Reactions to Terrorism: More Terrorism?

Howard Besser, UCLA School of Education & Information Studies

written Sept 17, 2001; last updated Feb 2002

(see Howard's photographs of NYC Sept 23, 2001)

The loss of life in the September 11 incidents was absolutely horrific.  But the reaction of the American government and many Americans ranges from saddening to repulsive.  Much of that reaction seems more oriented towards reinforcing previously-held views of the world, rather than towards preventing another similar horrific event.  (Indeed, a number of proposed steps are likely to provoke increased acts of terrorism.)  Below, I comment upon US reactions in a number of different areas: hate-crime attacks, likely Bush Administration sponsored vengence, civil liberties, and airport security.  It appears that in all of these areas, special interests are taking advantage of the situation to gain support for long-held agendas.

The War begins

On the night of October 7 the US began bombing Afghanistan targets.  Though US forces claimed they were focusing on military targets, it's very clear that there were civilian deaths.  The rationale that civilian deaths can be condoned in the name of an important aim sounds remarkably similar to the rationale of Islamic terrorists.

"Military" targets included the home of Afghanistan's head of state, Mohammed Omar.  The rationale for removing the Afghanistan government were summed up by Walnut Creek Congressperson Ellen Tauscher, "We had a very serious short list of demands, and they didn't comply with any of them... They clearly made their own decision which side of the bright white line they were going to stand on."  The key US demand was handing over terrorist Osama bin Laden.  Refusal to hand over a terrorist is an interesting excuse for killing government leaders, given that the US government has repeatedly rejected demands from Cuba and other Latin American countries to hand over terrorists who have exploded bombs in those countries.  Would Americans think that Cuban forces have the right to remove the US government because of all the terrorists harbored in Florida?  As outlined below, one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter, and where we stand affects how we think about these things.

Hate-crime attacks, Racism

Since September 11, acts of arson have been directed at islamic and middle eastern mosques and stores in the US.  People looking middle eastern (or even Sikh) have been beaten and possibly killed.  It is difficult to understand these kind of attacks as having to do with the tragic events of September 11.  These attacks seem to have more to do with pent-up hatred, scape-goating, and racism.

Bush Administration vengeance

There appears to be widespread support among Americans for some type of military retaliation in the wake of the September 11 events.  While vengence in response to such horrific events may arguably be a "human" reaction, retaliation of this kind would be foolish and counter-productive.  In fact, such retaliation  is likely to increase the cycle of terrorism.

When the US considers military retaliation, who will they be retaliating against?  Certainly not the people who hijacked the planes and flew them into buildings full of people -- the hijackers are already dead.  So instead, vengence is anticipated against those who helped plan the hijackings and those who "harbored" those who helped plan them.  But killing people who help harbor people who help plan a crime is getting distant from the actual perpetrators of a crime, and runs against much of our judicial heritage.  And, as far as killing the people who helped plan the actions, one thing we think we know about them is that they are very happy to die as martyrs for their cause.  And, of course, any such military action raises the question of the intellegence community serving as judge and jury and the military acting as executioners.  (Given the abysmal history of the intelligence community lying to the American public, I for one wouldn't trust them to even correctly identify someone for a misdameanor, let alone target someone for the death penalty.  And in the remote possibility that this was an economic crime disguised as a politically-driven terrorist act, it wouldn't be beyond the intelligence community to cover up the real culprits and justify attacks against perceived enemies.)

But perhaps the greatest immediate danger of military retaliation is the likely loss of life amongst people who have absolutely nothing to do with any of this.  US bombing of Afganistan is likely to cause thousands of deaths, most of them people who probably hate the Taliban and bin Laden.  The Bush administration will label this massive loss of life "collateral damage".  If we accept this kind of killing as necessary in order to acheive our goals, how are we any different than those who brought down the World Trade Center?

In the long run, bombing Afganistan will run completely counter to American interests, and will increase the cycle of terrorism.  The killing of innocent people there will inflame hatred towards the US, and some have speculated that this will play into bin Laden's plans to spark a war between the US and most of the Islamic world (see An Afghan-American speaks).  For every "terrorist" killed, 10 will be inspired to take their place.  The Bush administration appears to have little understanding of how the rest of the world (particularly the Islamic world) will react to various US actions.  They have already made big mistakes in their choice of words, calling US actions a "Crusade" and labeling the campaign "Infinite Justice".
The Bush Administration has vowed to wage war not just on the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center, but on all terrorists everywhere.  But one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.  Certainly a significant proportion of the world's population believes that the US has been the leading sponsor of terrorism in the world.  From the CIA-sponsored overthrow of democratically elected regimes in Iran and Guatamala in the 1950s, through the carpet-bombing and napalming of southeast Asia in the 1960s, to the terror unleashed by the CIA-sponsored coup in Chile in the 1970s, to the US-sponsored death squads in El Salvador and Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, to the killings of thousands in arial bombings in Iraq in the 1990s -- many people throughout the world think of the US as the leading terrorist organization, responsible for killing and maiming thousands of people whose only crime was to be going about their daily life in a place that a US-funded bomb went off.

It is interesting to examine the background of the people the Bush Administration has targeted as keys to terrorism.  In the 1980s, Afganistan was ruled by a secular government closely allied with the Soviet Union.  In an effort to help destabilize the Soviet Union, the US began arming and training muslim fundamentalist groups, calling them "Freedom Fighters".  The Taliban, Ossama bin Laden, and most of the groups responsible for suicide bombings of international targets all had their origins in these US supported groups of "Freedom Fighters". These groups were able to first turn Afganistan into "the Soviet Union's Vietnam" (which contributed to the dismantlement of the Soviet Union), and eventually take control of most of Afganistan and institute an "Islamic Republic".  And, as recently as this past May, the Bush Administration gave the Taliban $43 million for "the war on drugs," making our government probably the chief governmental donor to the Taliban.   It may be slightly over-simplistic to say that when their targets were the Soviets, they were our "freedom fighters", but when their targets are Americans they are "terrorists", but it is still clear that one person's freedom fighter is another's terrorist.  It also should be clear that when the US gets involved in warlike actions for expedient purposes, even if they are successful in the initial goal, later results can create a nightmare for US interests.  Successful US support for Afganistan fundamentalists created a new breed of terrorist.  Successful bombing and isolation of Iraq has inflamed anti-American sentiment and inspired many to become terrorists against US interests (including ben Laden).  And after the US successfully pressures the Pakistani regime to let the them use Pakistan as a staging ground for American troops, we can expect to increase the political power of Pakistani Islamic fundamentalists who will eventually overthrow Pakistan's military regime and institute a Taliban-like regime in Pakistan.

To War, To War,
Freedonia goes to war!

Civil liberties and open public discourse

The Bush Administration has already requested the power to increase wire-tap surveillance and has asked Internet Service Providers to help monitor internet-based communications.  Federal agencies have engaged in very extensive quasi-legal monitoring for years (with projects like Carnivore and Echelon), and it is doubtful that increased federal powers will decrease terrorist activities.  But it it certain that increasing the government's powers of legally sanctioned surveillance will lead to actions against people who have nothing to do with terrorism.  Federal agencies that have been battling for years to limit individual privacy rights will use the justification of terrorism to finally enact legislation that they have been trying to pass for years.

We can also expect that groups interested in limiting civil liberties will use the terrorism threat to push for a whole range of other laws that erode current rights.  Expect laws that allow surveillance of anyone who donates resources to any organization that has even very tangential connections to terrorism (which may be interpretted to include any group fighting globalization efforts).  And it is likely that we will see new laws limiting various forms of assembly and protest.

We are already beginning to see a rise in corporate and government censorship over music from contraversial groups.  The Internet Service Provider for the music group Rage Against the Machine removed the bulletin board from their website when the Secret Service complained about "inflamatory" remarks posted by fans.  And radio station owners have circulated lists of songs that should not be played, in what the spokesperson of a music censorship watchdog group has said amounts to a "blacklist".  (see SF Chronicle article)

As the US lets its civil liberties and public discourse erode in reaction to terrorism, there will be less and less a difference between it and the states it has criticized as being "totalitarian".

Airport security

For 25 years we have lived with a fairly constant set of airport security rules, with almost no incidents of airplane hijackings.  Though hijacking an airplane and turning it into an airborne bomb is a new and unexpected terrorist tactic, few if any of the proposed new security rules would have stopped this particular type of incident.

Much of the increased airport security proposed in the wake of the September 11 events is pointless and mis-directed.  Confiscating nail clippers and nail files as potential weapons will not keep other potential weapons off of planes.  Even banning sharp pencils, paper clips, toothpicks, and sharp earing posts will have no effect whatsoever on determined terrorists.  Anyone familiar with American prisons knows that determined individuals can quickly and easily craft weapons out of normal everyday items.  Grilling passengers about where and why they are traveling may intimidate many travelers, but is not likely to shake a terrorist who has practiced his or her story hundreds of times.  And clever determined people will respond to any new security measures by using different tactics.

From the perspective of someone who flies 150,000 miles per year, the only proposed airport security measure that makes sense is reinforcing the door to the airplane cockpit.  All other proposed security measures are full of holes, and none of them would prevent a determined set of terrorists (ones who are willing to die) from comandeering an airplane.

The security measures proposed are attempts to calm the public into thinking that they are safe from terrorism, while getting them used to invasions of privacy and a constant security and policing presence.


Return to Normalcy?

There is a distinct contradiction between governmental officials urging us to "return to normal" and the reaction that most of us have to increased security measures.  Does this mean that "normal" will continue to mean that smoking in an airplane lavatory will lead to a situation where 2 fighter jets escort  the plane back to the ground where armed commandos storm the plane and terrify the passengers (as happened on an Air Canada flight out of Los Angeles on September 27)?  Or that finding a knife left by kitchen crew on a food platter will lead a plane to abort midway in flight, disembark all passengers and rescreen every one of them and their hand luggage (as happened on and American Airlines flight September 30)?  Will normal mean the military shooting down passenger jets when aberations in flight plans occur (as the Secretary of Defense has suggested)?  This "zero tollerence" becoming "normal" is a frightening idea, and smacks of what Orwell called "doublespeak".  And I, for one, find it difficult to get back to "normal" so soon after this tragedy, particularly when the bodies of over 5,000 people may never be recovered, and so many people won't even experience the closure of having a body found!  (On this last point, it might be instructive to look at coping mechanisms used to cope by the large number of people in third world countries who had relatives "disappeared" by CIA-supported dictatorships and death squads.)

It is also very telling when government officials urge us to shop in order to demonstrate that we are getting back to "normal".  From Federal officials down to the NYC mayor, politicians are urging us to shop, and September 30 was declared "Shop for America Day".  The governor of California even called shopping "Modern Day Patriotism" (September 30).  In some ways this smacks of the dysfunctional way that women are urged to deal with coping problems.  In other ways, this is symptomatic of our government's focus on consumption of commodities as the "lifeblood" of our society.  Many of us find this an extremely alienating concept, and would rather lead a life with very little commodity consumption.

Links to interesting articles

Hate-crime attacks, Racism, Intolerance

Bush Administration vengence

Civil liberties and open public discourse


Anti-War activities, Latest comments on the War

  • Taliban: U.S. 'thirsty for bloodshed',, October 11, 2001
  • Justice Yes, War No!  ( website listing various anti-war, anti-racist events around the US and elsewhere)
  • Los Angeles Coalition for World Peace (list of LA demonstrations, teach-ins, prayer services, etc.)
  • (latest news from a Libertarian Anti-War perspective)
  • Doctors Without Borders rejects link of humanitarian and military actions; Airdrops of food and medical aid described as of 'negligible value' and 'potentially dangerous', press release, October 8, 2001
  • Peter Werbe radio show
  • Hundreds of Protesters march in SF, San Francisco Chronicle, October 8, 2001
  • Across the Mideast, Arabs condemn U.S. attacks and say America should punish Israel too, Associated Press, October 8, 2001
  • initially written September 17, 2001, last revised December 17, 2001