The Semantics of Terrorism

It is widely believed that “terrorism” is the instrument of the weak, who resort to it out of frustration at their perceived mistreatment and inability to obtain relief by peaceful means.

This is a serious mistake. Terrorism is mainly an instrument of the strong, who have the resources to terrorise, a frequent interest in using terror to keep opponents of their rule under control, and the cultural power to define terrorism to exclude themselves and pin the label on their enemies and targets.

These targets, successfully named “terrorists”, are frequently the victims of really serious terrorism, which has induced their own lesser terrorist response. Thus, in 1988 the United States Pentagon named the African National Congress as one of the “more notorious terrorist groups” in the world, although the ANC represented a people who had been subjected to severe long-term terrorisation by the apartheid government of South Africa.

This labelling resulted from the fact that the terrorising government was “our ally”—in the words of US president Ronald Reagan—and so its enemies became terrorists while it was exempted from the label in a straightforward process of politicised word usage. The “strong” here are the United States and its South African ally; the weak is the ANC. This pattern is commonplace, as is the ability of the strong to label their targets—and victims—terrorists.

“Terrorism” is a broad term that has traditionally been defined as “a mode of governing, or opposing government, by intimidation” (Webster’s Dictionary). We can distinguish between primary and secondary terrorisms, the former being extensive in scope with numerous victims, the second, of small scope with few victims and frequently induced by the primary terrorism.

Primary terrorisms are usually state managed, as only states have the means to torture and kill on a large scale. Thus, the South African government’s repression of its—and illegally occupied Namibia’s—black majority, and its cross-border sponsorship of terrorist groups and raids in pursuit of the ANC and to discipline the frontline states (Angola, Lesotho and Mozambique), in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and untold misery.

This primary terrorism can also be called “wholesale terrorism”, as it is on a large scale, in contrast with the ANC’s terrorism, which we may call “retail terrorism” as it was carried out by a small and poorly armed group and on a relatively modest scale, and, in this instance, was induced by the primary and wholesale terrorism.

But in the West, South Africa, although eventually subjected to sanctions under pressure from blacks and the global community because of the immensity of its violence, was never called a terrorist state, as was Libya. Nor were the South African government’s proxies in Angola and Mozambique—Unita and Renamo—ever called “notorious terrorist groups”, as the Pentagon called the ANC.

And the major Western books on terrorism by such experts as Walter Laqueur, Christopher Dobson and Robert Payne, Claire Sterling and Paul Wilkinson never once referred to South Africa as a terrorist state. They followed the Western agenda and party line, by naming as terrorists only Western enemies and targets and exempting all Western and Western client-state terrorism.

The Terrorism Industry

The ANC victims of South African state terrorism, the Mayan peasants of Guatemala terrorised by the US-sponsored Guatemalan army, and the Kurds of Turkey, all know who the real terrorists are, but they do not have the resources to fund researchers and think tanks to examine and define terrorism from their perspective; nor do they have access to the Western mainstream media that would allow them to describe in detail and publicise effectively the nature of the violence they suffer.

Western governments and corporations do have such resources and access, and they long ago created a virtual industry to deal with the subject of terrorism. This industry has supplied the appropriate definitions and models that ensure that South Africa, Guatemala and Turkey will not be terrorists but will rather be victims of terrorism. I have called it an “industry” because there is an effective demand for its services from governments and businesses, and a set of suppliers has come into existence to meet that demand.1

The terrorism industry comprises government officials and bodies, governmental and quasi-private think tanks and analysts, and private security firms. The “private sector” of the industry is heavily interlocked with government intelligence, military and foreign policy agencies, and is funded by and serves both governments and business firms.

The analysts supplied by the private sector of the industry, along with those working in government, constitute the “experts” who establish and expound the terms and agenda demanded by the state.

In accord with the state agenda, these experts invariably see the West as a victim of terrorism, and most of them identify national liberation movements seeking escape from colonial or neocolonial rule either as terrorists or (before 1990) as a threat to “democracies” because they were being “manipulated” by the Soviet Union and its proxies.

The terrorism industry is multinational, with close ties between government and private sponsors, institutes and experts in and between the United States, Israel and Great Britain, but extending to other members of the “Free World”.

As an illustration of the crudity of its links and biases, and its disconnection from any honest and consistent usage of “terrorism”, apartheid South Africa was part of the terrorism industry in the 1980s and before, with its Terrorism Research Centre maintaining friendly links to the institutes of the United States and United Kingdom. And as noted, Western governments and experts never found South Africa or its proxies in the neighbouring states to be terrorists.

Language Games

The terrorism industry’s work has rested in part on a system of word usage that helps identify the proper terrorists and exclude those that fund the industry and their friends and clients. However, we shall see that even with the skewed definitions used by the industry, the industry’s sponsors frequently fit the definitions; and in such cases the solution of the industry—and of the mainstream media—is simply to pretend that the definition doesn’t fit, or to avert eyes and keep silent.

The Exclusion of State (Wholesale) Terrorism

A main device in the word’s usage is to exclude state terrorism from the terrorism category and to confine the word’s application to non-state acts of intimidation for political ends.

This bypasses the most deadly form of terrorism, but it has been necessary because the West closely aligned itself with governments that have systematically employed terrorism to resist change and protect Western transnational corporate interests against upheavals from below.

The United States and its allies have for many years participated in de facto joint-venture arrangements with leaders such as Suharto of Indonesia, Mobutu of Zaire, Marcos of the Philippines and the military in Latin America to keep a lid on democratic movements and preserve corporate access.

And the United States and its allies have trained and funded armies such as Suharto’s and those of the gendarme regimes in Latin America. Western officials, experts and media could hardly allow such prized assets to be labelled terrorists.

The exclusion of state terrorism has been a semantic aid to the West in allowing it to treat as victims of terrorism: a Suharto, engaging in a triple genocide (Indonesia, 1965–6), East Timor (1975–99) and West Papua (1965–99), but a Western ally; apartheid South Africa; Israel; Turkey; Argentina; Guatemala and many others who have used intimidation on a scale inconceivable for the Red Brigades, Baader–Meinhof Gang, the ANC or the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

A government such as that of Guatemala in the years 1976–84 killed scores of thousands of civilians, far more than the global totals for all “retail” terrorists as compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency each year. The military government of Argentina, ruling from 1976–83, also killed many thousands, while alleging that it was fighting against “terrorism”.

An Argentine National Commission on Disappeared Persons, appointed after the end of the military regime in 1983, found that “the armed forces responded to the terrorists’ crimes with a terrorism infinitely worse than that which they were combatting”.

But Western news reports and the major books on terrorism published between 1980 and 1999 uniformly failed to describe the Argentine military government (or that of Guatemala) as a terrorist state or as having been engaged in terrorism.

Hijacked US planes, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, the Soviet downing of Korean airliner 007 in 1983, and the holding of fifty-three US citizens hostage in the US Embassy in Iran in 1979, have been considered major acts of terrorism. They received intense and indignant coverage and served to villainise US enemies.

On the other hand, the bombing of a Cuban airliner by US-sponsored Cuban refugee terrorists in 1973 received very modest coverage and little indignation; and the same was true of the destruction of an Iranian airliner with 290 deaths by a US naval vessel in 1988.

Even more dramatic, the United States and its allies have been maintaining a regime of sanctions against Iraq since 1990, responsible for the death of over a million civilians, in what amounts to holding hostage not fifty-three but seventeen million people. This would seem to fit the dictionary definition of terrorism precisely: “A mode of governing, or opposing government, by intimidation.”

The sanctions are the Western means of opposing the Iraq government by intimidation through starvation and medical deprivation of the civilian population. But in the United States and West this is not deemed terrorism.

Terrorism versus “Counter-Terror”, “Retaliation” and Sponsorship of “Freedom Fighters”

Although the sanctions regime would seem to fit the definition of terrorism, a second semantic device—the concepts of “retaliation” and “counter-terror”—is brought into play, ensuring that the West and its clients never terrorise. This has long been the key apologetic in interpreting Israeli–PLO relations where there has been a multi-year action–response process. As Israel is a US ally, by rule of semantic bias it never terrorises, it only reacts to PLO terror (or makes regrettable “errors”).

And anything the United States itself does in the way of external violence is always counter-terror, or “self defence”. It is never terrorism, again by rule of semantic bias. In the case of the “sanctions of mass destruction” against Iraq, this has been carried out under the cover of the United Nations, allegedly in response to Iraq’s threat to produce “weapons of mass destruction” (to which the West never objected while Iraq was taking Western orders and fighting Iran in the 1980s).

And if the United States bombs Libya in 1986 or Iraq in 1993, killing dozens of civilians, or destroys a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan on the false claim that it was producing chemical weapons, US officials allege that they are only countering terrorism and engaging in self-defence, and the Western media accept this without question.

The fact that the United States takes it upon itself to be prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner, and that such a process violates the UN Charter, does not bother the media.

While any Soviet aid to groups under siege during the Cold War was “sponsorship” of international terrorism, the Israeli maintenance of a terrorist army in South Lebanon was never so labelled; nor, of course, was US support of the Nicaraguan Contras or Savimbi’s Unita in Angola. This is semantics, but it is clear that the words are used in a wholly politicised fashion whereby the policy in the one case is “sponsorship of terrorism”, and in the other is “helping freedom fighters”.

Terrorism as Killing Innocent Civilians for Political Reasons

In the words of former Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “terrorism is the deliberate and systematic murder of innocent civilians to inspire fear for political ends.” Netanyahu likes this definition because it focuses attention on victims of hijackings and shootings in airports, who are frequently not even known to the terrorists and are clearly “innocent”.

But the civilians killed by state terrorists in bombing raids and in army and death-squad slaughters are also innocent, and they vastly outnumber the highly publicised victims of hijackers and airport bombers.

Not only does the Western media fail to humanise these victims and show their suffering in any detail, they sometimes accept official claims by the West that it and its clients are merely targeting “terrorists”, any civilian deaths being dismissed as “collateral damage”. These civilian victims are therefore not “deliberately murdered” as in the Netanyahu definition. But this is a fraud: the deaths are expected and therefore “deliberate” as totals if not on an individual basis.

Often, killing civilians is also intended to elicit a political response, such as surrender. This was true in Israel’s bombing of Lebanon. Abba Eban, Israel’s former foreign minister, acknowledged that the bombing took place because “there was a rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that affected populations [i.e., innocent civilians deliberately bombed] would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities”.

In the US–NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, it was clear that the gradual extension of targets to include civilian facilities—with the inevitable and therefore deliberate killing of civilians—was part of a very similar strategy of imposing costs on the civil society to force political concessions.

In short, taken honestly and seriously, the “deliberately killing innocent civilians” criterion of terrorism only exempts Western state terrorism by twisting the meaning of “deliberate” and “innocent” and by misrepresenting the facts.

The ‘Theatre’ of Terror

One line of argument advanced to show that it is the weak who use and benefit from terrorism is the claim that they take advantage of the openness of the Western media to create a “theatre” of terrorism in which they can make their case. The media feature the drama of plane hijackings and the taking of hostages, giving the terrorists great publicity and outreach.

The attention and allegedly excessive sympathy given to the hijackers, etc., by the media, further encourage their activities. These charges have put the media on the defensive, forcing them to deny that they help and encourage terrorists.

But the charges are misplaced: while the media do sometimes slightly humanise the hijackers by giving them some small voice, this is overwhelmed by the media’s reliance on officials and the terrorism industry’s non-official “experts” to frame the issues and on the relatives of the hostages for the main emotional dramatisation.

The charge of media bias in the “theatre of terror” analysis not only misrepresents the direction of bias in the immediate coverage, it misses the importance of the choice of terrorisms on which the media focus in the first place. The theatre of terrorism deals with retail, not wholesale terrorism.

But as noted above, wholesale (state) terrorism has been vastly more important than retail terrorism in terms of human consequences, and a deep Western bias is reflected in the fact that a plane hijacking by Arabs gets far more coverage than what the Guatemalan government does to the Mayan Indians, Indonesia does to the East Timorese, or the Turkish government does to its Kurds.

The focus on the theatre serves the West well, suggesting (falsely) that the West is the main victim of terrorism, and justifying aggressive Western responses to these secondary responses by the West’s own victims.

Ignoring Wholesale Terrorism

These examples of a thoroughly politicised use of the word “terrorism” could be multiplied. It rests in part on semantics, but even more on the simple refusal to apply the West’s own definitions without political bias.

Acts called “terrorism” when done by the PLO or ANC or the Kurdish PKK are simply not called by that name when done by friendly states and proxies such as the Nicaraguan Contras, supported by the United States; Renamo, supported by South Africa; Unita, supported by both the United States and South Africa; or the recently disbanded South Lebanese Army, supported by Israel.

Western state terrorism, as in the “sanctions of mass destruction” employed against Iraq from 1990 into 2000, the massive and deliberate bombing of Serbian civil society in 1999, and the terrorism of Western client states such as Indonesia, apartheid South Africa and the “National Security States” of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, has been vastly more deadly than the retail terrorism that has preoccupied the Western media.

Such state terrorism has all been functional, serving to protect Western interests in establishing and maintaining hegemony in areas with restive populations and effectively justifying the West’s terrorism as mere “retaliation” and “counter-terror”.

US power has been so great that it has been able to use massive terror against countries such as Iraq and Serbia under the cover of international authority, while protecting the terrorism of its client states such as Indonesia, Israel and Turkey from any serious international constraint.

It has been able to impose a costly boycott on Libya for an alleged connection to the bombing of Pan Am 103, while it has been entirely free from any international penalty for its own 1988 shooting down of an Iranian civilian airliner, which killed all 290 people on board. (In fact, the commander of the ship responsible for this act of terrorism was given a hero’s welcome on his return to the United States and a Legion of Merit award for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service”.)

In short, the ongoing system of unequal global power has facilitated the terrorism of the strongest, not only allowing its dominant parties to use terrorism freely, but also permitting them to see that this invidious term is applied only to the actions of their victims.

Edward S. Herman is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. His books include The Political Economy of Human Rights (South End Press, 1979) with Noam Chomsky; Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon Books, 1988) with Noam Chomsky; The Real Terror Network (Black Rose Books, 1986); and The “Terrorism” Industry (Pantheon Books, 1990) with Gerry O’Sullivan.

1. See Edward Herman and Gerry O’Sullivan, The “Terrorism” Industry: The Experts and Institutions That Shape Our View of Terror (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990).
© Centre for World Dialogue

By Edward S. Herman, This article was originally published 2000

Sharing is caring!