The Thistle Volume 13, Number 1: August 29, 2000.

What Terrorists?

Roni Krouzman,
On-line at

While billions from New Delhi to Paris to Buenos Aires celebrated, Americans welcomed the new millennium with a sense of uneasiness instead of excitement, with fear instead of hope. That should come as no surprise considering we’d been inundated with years of media hype predicting apocalypse and computer meltdown.

Even more frightening were the reports that the terrorist attacks might occur. Experts on every network and in every newspaper clamored that certainly some dark figure was planning to plant a bomb in the shadows of a public square and kill thousands of revelers in a bloody instant.

Police stepped up security. An Algerian was arrested at the border. One city, Seattle, even canceled its public celebration all together.

“Who can blame Mayor Paul Schell for being cautious?” asked the Seattle Times. “His decree restricting civil liberties is not a state of emergency,” the paper explained, “as much as it is a state of mind.”

Of course, terrorists did not strike. Despite the hype, New Year’s celebrations in the US and around the world remained remarkably calm.

That didn’t silence the talking heads, though. Instead of admitting their error, they’re taking credit for helping avert disaster, and warning that we must be prepared for similar threats during the new millennium. Their fear mongering has found fertile ground among an American public terrified by government misinformation and media hype. Just five years ago, terrorism didn’t even make the top ten list of foreign policy issues ordinary Americans believed should concern the US. Today, according to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, the independent research group that has conducted the survey since 1970, terrorism ranks second, behind the response “don’t know.”

The government scrounging for a new enemy after the collapse of Communism- has found its new enemy, and promoted a cultural campaign to make us fear this new threat. Terrorism has become the subject of numerous books, the butt of countless jokes, and the plot of a string of movies from Die Hard and True Lies to Air Force One and The Siege, when, the films producers explain, the public’s clamor for safety [after a string of bombings by Arab terrorists] forces the hand of the President of the United States - whose only recourse is to declare a State of Emergency and ask for help from the military.

The news media have joined the fray as well, interviewing expert after expert who warn of the new terrorist threat. The New York Times reported on terrorism in more than 900 articles during 1999 alone, averaging 2-3 articles on terrorism every day.

In November, NBC’s Nightline aired a week long series entitled, Biowar, the terrible prospect of biological terrorism, during which Ted Koppel and five experts played out the possible results of a terrorist anthrax attack on a major American city as if the event was actually taking place. They even paused for periodic checks on the latest death toll, which eventually surpassed 50,000. “Most experts are now convinced that it is no longer a question of whether there will be a biological attack against an American city. It is now merely a question of when,” Koppel maintained.

Yet despite the doomsday predications and warnings of impending computer glitches that filled television broadcasts and newspaper headlines for months and even years before the end of 1999, the media remained relatively silent about the prospect that terrorists would strike on New Year’s Eve until the federal government rang the alarm. On December 11th, in the absence of any terrorist incidents, the State Department issued a World-Wide Caution, warning, The U.S. Government believes that terrorists may be planning to conduct attacks against Americans in and around the New Year period, with particular emphasis on locations where large groups of people may congregate for millennial or religious festivities.

During the twenty days that followed the announcement, the media ran story after story about terrorist organizations, foreign terrorists, suspected terrorists, bomb plots, security measures, and the strong possibility that terrorists would strike on New Year’s Eve, without ever questioning whether the State Department warning was warranted.

The New York Times ran an incredible 107 articles on terrorism in the three weeks following the State Department warning - 56 during the seven days preceding the new year, and nine articles on December 31 alone - many discussing the potential of terrorist activity on or about New Year’s Eve. Compare that with only one Times article about domestic terrorism during the previous six weeks.

According to the State Departments latest Threat Assessment Report on the subject, Patterns of Global Terrorism, 12 US citizens were killed in terrorist incidents around the world in 1998. That’s nine times less then the number of Americans who drown in their bathtub or get struck by lightening each year. In 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing, more than two hundred Americans were killed in terrorist incidents at home and overseas. Though lamentable, that puts your odds of being killed by a terrorist that year - one of the bloodiest in US history - at about one in a million. The chances were hundreds of times greater that you’d be one of the 40,000 Americans killed in automobile accidents that year.

The relatively negligible threat posed by terrorists hasn’t stopped Americans from becoming obsessed with terrorism. According to the CCFR, an astounding 84% of the public believes terrorism poses a critical threat to the US and will continue to do be a danger throughout the next decade. Thousands flooded the NBC chatroom after its feature on bio-terrorism with statements like, “I’ve watched in horror all week. Its opened my eyes so much that I cant get enough information on ANTHRAX.”

Media executives claim they are only seeking to protect people by highlighting an imminent threat to public safety. In fact, they’re uncritically and sensationalistically following Washington’s cue and trying to boost ratings by misinforming an already paranoid public.

Unfortunately, the media’s campaign is doing more than increasing audience share: it’s obscuring issues and hindering our society’s capacity to reason. Labeling someone a terrorist makes them less than human and negates the possibility for rational discussion. Calling a group terrorist makes it much easier to dismiss their possibly legitimate claims (for instance, the American Indian Movement, the Black Panthers, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, etc).

The adage that one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist is as true today as it was sixty years ago, and the American state labeling an organization terrorist is usually an attempt to manipulate public opinion. According to the CCFR, there’s only one case in which the majority of the American public (57%) would approve of the use of ground troops: to fight terrorists. Even more - 74% - support the use of air strikes.

Israel justifies bombing civilian populations in Lebanon to protect its citizens against the actions of Hezbullah fighters, which it calls terrorists. The State Department applies the same label to the Lebanese guerrillas. It also calls Iran a terrorist state because of its support for groups like Hezbullah, and because Tehran is reported to have conducted several assassinations outside Iran during 1998.

Yet according to international law, Israel’s occupation of Southern Lebanon, as well as its periodic bombings of the civilian population there, are illegal (some might say terrorist), while the actions of Hezbullah, the Lebanese resistance group, are largely legitimate, because a People are allowed to use armed resistance against an occupier. Despite Israel’s violent and illegal foreign policy, and its admitted policy of torturing political prisoners and assassinating leaders of foreign organizations, the State Department does not believe Israel warrants the label “terrorist.”

Washington never calls its allies terrorists, whatever their crimes. It certainly never talks about its own propensity for violence, including its permanent military bases around the world, and the many recent bombings of countries without United Nations mandate or approval. In fact, the U.S. government uses the supposed threat of terrorism to justify its own violent, lawless behavior.

Perhaps most importantly, hyping the threat of terrorism, tears at the fabric of a democratic society, as McCarthyism and the Red Scare did in the past. It promotes hatred, suspicion, and racism, in recent years, largely against Arab-Americans. It leads to repressive domestic measures that trample our civil liberties, like the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996. And it makes us more likely to support a violent and reactionary foreign policy.

A majority of Americans supported the 1998 US bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan after terrorist attacks on two US embassies in Africa, despite little hard evidence implicating persons or groups at either target. Most independent researchers believe the Sudanese target, a pharmaceutical plant, had nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden or any suspected terrorists. But that didn’t stop the Washington Post from declaring the United States was correct to send its military forces into action against terrorist bases there.

In terms of an actual threat to our health and safety, we should worry about dangers more real than terrorism, like guns and corporate crime. The actions of business executives - from tobacco sellers to weapons manufacturers - claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year 38,505 gun-related deaths in 1994, 6,112 workplace fatalities and 500,000 deaths from smoking in 1996 - many times more than the handful of terrorist incidents. These powerful companies are more destructive to the American people than the mostly imaginary terrorist threat. Unfortunately, since the government and mainstream media are sustained by these companies, it is unlikely that the American people will be presented with an accurate picture of the real threats to their health and safety.

The roots of terrorism are almost always traced to a history of oppression. Some of the oppressed, whether Palestinian refugees or Colombian peasants, eventually resort to violence. The most effective tool against such violence is to insist that all peoples enjoy freedom, justice and self-determination.

It has to be acknowledged that the threat of terrorism is legitimate, albeit miniscule. The question is, what kind of response does such a minimal threat warrant? Certainly we should take precautions, but what could possibly prevent a crazed person from randomly hurting others? Insisting on a just foreign policy and building a domestic society that does not espouse violence, promote inequality, and concentrate power would be a good start. Spreading fear and misinformation, cracking down on civil liberties, and bombing other countries will only hurt us in the long run, doing more damage to our society and to world peace than a terrorist’s bomb ever could.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 1: August 29, 2000.