The Dialectics of Terror

“If you kill one person, it is murder.
If you kill a hundred thousand, it is foreign policy.”


I doubt if I have come across a more pithy statement exposing the hypocrisy of America’s war against terrorism; but this is what I read, well before September 11, 2001, on a car-sticker in the commuter parking lot in Attleboro, Massachusetts, USA.

States are founded on a monopoly over violence, which has nearly always included the right to kill. In fact, that is the very essence of the state. States seek to enforce this monopoly by amassing instruments of violence; but that is scarcely enough. They also use religion, ideology and laws to deligitimize and root out violence stemming from non-state agents.

This monopoly over violence creates its own problem. Unchallenged, the state can turn the instruments of violence against its own population. This leads to state tyranny. The state can also wage wars to enrich one or more sectional interests. This defines the dual challenge before all organized societies: restraining state tyranny and limiting its war-making powers.

Often, there has existed a tradeoff between tyranny and wars. Arguably, such a tradeoff was at work during the period of European expansion since the sixteenth century, when Europeans slowly secured political rights even as they engaged in growing, even genocidal, violence, especially against non-Europeans. As Western states gradually conceded rights to their own populations, they intensified the murder and enslavement of Americans and Africans, founding white colonies on lands stolen from them. Few Westerners were troubled by this inverse connection: this was the essence of racism.

The United States is only the most successful of the colonial creations, a fact that has left its indelible mark on American thinking. It is a country that was founded on violence against its native inhabitants; this led, over three centuries of expansion, to the near extermination of Indians, with the few survivors relocated to inhospitable reservations. Its history also includes the violence–on a nearly equal scale–perpetrated against the Africans who were torn from their continent to create wealth for the new Republic. Such a genesis, steeped in violence against others races, convinced most Americans that they had the divine right–like the ancient Israelites–to build their prosperity on the ruin of other, ‘inferior’ races.

In addition to the manipulations of a corporate media, this ethos explains why so many Americans support the actions of their government abroad–in Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Vietnam, Iran, Palestine or Iraq, to name only a few. It is unnecessary to look too closely into these interventions since they are undertaken to secure ‘our’ interests. Even if they result in deaths–the deaths of more than three-quarters of a million children, as in Iraq–to borrow a felicitous phrase from Madeline Albright, “the price is worth it.”

Of course, few Americans understand that their country has long stood at the apex–and, therefore, is the chief beneficiary–of a global system that produces poverty for the greater part of humanity, including within the United States itself; that this system subordinates all social, cultural, environmental and human values to the imperatives of corporate capital; a system that now kills people by the millions merely by setting the rules that devastate their economies, deprive them of their livelihood, their dignity and, eventually, their lives. The corporate media, the school curricula, and the Congress ensure that most Americans never see past the web of deceit–about a free, just, tolerant and caring United States–that covers up the human carnage and environmental wreckage this system produces.

The wretched of the earth are not so easily duped. They can see–and quite clearly, through the lens of their dark days–how corporate capital, with United States in the lead, produces their home-based tyrannies; how their economies have been devastated to enrich transnational corporations and their local collaborators; how the two stifle indigenous movements for human rights, women’s rights, and worker’s rights; how they devalue indigenous traditions and languages; how corporate capital uses their countries as markets, as sources of cheap labor, as fields for testing new, deadlier weapons, and as sites for dumping toxic wastes; how their men and women sell body parts because the markets place little value on their labor.

The world–outside the dominant West–has watched how the Zionists, with the support of Britain and the United States, imposed a historical anachronism, a colonial-settler state in Palestine, a throw-back to a sanguinary past, when indigenous populations in the Americas could be cleansed with impunity to make room for Europe’s superior races. In horror, they watch daily how a racist Israel destroys the lives of millions of Palestinians through US-financed weaponry and fresh-contrived acts of malice; how it attacks its neighbors at will; how it has destabilized, distorted and derailed the historical process in an entire region; and how, in a final but foreordained twist, American men and women have now been drawn into this conflict, to make the Middle East safe for Israeli hegemony.

In Iraq, over the past thirteen years, the world has watched the United States showcase the methods it will use to crush challenges to the new imperialism–the New World Order–that was launched after the end of the Cold War. This new imperialism commands more capital and more lethal weapons than the old imperialisms of Britain, France or Germany. It is imperialism without rivals and, therefore, it dares to pursue its schemes, its wars, and its genocidal campaigns, under the cover of international legitimacy: through the United Nations, the World Bank, IMF, and World Trade Organization. In brief, it is a deadlier, more pernicious imperialism.

Under the cover of the Security Council, the United States has waged a total war against Iraq–a war that went well beyond the means that would be needed to reverse the invasion of Kuwait. The aerial bombing of Iraq, in the months preceding the ground action in January 1991, sought the destruction of the country’s civilian infrastructure, a genocidal act under international law; it destroyed power plants, water-purification plants, sewage facilities, bridges and bomb shelters. It was the official (though unstated) aim of these bombings to sting the Iraqis into overthrowing their rulers. Worse, the war was followed by a never-relenting campaign of aerial bombings and the most complete sanctions in recorded history. According to a UN study, the sanctions had killed half a million Iraqi children by 1995; the deaths were the result of a five-fold increase in child mortality rates. It would have taken five Hiroshima bombs to produce this grisly toll.

Then came September 11, 2001, a riposte from the black holes of global capitalism to the New World Order. Nineteen hijackers took control of passenger airplanes in Boston, Newark and Virginia, and rammed them, one after another, into the twin towers of the Word Trade Center and the Pentagon; the fourth missed its target, possibly the White House. Following a script that had been carefully rehearsed, the nineteen hijackers enacted a macabre ritual, taking their own lives even as they took the lives of nearly three thousand Americans. The hijackers did not wear uniforms; they were not flying stealth bombers; they carried nothing more lethal (so we are told) than box cutters and plastic knives; they had not been dispatched or financed by any government. And yet, using the principles of jujitsu, they had turned the civilian technology of the world’s greatest power against its own civilians. As Arundhati Roy put it, the hijackers had delivered “a monstrous calling card from a world gone horribly wrong.”

The terrorist attacks of 9-11 shocked, perhaps traumatized, a whole nation. Yet the same Americans expressed little concern–in fact, most could profess total ignorance–about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians caused by daily bombings and crippling sanctions over a period of thirteen years. Of course, the dollar and the dinar are not the same. American deaths could not be equated on a one-to-one basis with Iraqi deaths. If indeed so many Iraqis had been killed by the United States, those were deaths they deserved for harboring ill-will towards this country. They were after all evil. And evil people should never be given a chance to repent or change their evil-doing propensities. Senator John McCain said it succinctly: “We’re coming after you. God may have mercy on you, but we won’t.”

There are some who were impressed and alarmed–in equal measure–by the grisly efficiency with which the terrorists had executed their operation. (On this ground, some even argued that it could not have been the work of “incompetent” Arabs.) However, it would appear that there is greater political cunning at work in the conception of these attacks. Al-Qaida gave the Bush hawks what they wanted, a terrorist attack that would inflame Americans into supporting war against the Third world; and the Bush hawks gave al-Qaida what they wanted, a war that would plant tens of thousands of Americans in the cities and towns of the Islamic world.

An act of terror is nearly always attributed to a failure of intelligence, security, or both. In a country that, annually, spends tens of billions of dollars on intelligence gathering and trillions more on its military, the attacks of 9-11 amounted to massive failures on two fronts: intelligence and security. This should have led immediately to a Congressional inquiry to identify and remedy these failures. However, due to obstructions from the Bush administration, the Congress could not start an official inquiry into these failures until more than a year after 9-11. Instead, the Bush administration claimed falsely, as it turns out–with hardly a murmur from the Congress or the US corporate media–that 9-11 was unforeseen, it could not have been imagined, and there had been no advance warnings. Instantly, President Bush declared that 9-11 was an act of war (making it the first act of war perpetrated by nineteen civilians), and proceeded to declare unlimited war against terrorists (also the first time that war had been declared against elusive non-state actors). In the name of a bogus war against terrorism, the United States claimed for itself the right to wage preemptive wars against any country suspected of harboring terrorists or possessing weapons of mass destruction (what are weapons for if not mass destruction?) with an intent (US would be the judge of that) to use them against the United States.

Osama bin Laden had the victory that he had hoped for: he had the world’s only superpower running mad after him and his cohorts. Al-Qaida had now taken the place vacated by the Soviet Union. It had to be a worthy opponent to have succeeded in monopolizing the hostile attention of United States; the actions of al-Qaida now threatened the world’s only superpower. No terrorist group could have asked for greater prestige, a distinction that was almost certain to help in its recruitment drive. Secondly, by declaring war against al-Qaida, the United States had tied its own prestige to the daily outcome of this war. Every terrorist strike–the softer the target the better–would be counted by Americans and the rest of the world as a battle lost in the war against terrorism. It should come as no surprise that the frequency of large-scale terrorist strikes has increased markedly since 9-11–from Baghdad to Bali and Bombay. Thirdly, President Bush’s pre-emptive wars have already placed 160,000 American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, not counting additional thousands in other Islamic countries. President Bush’s wars against terrorism had made American troops the daily target of dozens of attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it would appear that al-Qaida is seizing the opportunity to open a broad front against the United States on its home turf.

Although the onslaughts of the Crusaders against the Muslims in the Levant, starting in the 1090s, lasted for nearly two centuries; and although their conquests at their peak embraced much of old Syria, it is quite remarkable that this did not alarm the Islamic world into waging Jihad against the ‘Infidels.’ On several occasion, one Muslim prince allied himself with the Crusaders to contain the ambitions of another Muslim prince. It was only in 1187, after Salahuddin united Syria and Egypt, that the Muslims took back Jerusalem. But they did not pursue this war to its bitter end; the Crusaders retained control of parts of coastal Syria for another hundred years. In fact, several years later, Salahuddin’s successors even returned Jerusalem to the Cruaders provided they would not fortify it. In other words, the Crusades which loom so large in European imagination were not regarded by the Muslims as a civilizational war.

Of course that was then, when Islamic societies were cultured, refined, tolerant, self-confident and strong, and though the Crusades threw the combined might of Western Europe–that region’s first united enterprise–to regain the Christian holy lands, the Muslims took the invasions in their stride. Eventually, the resources of a relatively small part of the Muslim world were sufficient to end this European adventure, which left few lasting effects on the region. In the more recent past, Islamic societies have been divided, fragmented, backward, outstripped by their European adversaries, their states embedded in the periphery of global capitalism, and their rulers allied with Western powers against their own people. These divisions are not a natural state in the historical consciousness of Muslims.

More ominously, since 1917 the Arabs have faced settler-colonialism in their very heartland, an open-ended imperialist project successively supported by Britain and the United States. This Zionist insertion in the Middle East, self-consciously promoted as the outpost of the West in the Islamic world, produced its own twisted dialectics. An exclusive Jewish state founded on fundamentalist claims (and nothing gets more fundamentalist than a twentieth-century imperialism founded on ‘divine’ promises about real estate made three thousand years back) was bound to evoke its alter ego in the Islamic world. When Israel inflicted a humiliating defeat on Egypt and Syria in 1967–two countries that were the leading embodiments of Arab nationalism–this opened up a political space in the Arab world for the insertion of Islamists into the region’s political landscape. One fundamentalism would now be pitted against another.

This contest may now be reaching its climax–with United States entering the war directly. It is an end that could have been foretold–this did not require prophetic insight. In part at least, it is the unfolding of the logic of the Zionist insertion in the Arab world. On the one hand, this has provoked and facilitated the growth of a broad spectrum of Islamist movements in the Islamic world, some of which were forced by US-supported repression in their home countries to target the United States directly. On the other hand, the Zionist occupation of one-time Biblical lands has given encouragement to Christian Zionism in the United States, the belief that Israel prepares the ground for the second coming of Christ. At the same time, several Zionist propagandists–based in America’s think tanks, media and academia–have worked tirelessly to arouse old Western fears about Islam, giving it new forms. They paint Islam as a violent religion, perennially at war against infidels, opposed to democracy, fearful of women’s rights, unable to modernize, and raging at the West for its freedoms and prosperity. They never tire of repeating that the Arabs ‘hate’ Israel because it is the only ‘democracy’ in the Middle East.

There are some who are saying that the United States has already lost the war in Iraq; though admission of this defeat will not come soon. One can see that there has been a retreat from plans to bring about regime changes in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There is still talk of bringing democracy to Iraq and the Arab world, but it carries little conviction even to the American public. There is new-fangled talk now of fighting the “terrorists” in Baghdad and Basra rather than in Washington, New York and Los Angeles. And now after two years of bristling unilateralism, after starting an illegal war which sidelined the Security Council, the United States is courting the Security Council, seeking its help to internationalize the financial and human costs of their occupation of Iraq. It is doubtful if Indian, Polish, Pakistani, Egyptian, Fijian, Japanese or French mercenaries of the United States will receive a warmer welcome in Iraq than American troops. This ‘internationalization’ is only likely to broaden the conflict, possibly in unpredictable ways.

What can be the outcome of all this? During their long rampage through history, starting in 1492, the Western powers have shown little respect for the peoples they encountered in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia. Many of them are not around to recount the gory history of their extermination through imported diseases, warfare, and forced labor in mines and plantations. Others, their numbers diminished, were forced into peonage, or consigned to mutilated lives on reservations. Many tens of millions were bought and sold into slavery. Proud empires were dismembered. Great civilizations were denigrated. All this had happened before, but not on this scale. In part, perhaps, the extraordinary scale of these depredations might be attributed to what William McNeill calls the “bloody-mindedness” of Europeans. Much of this, however, is due to historical accidents which elevated West Europeans–and not the Chinese, Turks, or Indians–to great power based on their exploitation of inorganic sources of energy. If we are to apportion blame, we might as well award the prize to Britain’s rich coal deposits.

In the period since the Second World War, some of the massive historical disequilibria created by Western powers have been corrected. China and India are on their feet; so are Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. These countries are on their feet and advancing. But the wounds of imperialism in Africa run deeper. The colonial legacies of fragmented societies, deskilled populations, arbitrary boundaries, and economies tied to failing primary production continue to produce wars, civil wars, corruption, massacres, and diseases. But Africa can be ignored; the deaths of a million Africans in the Congo do not merit the attention given to one suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Africa can be ignored because its troubles do not affect vital Western interests; at least not yet.

Then there is the failure of the Islamic world to reconstitute itself. As late as 1700, the Muslims commanded three major empires–the Mughal, Ottoman and Safavid–that together controlled the greater part of the Islamic world, stretching in a continuous line from the borders of Morocco to the eastern borders of India. After a period of rivalry among indigenous successor states and European interlopers, all of India was firmly in British control by the 1860s. The Ottoman Empire disintegrated more slowly, losing its European territories in the nineteenth century and its Arab territories during the First World War, when they were divvied up amongst the British, French, Zionists, Maronites and a clutch of oil-rich protectorates. Only the Iranians held on to most of the territories acquired by the Safavids. As a result, when the Islamic world emerged out of the colonial era, it had been politically fragmented, divided into some forty states, none with the potential to serve as a core state; this fragmentation was most striking in Islam’s Arab heartland. In addition, significant Muslim populations now lived in states with non-Muslim majorities.

Why did the Muslims fail to reconstitute their power? Most importantly, this was because Muslim power lacked a demographic base. The Mughal and Ottoman Empires–the Ottoman Empire in Europe–were not sustainable because they ruled over non-Muslim majorities. More recently, the Muslims have been the victims of geological ‘luck,’ containing the richest deposits of the fuel that drives the global economy. The great powers could not let the Muslims control ‘their lifeblood.’ They suffered a third setback from a historical accident: the impetus that Hitler gave to the Zionist movement. Now there had emerged a powerful new interest–a specifically Jewish interest–in keeping the Arabs divided and dispossessed.

It does not appear, however, that the Islamic societies have accepted their fragmentation, or their subjugation by neocolonial/comprador regimes who work for the United States, Britain and France. We have watched the resilience of the Muslims, their determination to fight for their dignity, in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Palestine, Chechnya and Mindanao–among other places. In the meanwhile, their demographic weakness is being reversed. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Muslims constituted barely a tenth of the world’s population; today that share exceeds one fifth, and continues to rise. Moreover, unlike the Chinese or Hindus, the Muslims occupy a broad swathe of territory from Nigeria, Senegal and Morocco in the west to Sinjiang and the Indonesian Archipelago in the east. It would be hard to corral a population of this size that spans half the globe. More likely the US-British-Israeli siege of the Islamic world, now underway in the name of the war against terrorism, will lead to a broadening conflict with unforeseen consequences that could easily turn very costly for either or both parties.

Can the situation yet be saved? In the weeks preceding the launch of the war against Iraq, when tens of millions of people–mostly in Western cities–were marching in protest against the war, it appeared that there was hope; that the ideologies of hatred and the tactics of fear-mongering would be defeated; that these massive movements would result in civil disobedience if the carnage in Iraq were launched despite these protests. But once the war began, the protesters melted away like picnicking crowds when a sunny day is marred by rains. In retrospect, the protests lacked the depth to graduate into a political movement, to work for lasting changes. America does not easily stomach anti-war protestors once it starts a war. War is serious business: and it must have the undivided support of the whole country once the killing begins.

The anti-war protests may yet regroup, but that will not be before many more body bags arrive in the continental United States, before many more young Americans are mutilated for life, before many tens of thousands of Iraqis are dispatched to early deaths. Attempts are already underway to invent new lies to keep Americans deluded about the war; to tighten the noose around Iran; to hide the growing casualties of war; to lure poor Mexicans and Guatemalans to die for America; to substitute Indian and Pakistani body bags for American ones. This war-mongering by the United States cannot be stopped unless more Americans can be taught to separate their government from their country, their leaders from their national interests, their tribal affiliations from their common humanity. But that means getting past the media, the political establishment, the social scientists, the schools, and native prejudices. It is arguable that the nineteen hijackers would not have had to deliver the “monstrous calling card” if some of us had done a better job of getting past these hurdles in time. Still, the hijackers chose the wrong means to deliver their message: by killing civilians they played right into the game plan of the Bush hawks. The result has been more profits for favored US corporations, greater freedom of action for Israel, and more lives and liberties lost everywhere.

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His last book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave in 2000. He may be reached at

Visit his webpage at




M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at