, especially in the post-World War II era. When the UN and international law are useful in pursuing policy, we are happy to use them. When they become annoyances that stand in the way of policy, we ignore them.

In its attack on South Vietnam, the United States bombed civilians, drenched the country in chemicals to destroy crops, and engaged in terrorist counterinsurgency campaigns to eliminate political opposition. Three different administrations engaged in these blatant violations of international law.

When the World Court handed down a judgment in 1986 that the United States had violated international law in its support of the contra’s terrorist attack on Nicaragua, the Reagan administration simply refused to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction.

When the Bush administration planned the illegal invasion of Panama to arrest its dictator (and former CIA employee) Manuel Noriega in 1989, they felt the need to call it “Operation Just Cause” in a vain attempt to hide the obvious. Two years later in the Gulf War, the Bush administration pushed the violations of international law to even more murderous levels with the indiscriminate bombing of civilians areas, willful destruction of civilian infrastructure, and killing of retreating soldiers in Iraq.

The Clinton administration, first with its illegal missile attack on Iraq in 1993 and now with the most recent strikes, is the most recent U.S. regime to join this hall of shame.

The list could go on and on, covering U.S. overt and covert actions in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. And that’s before we get to the actions of client regimes and private terror armies that have been backed by the United States.

In the debate this past summer over the configuration of an international criminal court, the United States repeatedly defended its opposition to a strong court by saying it did not want its military personnel hauled in front of such a court on “frivolous charges.” The victims of past U.S. terrorism can easily attest to the fact that our sins are hardly frivolous.

None of these remarks, of course, should be taken as support of or rationalizations for terrorist acts committed by other nations or individuals. Nor is it an attack on the front-line military personnel who fought in these conflicts. I want only to suggest that if our actions in the world are to have any moral force, consistent application of international law to our own actions is a minimal requirement.