Western State Terrorism: Revisited 30 Years Later

Peace Advocate August 2021

"Stop Israeli State Terror" by solomonsmfield is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by Jack Trapanick 

In 1991, Alexander George, Noam Chomsky, and eight other intellectuals published Western State Terrorism: a collection of essays defining and exploring the mechanisms by which the concept of “terrorism” has been strictly controlled to: a) overemphasize the threat of attacks against the West, and b) distract from the United States’ role as a leading perpetrator and supporter of terrorism worldwide. Their essays utilized recent examples of Western- or American-backed terrorism in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Israel, Indonesia, and Northern Ireland, where death tolls unquestionably surpassed those resulting from the violent acts of the allegedly “worst” terrorists: the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Italian Red Brigade, and communist revolutionary groups across the globe. Have the mechanisms they described for producing terrorism-related propaganda remained in state use throughout the past thirty years? Let’s investigate by examining the authors’ central claims and comparing their examples to more recent events.

To begin, terrorism can be roughly defined as any violent act, or threat of violence, that violates accepted criminal law and is intended to intimidate a civilian population or influence a government through kidnapping, assassination, or coercion. The authors point out that US foreign policy has long relied heavily on the threat of force to achieve its aims, from Reagan’s policy of “low-intensity conflict”—i.e. violent attacks not serious enough to amount to war—to “coercive diplomacy,” a broader and similarly euphemistic descriptor of American-backed terrorism abroad. 

In one table, Edward Herman and Gerry O’Sullivan compare the total number of people killed by “international terrorists” as recorded by the CIA (that is, Red Army factions, the PLO, etc.) to the total number of people killed by US-backed “counterterrorism” or “defensive” operations. While from 1969-1980 all CIA-designated international terrorists killed a total of 3,368 people combined, the US-sponsored Contras alone killed more than 3,000 civilians in Nicaragua from 1981-87. Additionally, in a single 1982 incident, a Christian Lebanese militia under the direction and close watch of the Israeli Defense Forces (a close ally to and recipient of arms from the US) killed anywhere from 1,900 to 3,500 innocent civilians in the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp and nearby Sabra neighborhood. During the Guatemalan genocide, US military aid, training, and Special Forces supported and helped perpetrate the murder of tens of thousands of civilians from 1966-86. Through example after example of atrocities committed by Israel, apartheid South Africa, El Salvador, and other US-backed states, the authors demonstrate that, during that time, we were the chief supporters of terrorism worldwide.

And now? According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), of the 47,600 civilians killed in the 20-year war in Afghanistan, US-supported security forces are responsible for a quarter, or more than 11,000. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed as a result of the US invasion of Iraq, ultimately a war of aggression. Then we turn to Israel, the US’s democratic darling of the Middle East. In the most recent war between Israel and Hamas, Hamas, which traditionally arouses much more righteous disapproval and fear than the IDF, killed 20 times fewer Israelis than the IDF killed Palestinians, even accounting for the Palestinians who may have been killed by misfired rockets from Hamas. Of the 20,000 civilians directly killed by the war in Yemen, the coalition forces, supported and resourced by the United States, were responsible for 67% of the deaths (according to a 2019 report by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)). Evidently, American support for terrorism has remained high and steady over the decades, despite the more recent “War on Terror”—which, in reality, has frequently only fueled more terror (see: invasion of Iraq).  

How about the United States’ methods of obscuring this terrorist role behind a massive propaganda campaign? As the authors explain, the US has long used specious logic and carefully chosen terminology to portray itself as a threatened victim acting out of self-defense in instances in which it is the primary aggressor. The same applies to its “client states,” as Chomsky and others term them: US allies that are heavily reliant on it for military aid and diplomatic support. 

This strategy was exemplified during Israel’s recent 11-day war with Hamas. While the IDF undoubtedly caused greater destruction and many more deaths than Hamas, the US government’s narrative framed Israelis as the primary victims, as Biden reiterated the US’s support for Israel’s right to “self-defense.” A Human Rights Watch report later confirmed, however, that, as many suspected at the time, many of the targeted and bloody attacks on Gaza perpetrated by Israel (with American bombs) were not lawful acts of self-defense, but potential war crimes that failed to attack legitimate military targets and instead simply wiped out entire families of Gazans and their homes. Both sides of the war directly attacked civilians; only one of them was very successful—why was that the side that was excused for its crimes under the guise of “retaliation” and “self-defense”? As the authors demonstrated was the case in the 20th century, simply deeming an illegal attack “self-defensive” has been enough to clear charges of war crimes or terrorism by the West. So, it continues today.

This strategy works so well because of the way terrorism has been implicitly defined. The US government and its affiliated security experts characterize terrorists as necessarily non-state actors motivated by a hatred for freedom and democracy. As a result, they are imagined to come only from “third-world” countries and to target only “freedom-loving,” “first-world” nations. This picture of terrorists as only non-state actors is particularly effective because American-perpetrated terrorism is inherently state-run, and its sponsorship of terrorism abroad is most frequently done through states, not organizations. Thus, American citizens are led to feel that attacks on designated terrorists are always right and just, coming from a fundamentally innocent and good country which rules and attacks by right. 

When blatant atrocities supported by their government occur, several tactics remain for keeping the story favorable to Americans. News of the crimes may be suppressed altogether in the mainstream media (see: Manufacturing Consent), or reported but drowned out by far heavier coverage of the other side’s wrongs. When this is not possible, the facts are distorted. The crimes may be framed as forgivable mistakes coming from a still ultimately just and fair military, government, etc. Obvious acts of terrorism are transformed into either: a) accidents caused by excessive zeal or radicalism in fringe elements of the US-supported group, and thus out of its control, or b) difficult but necessary sacrifices for the long-term goal of democracy and a free, capitalist society. 

Of course, neither of these narratives are correct. Atrocities, it goes without saying, can never contribute to the construction of a free and fair society. Furthermore, as was the case with the Contras in the 1980s and, for example, Saudi Arabia today (regarding the war in Yemen), these atrocities are certainly not just regrettable deviations from honorable ideals, or somehow done without US knowledge or support. In both examples, US allies established a clear pattern of deliberately murdering civilians to advance their causes—using American arms and weapons—and continued to receive our support well after their wrongdoings first came to light. We bore and bear responsibility for our support and complicity.

Thus, the authors in 1991 described a framework of propaganda and obscuration that was not simply a unique strategy from one brief period in history, but has instead been a vital component of US foreign policy and its presentation to the American people for decades. Only through continual critical analysis and research beyond government sources can we hope to begin understanding, and, ultimately, combating it.

— Jack Trapanick is a senior at Boston Latin School and an intern at Massachusetts Peace Action through the Seevak Fellowship.