Redefining "terror"

In the propaganda war, Iraqi civilian deaths are either "terrorist tactics" or "collateral damage" -- depending on who caused them.

Published April 2, 2003 9:13PM (EST)

"My own government," Martin Luther King Jr. said sadly, is "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." In a sermon a year before his assassination, King condemned the U.S. role in the Vietnam War, a war that had not yet reached its apex of violence, delivered mostly by U.S. non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction: fragmentation bombs, napalm firestorms, Agent Orange.

This time around, the weapons are somewhat different -- depleted uranium shells, cruise missiles and massive "bunker busters" dropped in populated areas -- but the "unintended" consequences are again disastrous for the people we are "saving."

The "terrorist" is generally considered such because he is indifferent to the fate of civilians. As the Iraqis, lacking B-52s and tens of thousands of bombs, turn to guerrilla tactics, their use of civilian shields properly horrifies us. Yet when civilians are terrorized in their homes by our high-tech explosives, their deaths and sorrow are considered beside the point, or "collateral."

When Iraqi civilians lose access to water and other necessities of life because of our bombs, we blame it on their evil ruler, as if that will prevent their getting cholera from drinking water from a polluted river.

We are told endlessly by our government's public relations machine that the "greatest care" is being taken to prevent civilian deaths, as if good intentions matter to the child whose mother is killed.

Language is everything here, as has always been the case with war propaganda, wherein the goal is inevitably the rationalization of unsavory means through the assertion of a noble end. To this end, we are on a mission to "liberate" the people of Iraq from a cruel dictator our own government supported, even armed, during decades of war crimes and human rights abuses.

After sweeping aside a U.N. disarmament program that was working, and now with the United States unable to produce evidence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, we find after-the-fact justification for our preemptive invasion in our talk of Saddam Hussein's desperate resort to guerrilla tactics.

How easy to forget that our own war for independence was largely fought by "irregulars" condemned as terrorists by the British because they would snipe from behind scattered trees rather than fight from the tight parade formations that were the civilized form of warfare in those days.

Ours is a long history of covert actions, political assassinations, special ops, anti-democratic coups and dirty tricks that are, even today, being used in Iraq. And we claim that the ends of U.S. policy are so noble that even clearly illegal means, such as a preemptive invasion, are justified.

Of course, the enemy also claims noble ends: God's will, defense of the national homeland, protecting one's family and land. The thing about pure causes -- that glorious end that justifies despicable means -- is that they tarnish so easily in the heat of battle.

The U.S. war in Vietnam began with President Kennedy dispatching 13,000 "aid" workers to help the South Vietnamese defend themselves and ended more than a decade later with a campaign of carpet bombing that cost hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian lives -- a killing rage that its leading practitioners, from Robert McNamara to Colin Powell, conceded, long after the fact, was in no way justified.

As long as the meaning of "terror" exists only in the eye of the beholder, the function of the word is to subvert the moral argument. It's just that arrogance that led George W. Bush to believe that the Iraqi people would be so grateful for our "smart" bombs they would rise up en masse from the ruins to greet us. Maybe they still will, cheering the victors in stunned relief that the terror -- Hussein's and that caused by U.S. firepower -- has ended.

If so, let it happen soon. For now, however, with the savagery of war on newspaper front pages, the bitter lesson is that "terror" has been turned into an amoral category defined for the convenience of the purveyors of violence -- whether fanatical "irregulars" or leaders of the most powerful nation on Earth.

By Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer is a syndicated columnist.

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Iraq War Terrorism