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Terror and Indigenous Peoples

When President Bush declared war on terrorism with his neo-McCarthyistic threat to the world that “you are either with us, or with the terrorists” he struck a chord with many frightened Americans, but other peoples around the world heard other important harmonics within this chord. For many of the world’s indigenous peoples, these words brought terror and anticipation of new levels of outright oppression from the nation states that repressively surround and manage them.

In the time since this declaration the President has not clarified who these new terrorist enemies are, and the administration and its allies have since carefully avoided defining just who is and who isn’t a terrorist-beyond this initial defining claim that they are those who are against “us”. The administration understands that any behavioral definition of terrorism risks exposing the nonsense of behaviorally distinguishing between such categories of actors as terrorists, freedom fighters or military forces. The relativist adage that the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter depends on who owns the newspaper that reports on their actions, seems to be forgotten by many on the American left who watched Washington play roughshod with the self determination of peoples of Central America in the 1980s. While a few pundits note the dangers of engaging in a war without any identifiable landmark of victory, there are equally real dangers to many minority populations around the world if the governments managing their native lands are given the green light to repress them as “terrorists”.

As the United Nation’s supports new anti-terrorist policies we find new levels of cooperation and agreement among member nations, though these talks occur with an explicit agreement that terrorism shall remain undefined. Concerns are being raised by international human rights groups and the German Foreign Minister that these policies will usher in high levels of State terrorism against minority populations, but for the most part these objections have been suppressed in the interest of a new found unity of purpose.

There are growing fears among anthropologists and others who work with indigenous peoples around the world that this new secret war on terrorism will have devastating effects on indigenous peoples’ struggles for human rights and political recognition. Many fear that Secretary of State Powell-the-coalition-builder will purchase the cooperation and approval of nation leaders around the world by adopting policies in which the United States will not protest or intervene when these states suppress and annihilate their own ethnic minority populations. When police and military units use force against these groups their actions are “legitimate”, while the use of these same tactics-even defensively-by indigenous groups, minority populations or separatist groups these actions become “terrorism”.

As Powell signals Russia that the US can learn to see their bloody war in Chechnya as part of the global war on terrorism, this signal is welcomed by other world leaders wishing a free hand to deal with their own domestic indigenous troubles. Most of the world’s nation states maintain hostile relations with one or more troublesome domestic groups contesting power relations; these hostile relations are frequently marked by violence and counter-violence. The idiom of power dictates that the violence of the state is legitimized as peace keeping, while that of the dispossessed becomes terrorism. But acts of “terrorism” are not limited to acts of violence. The range of non-violent actions that have in the past been defined as terrorism is disturbing and have included teaching native languages and engaging in outlawed religious or cultural ceremonies.

The world is filled with peoples who have legitimate, historical disputes with the nation states that rule them. Whether it is the Basques in Spain, the Irish in the United Kingdom, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, Zapatistas in Mexico, Chechens in Russia, or hundreds of other groups of native peoples, there are contentious battles for power that will rapidly become even more lopsided if the current hysteria of ill-defined anti-terrorism is allowed to continue. The post-colonial wars of Africa smolder along ethnic lines in which minorities, and the lesser-armed are freely defined as terrorists. We need to demand that our government clarify what deals have been made with other governments regarding their treatment of natives peoples.

While many of the payoffs to client nations for joining the US-led coalition before the Gulf War were monetary (for example, the US forgave half of Egypt’s crippling sixty billion dollar debt for symbolically joining the western coalition), there are signs that one currency of payoff in the war on “terrorism” will be the granting of a new degree of latitude for coalition members to oppress their troublesome internal resistance groups. Powell seems willing to encourage such potentially genocidal tit-for-tat arrangements if this will buy him a coalition willing to risk the wrath of this new yet-to-be-named enemy.

While the current military focus is on Afghanistan and the surrounding region, the Bush administration’s suggestion that this could be a forty-year war on terrorism much like the Cold War threatens to bring harm to hundreds of indigenous groups around the world. Currently, many on the American left appear divided in their opposition and support for this new Afghani war, be this as it may, the left must resist the temptation to transfer this new found fear of “terrorism” into support for the oppression of indigenous peoples around the globe. CP

David Price is an associate professor of anthropology at St. Martin’s College in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of A World Atlas to Cultures.

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David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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