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Terror and Empire

It is just possible that international action against terrorism, often a comparatively small-scale threat, could pave the way to international accords which remove the far greater–but now not entirely unrelated–terror of nuclear war. It could furnish a positive precedent. The pre-September 11 international order was based on the effective exclusion of Russia and China from any real role in global governance. That was the logic of Clinton’s NATO expansion policy and of Bush’s characterisation of China as a ‘global competitor’. Russia and China not only have nuclear weapons but they also have the means to deliver them. Washington’s policy of maintaining its own nuclear arsenal and blocking supranational inspection also made it very difficult to tackle the most dangerous type of proliferation, as seen in the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan. New Delhi and Islamabad were censured for developing their nuclear capability but nobody could suppose that these powers would renounce such weapons so long as others possessed them The United States, Britain and France are theoretically committed to eventual nuclear disarmament but nobody takes this seriously since the governments concerned evidently do not do so themselves. Nuclear disarmament would only be acceptable to existing nuclear powers if carried out as part of a common agreement entered into by all and backed up by international inspection. Willingness to accept any such sacrifice of national; sovereignty was very remote on September 11 . During the Cold War nuclear dispositions were at least inserted into an overall strategy of control. But the anarchic dispositions which now reign constitute the perilous legacy of that ‘unfinished twentieth century’ about which Jonathan Schell has written.

Both Russia and the United States have 6,000 or more nuclear-armed missiles, about 20,000 nuclear bombs, and hundreds of tons of bomb-grade plutonium and uranium, apiece. Pakistan has between 30 and 50 partially disassembled nuclear bombs, of from one to 15 kilotons in yield. (The nuclear device dropped on Hiroshima was about 12 kilotons. Even if we believe that the US nuclear weapons are safely guarded, by well-paid and reliable soldiers, in secure locations, it would be heroic to make the same assumption about all the other nuclear arsenals. Yet Russia, India, and Pakistan are not going to relinquish their weapons so long as others retain them. As it happens all the world’s significant nuclear powers have some direct stake in the events which have flowed from September 11 . The most dangerous military stand-off at the present time is that between India and Pakistan. While the existing major nuclear powers have up to now only paid lip-service to further disarmament, and have only permitted limited rights of inspection, it could be that what Schell calls the ‘crowbar of events’–in the form of the international response to September 11–could open the way, simply because political leaders perceive terrorism as a threat from which they must protect themselves and their people. It supplies a common enemy against whom nuclear weapons are worse than useless, since they might always be hi-jacked. It justifies dramatically reducing war preparations against one another. Nuclear weapons systems are perilous even in the hands of generals and politicians but since September 11 their hijacking by terrorists also becomes a plausible threat. The manifest possibility of further suicide attacks from aircraft, not necessarily hi-jacked, had exposed the vulnerability of civil as well as military nuclear installations. While military installations are supposedly well guarded they are not subject to international inspection. Civil installations are poorly guarded but are subject to inspection.

Osama bin Laden’s ‘Sword of God’ message pointed to the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as proof that the West was utterly careless of civilian, non-Christian lives. Intelligence reports cite a message circulating in the Al Qaeda network in Fall 2000 to the effect that a new Hiroshima was about to hit America. One of the scientists who helped Pakistan make its bombs, Dr Sultan Bashiruddin, also built facilities in Afghanistan for the Taliban. Bashiriruddin, an outspoken admirer of the Taliban and exponent of ‘Islamic science’ worked for thirty years on Pakistan’s bomb and was director of the Kushab ractor until 2000. Two other scientists were arrested with him in late October. These men may have had access to fissile material which could be used to make a ‘dirty’ nuclear device, with nuclear material wrapped around high explosives. And a Bin Laden aide who gave evidence at the 1998 trial for the embassy bombings testified that he had played a role in an attempt to buy fissile material.

Following the anthrax attacks in October 2001 the United States government made new proposals to tackle germ warfare facilities but scarcely abated their resistance to mandatory inspections. As tactful report in the New York Times explained: ‘The proposals, intended to strengthen the 1972 treaty banning germ weapons, abandon a previous approach favoured by many other countries that sought to require treaty members to create a new international organisation to conduct mandatory inspections of plants in which germ weapons could be made. The administration opposed that approach, saying that it would have provided a false sense of security. Two veteran European diplomats interviewed today confirmed that their governments were ready to work with measures proposed by the administration. But both added that they still preferred the more sweeping approach that the administration rejected last summer and hoped that the White House would eventually endorse more of it. “We are ready and willing to work with the Americans to bridge the gaps,” said one of the diplomats. “But we hope this is only a first step and that it opens the door to more sweeping measures.” Arms control groups voiced similar reservantions. This is a good start,” said Daryl Kimball, director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. “But it doesn’t do what the draft agreement that the administration rejected would have done.” Critics at home and abroad argued last summer that the White House’s rejection of that proposed (UN) agreement, known as a protocol, showed that it was concentrating too much on new military programs and not enough on international treaties and the prevention of the spread of weapons. An interagency review within the administration had unanimously concluded that the protocol would have granted foreign inspectors too much access to American installations and companies. The 1972 treaty, which 143 nations have ratified, prohibits the development, production and possession of biological weapons. But the treaty has always lacked a means of verifying compliance. The administration’s rejection of the draft agreement last summer effectively torpedoed its prospects.’

If the authors of the October attacks had mailed a thousand letters, all containing weapons-grade anthrax, rather than three, only one of which seems to have been weapons-grade, then the casualties could have been comparable to those at the World Trade Towers or much worse. Likewise if crop-duster planes had been used, or aerosol canisters in tunnels or subways. Evidently the US administration itself did not avoid the ‘false sense of security’ against which it warned. Its new proposals addressed in the report, comprised a proposed ‘code of conduct’ for scientists and a ‘provision that would require treaty members to “accept international expert inspectors” if the United Nations general secretary decided they should be sent’. Given US leverage over the UN, and its Security Council veto, it would never itself have to submit to inspection, but could require it of other states. The previous report noted: ‘Several critics noted that these procedures fall short of the inspection of so-called dual use facilities long-favoured by arms control advocates. The lack of mandatory inspections is troubling one diplomat said. Seth Bruger, managing editor of the Arms Control Assciation monthly, also said his group felt that creating a professional group of inspectors would help give the treaty teeth. The administration has rejected both measures.’

The disagreements over how to deal with bio-terror weapons echoes problems encountered in dealing with nuclear weapons and also illustrates many of the issues that a wider protocol against terrorism would raise. Inspections aimed at verifying disarmament could be intrusive and would apply to civilian dual use facilities. Large corporations will claim that they will forfeit their commercial secrecy. Yet a safer world cannot be reached without opening up the world’s military-industrial complexes to scrutiny. And one-sided measures which do not apply to the United States, Britain, and their allies and friends, will lack all legitimacy.

When it comes to an anti-terrorist accord there are further problems and legitimate fears concerning civil liberties, particularly given the emergency regulations promulgated both in the US and UK. President’s Bush establishmen t by fiat of military tribunals to try Al Qaeda members or sympathisers drew a vitriolic rebuke from the right-winger William Safire, accusing Bush of Caesarism. Liberals and those on the left will be understandably disinclined to support further legislation on terrorism, or to see new bodies set up to combat it. Such legislative and organisational initiatives in the past have usually targeted legitimate dissent while being useless against serious terrorists. But this is why libertarians and progressives should take a keen interest, exposing the ulterior agenda of the security services but supporting measures which could help prevent or reduce acts of terror which expropriate and marginalise real movements of emancipation. A UN secretariat against terrorism should have its own professional staff and should be able to prompt and require compliance from the police in any member state. Anything less than this would not be serious. A UN convention against terrorism could be based on its existing articles and protocols. And even prior to September 11 Saul Mendlovitz and John Fousek had already outlined the case for an international constabulary to combat crimes against humanity. Inevitably governments would try to invoke anti-terrorism to suppress legitimate opposition, but in such cases they might find it difficult to get a quorum to support them and would have to work through an agency, and submit to a court, they did not control. There should be habeas corpus and judicial safeguards against wrongful arrest, with the opportunity for representations to be made by social movements as well as states. The performance of judges in existing international tribunals also points to the need for trials by jury, a far more authentic expression of world concern than the type of judicial proceeding presided over by Carla del Ponte.

Israel would no doubt claim that Al Fatah and the PLO are terrorist organisations, yet these are now lodged in the PLA, an internationally-recognised state-like body. The Russian government will claim that the entire Chechen movement is terrorist. The Indian government likes to brand as terrorist any aspiration to Kashmiri independence. The Chinese government will brand Tibetan aspirations as terrorist. The US, France and Britain might seek to indict organisations at work in Puerto Rico, Northern Ireland or Corsica. Indeed the British ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation is framed broadly enough to target non-violent direct action by ‘eco-warriors’. For these reasons progressives and liberals, and anybody who cherishes civil liberties and rights of national determination, will argue strongly against accepting accusations at face value or the setting up of an organisation responsible to individual governments.

What should count as terrorism? Obviously actions aimed at sowing terror by killing civilians, or seriously harming them, or threatening them with death or disfigurement, count as terrorism. Such actions are supposedly illegal everywhere. Similar attacks or threats directed only against military personnel in time of peace are a more awkward case. If the government served by those personnel is autocratic and oppressive then this could justify armed resistance rather than terrorism. According to circumstances such armed resistance might be ill-advised or wrong but it would not be terrorism. We should bear in mind that the United States would not exist if its Founding Fathers had not taken up arms. There will, of course, be dispute about whether such and such a regime is repressive or autocratic, or whether an act really harmed civilians, but in practice it is often not so difficult to reach agreement. The aim of an anti-terrorist accord would be to identify and suppress clear cases of terrorism. It might even make sense to confine the competence of the agency to terrorist activity that crossed borders. Where the antiterrorist agency could not decide then governments would formulate their own response. The attempt to reach agreement, and the supranational character of an anti-terrorist agency, would be quite different from bi-lateral deals whereby the US forgets about the Chechens in return for Russia accepting NATO expansion.

The existence of such a supranational agency would hopefully tend to pre-empt and contain terrorist activity. But governments would still retain the ability to deal with terrorist threats as they saw best within their own borders. Likewise political or religious movements would no doubt still contrive to evade the reach of the agency. There would have to be sanctions for governments which flouted the accord or sabotaged the agency. Much would depend on the quality and authority of those in charge of investigations and operations; hopefully it would be possible to attract men like the Italian prosecutor Di Pietro and the Spanish judge Garzon.

The US has insisted that state-backed terrorism should be outlawed, meaning in practice state-backed terror of which it does not approve, in contradistinction to, say, the terror being wrought in Colombia by the authorities with the underpinning of US military aid. Distinguishing between state-backed terror and state-backed acts of war will not be easy. But the challenge is a good one, since state-backed terror often causes greater loss of life it is eminently worth identifying and opposing. But, for both practical and theoretical reasons, different agencies should target state terror and terrorist movements.

Independent investigators and jurists, with their own staff and budget, will be needed if such identifications are to be made with any credibility. The resources misspent on suppressing drug trafficking could be used to co-ordinate police action against terrorism. Indeed the link between drug-trafficking and terrorism means that a policy of de-criminalising drugs would fit well with a strategy for minimising terrorism. In the nature of any anti-terrorism agreement it should not be possible for one state to impose its criteria of terrorism on another and states which themselves practiced or condoned terror will destroy their own legitimacy. Realists may say that Washington and Moscow will covertly support terrorist groups in the future as they have in the past. Perhaps this is true. But in this case they will risk being arraigned before a supranational body and an aroused world public opinion. If the supranational body refuses to arraign powerful states, as may well happen, then this itself will prompt further protests and campaigns. Stopping powerful states from colluding with terror is not going to be easy but that is not a reason for not making the effort and for making sure that there are supranational guarantees.

An accord against terrorism would furnish opportunities to combat false accusations with the international secretariat developing its own criteria and tests. There remains the uncomfortable fact that not all such accusations will be false. Obviously good causes can be championed by bad methods. But when that happens it usually weakens those causes.

The term terror entered the political lexicon with the guillotine when the French revolution was hurling itself against the counter-revolutionary offensive of the European Ancien regime. Much of the legislation of this time–freeing the slaves, establishing secular education and proclaiming universal social rights–represented a huge step forward for humanity. But the terror weakened the Jacobin republic and hastened its overthrow. Stalin’s much more extensive terror in the thirties weakened the Soviet Union at a critical time, contributing to early Nazi advances. Likewise, the Western allies’ ‘terror bombing’ in 1944 had negligible impact on German output while actually boosting civilian morale.

If all movements of political or social liberation were induced to abandon terrorist methods there would be a gain and more space would be created for mass opposition to injustice. The tactics of guerrilla war, as elaborated by Guevara, Mao and Ho Chi Minh, aimed at cultivating civilian support, winning over enemy soldiers and isolating the opposing governments, not terrorising the population. In the early labour movement Marxists, social democrats and most syndicalists opposed terroristic methods, and it was those movements that clung to this restraint which generally survived and flourished. The practice of terror by the early Soviet republic during the civil war was defended on the grounds that it helped to win more time but was probably a factor of demoralisation both then and subsequently. In any military conflict violence is deployed in ways that aim to destroy, immobilise or capture the opponent, but it is usually much better to surprise than to terrify. Recently in Lebanon some observers detected a shift in the policy of Hizbullah when it moved away from indiscriminate attacks against all Israelis and concentrated instead on attacking occupying military personnel in southern Lebanon–a move to political focus which led to Israeli withdrawal. If there was an international agreement against terrorism some Palestinians organisations might feel the need to abandon terror tactics that do them no good anyway–in the process they could isolate the Israeli state and throw into proper relief the ethnic cleansing which it continues to practice.

So long as there is oppression in the world there will be resistance, and where political systems are autocratic or alien this will often produce violent resistance. But progressives have learnt to distinguish between resistance which uses just and effective means to challenge and overthrow intolerable conditions, on the one hand, and acts of indiscriminate and exemplary violence, targeted against civilians and whole communities, on the other. Sometimes it may seem instrumentally effective to countenance torture or terror, but movements that employ such methods begin to stultify, deaden and demoralise themselves and to poison the cause for which they are fighting.

Fighters for liberation have nothing to lose by disavowing terror. It is interesting to reflect that the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutionaries inflicted major defeats on the United States and its proteges mainly without resort to such methods. Indeed they sought to engage US civilians in dialogue, not blow them to bits. The Vietnamese did use terror against civilian officials of the South Vietnamese government but it was the US forces which wantonly slaughtered villagers and employed cluster bombs. War brutalises. Even commanders claiming to fight for noble causes or in self-defense will sometimes resort to torture or terror. The ‘rules of war’ seek to regulate and channel the practice of violence but will always be difficult to define and enforce. Cynics who therefore believe that they can be ignored and flouted make a serious mistake and weaken their cause. Modern terrorism almost always flouts the rules of war by targeting civilians, though in the past anarchists acts of violence sometimes aimed exclusively at autocrats and their armed retainers while some nationalist violence aimed exclusively at the colonising power.

President Bush’s notion of a ‘war on terrorism’ does have one advantage over the alternative notion that bringing terrorists to book is just a matter of law enforcement against criminals. As noted above, the British discovered in India, Cyprus, Kenya, Malaya, Palestine and Ireland that it was better to treat resistance, even terrorist resistance, as political since this was a way of controlling it. Sometimes British withdrawal was seen as completing the military effort (e.g. Malaya) while, in other cases, there were direct negotiations with political leaders linked to terrorist movements, leading to a hand over of power to them. If there was an international accord against terrorism it would be necessary and advisable that it should try to bring out into the open any genuine political and social injustices that might motivate, or lend credibility to, the terrorist group. A moralistic refusal to negotiate with terrorists in such a situation is rarely effective and merely serves to perpetuate hatred and injustice.

While the critique of terrorism should not be skipped simply because of the misdeeds, including complicity in terrorism, of the USA, the number and extent of the misdeeds should induce a more chastened American approach to the question. US presidents have sanctioned the assassination of foreign leaders like Lumumba, Allende and Castro. They have connived at death squads, carpet bombed Iraq and fostered the terror sown by RENAMO and UNITA in Southern Africa. So contrition on their part is in order. Even in the current campaign there are voices urging the brutal assertion of US power, willingness to inflict large-scale civilian casualties and to work with ‘unsavoury allies’ (as if that was unprecedented). Consider Senator John McCain’s bluster: ‘Only the complete destruction of international terrorism and the regimes that sponsor it will spare America from future attackAmerican military power is the most important part. When it is brought to bear in great and terrible measure, it is a thing to strike terror in the heart of anyone who opposes it. No mountain is big enough, no cave deep enough to hide from the full fury of American power.’ But if Washington allows itself to be swayed by such overwrought counsel then firestorms in the Hindu Kush will only encourage further ‘blowback’.

There are those in the Muslim world who find something positive in the democratic aspects of US culture. But if they see the US President propping up autocracy and monarchy in their lands the influence of US culture will actually undermine US state policy. The terror network has already shown the autonomy of far-flung exile chains and the new alliances they make possible. Democratic, radical and secular nationalist currents are also present in this milieu, including in the Saudi, Afghan, and Pakistani diaspora, and their mobilisation could help to head off the ‘clash of civilisation’ danger. But these people will not be rallying behind generals, sheiks and kings, even comparatively decent ones like the ex-monarch of Afghanistan.

If the US does not commit itself to a genuinely democratic solution, under UN auspices and supported by credible Muslim states, it risks strengthening Al Qaeda and, as has been starkly clear from the outset, could help them to seize power in a nuclear state–a country as unstable as former Yugoslavia and with a deep grudge against India, another nuclear state. The transnational structures so far proposed by the US are even more dangerous and deficit than those of the Cold War era. It would also involve spurning the opportunity to make a reality of the US Security Council and to bring in Russia and China from the diplomatic limbo to which they are currently condemned. Since these two powers are also armed with nuclear weapons the potential gain from an internationalist approach is genuinely epochal. But international nuclear disarmament–and parallel agreements covering other weapons of mass destruction–will require that the major powers are also covered and that they will permit international inspection and verification. Only this would make it impossible for medium and smaller states to stand apart from the process. A genuine campaign against terrorism could thus actually help the world to face up to the much worse threat of the tens of thousands of nuclear war-heads which still menace our species and planet. Terror weapons cannot be kept in sealed and self-contained compartments. If terrorism itself proliferates and escalates it will be more difficult to insulate weapons of mass destruction–biological as well as nuclear–from terrorist appropriation.

Since 1945 no nuclear bomb has exploded in an large urban area. The destruction of Lower Manhattan on and after September 11 was terrible enough butonly a fraction of the devastation that a single nuclear weapon would cause if dropped on a city in the Indian sub-continent. But because it has happened September 11 could help us to grasp the importance of the still greater–if less palpable–calamities that current global arrangements still menace.

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