Salon Radio: Remi Brulin Transcript

The most meaningless and manipulated political word

Published March 14, 2010 12:13PM (EDT)

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Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Rémi Brulin, who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses at NYU, and is currently working on and close to finishing his Ph.D. dissertation, entitled The US Discourse on Terrorism Since 1945, and how The New York Times has Covered the Issue of Terrorism, and he is to receive his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris.  This topic is very close to a lot of our most prominent political disputes and much of what I've been writing about, so I'm really excited to be able to talk to you about this and I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me today.

Remi Brulin: Yes, thanks for having me, Glenn.

GG: Let me just begin by asking you to summarize what the focal point of your research has been; you've been researching this topic for several years now. What has been the scope of your research, what kinds of things have you been looking at, and what is the general scope of what you're writing about?

RB: As you said, I've been researching this for a while now, about eight years, and what I'm looking at specifically is the American political discourse on terrorism, basically since '45 but what I show is that the discourse, the term 'terrorism' started being used in the discourse only in '81, beginning with the Reagan years. What I also look at is how the media, particularly in the case of my dissertation The New York Times, has used the term over the years.

And the big question, of course, is the question of the definition of terrorism, meaning who do we call terrorists, and who do we not call terrorists, and whether there is questions of double standards and everything. And this is relevant because at the international level, there is no agreed-upon definition of terrorism, and at the US level, meaning for example the Executive Branch, there also is no one single definition of terrorism, and yet the term is used over and over again in our political discourse, and as you've shown in many of your articles, it has consequences, very serious consequences.

GG: If you go back to - and the title of your dissertation indicates that your beginning year that you're looking at is 1945 - over the next several decades after World War II, you can find generalized instances of presidents declaring whoever happened to be the enemy of the day to be terrorists, in kind of like a name-calling, demonizing way.

But when did the term really start to take on international prominence, meaning when did we start struggling to come up with definitions of the term as though there was some kind of hardened scientific meaning that we could ascribe to it?

RB: There was one first attempt at getting to an international definition of terrorism when the League of Nations produced a convention in order to fight terrorism in '37, but it failed. Then after that, basically the term is not used in the US political discourse at all, until the '70s, more or less. The president, we know that today because it is very easy to research, because we have access to the papers of the president and they're digitized and we can use search engines; we could not do that ten years ago. So we know for a fact that presidents until Carter never really used the term terrorism, and Carter used it mostly in '79 and 1980, and it was in reference to the hostage crisis in Iran.

Even then, even when Carter used it, and he used it in, I don't know, 120 speeches or so, even he was not using the term terrorism as a discourse, meaning that the term was used once or twice to refer specifically to that one act of terrorism, namely the hostage crisis. But he did not turn this into a discourse. The term terrorism is not suddenly supposed to explain everything, to tell us who the enemy was, and did not draw a line between those who were the terrorists and those who were not. It was just about that one incident. So there was no discourse. The real discourse appears with Reagan administration in 1981.

In my research, I tried to determine where it's coming from, and I found that there are possibly two origins, two explanations for where the discourse comes from. One is from Latin America, and the other is from Israel.

GG: With regard to Latin America, as you just said, that began in 1981 with the Reagan administration, the various wars that it waged there in terms of who was a terrorist, who wasn't, were we funding the terrorists, like with the Contras, who were trying to overthrow the government, or were we fighting against terrorists, and those terms got confused. But when you say that one potential origin was Israel, talk about how Israel began using the term and what relevance that has to the international activity in attempts to come up with an international definition.

RB: Israel started using the term to explain or to characterize its struggle, its conflicts with Palestinians and with the Arab states in general, since early on, in the '60s and '70s. In fact, if you study the debates at the UN, which is something I looked at, you can see that there's a very different way of talking about terrorism on the Israeli side, and on the American side, throughout the '70s, all the way up until the '80s. For Israel, right away, in the '70s, in the early '70s, there is a war against terrorism. The Arab states are terrorist states, and they are at war with Israel. There are parallels with the threat of terrorism and the threat posed by the Nazis. Those are terms that are used over and over and over again by the Israeli representatives at the UN General Assembly and at the UN Security Council in the '70s. And Israel was the only state to say that about terrorism.

But that changed in the '80s, and one thing I looked at is, there were a couple of conferences, one in '79 and one in '84, that were both organized by an organization, an institute, called the Jonathan Institute. It's called the Jonathan Institute after the name of Benjamin Netanyahu's brother, Jonathan Netanyahu, and he was killed in the raid in Entebbe in '76. Basically, this conference was organized in '79, and I can read to you what the official objective was.

GG: So in other words, basically the first conference that was designed to define or come up with a consensus definition of terrorism, was already cast in Middle East terms because the conference was named after Benjamin Netanyahu's brother, who had tried to rescue the hostages from Uganda?

RB: Absolutely.

GG: And... go ahead.

RB: The objective, the official objective is - I have the transcripts of the conference - it says that the objective is "to focus public attention on the real nature of international terrorism, on the threat that it poses to all democratic societies, and on the measures necessary for defeating the forces of terror." And everything in the book is about the fact that terrorism is not something that, is not a threat that Israel only is facing, but it's a threat to all democracies, the whole Western world.

Then there's this idea that terrorism and totalitarianism, meaning the Soviet Union and its allies, are linked, that the terrorists are also the totalitarians. And then there is the focus on state support or state sponsoring of international terrorism, which are issues that were absolutely not in the American discourse on terrorism until then, but at the conference, you look at the list of the people invited, and you have George Bush, the father of W. Bush, who was the ambassador, the American ambassador at the UN in the '70s.

You have Jack Kemp, Republican from New York. You have George Will, you have Norman Podhoretz, you have Henry Jackson, famous senator, you have Richard Pipes, a right-wing ideologue. You have Menachem Begin who is there, you have Shimon Peres, you have Netanyahu, of course, Benjamin Netanyahu who is now prime minister, and so you have a clear link between the American discourse, suddenly, and the Israeli discourse, and from that moment on, in America, people are going to be starting to talk about terrorism in ways similar to how Israel had been talking about it for 10 or 15 years.

GG: In light of that objective, to sort of internationalize the idea of terrorism from what it had been, which was a way of talking about Israel's various enemies, into this concept that the whole Western democratic world ought to recognize as a universal problem, was there an actual definition agreed upon between the members of that conference?

RB: Well, yes. Actually, it's interesting, because they did come up with a definition which is more or less similar to one that you mentioned earlier in one of your pieces, meaning the one from the State Department, and it's a very basic definition - I'm trying to find it here, yeah, it's right here - "terrorism is the deliberate systematic murder, maiming and menacing of innocents to inspire fear in order to gain political ends." So there is nothing that is controversial about that definition; it is very broad. It is nonspecific.

But what is interesting is when you look at the presentations, the speeches during the conference, you have one of the issues of the definition of terrorism is whether there is a difference between terrorism and struggles for national determination, or whether there is a difference between terrorism and freedom fighters. And you have an article here, a speech given on the issue of freedom fighters versus terrorists by Menachem Begin, and of course Menachem Begin was a member of the Irgun, which was according to the British in the '40s, a terrorist organization.

GG: What did it do? What kind of things did it do that warranted that label in the eyes of the British?

RB: They are famous - and that aspect is interesting in itself - they are famous mostly because of the bombing of the King David Hotel in the '40s, and basically it was where the British forces were headquartered. They put a huge bomb in the basement, and there happened to be many many civilians in the building, the building collapsed, and this was front page news around the world. The New York Times called that an act of terrorism at the time. The British called that an act of terrorism. And in fact Begin mentions that incident in his speech, and he says that in fact the Irgun had called in advance, it wasn't really an act of terrorism, but he said that in any case this is a unique case and then says that the method of the Irgun was "to never hurt a civilian or a man, woman or child whether Jew, Arab or British."

So he is very clear as what would be terrorism. The problem is that of course historically, it is absolutely not true that the Irgun "never killed a single civilian, Arab, Jew or British." There were literally dozens of cases of bombs being put in marketplaces, in theaters, in Palestinian quarters throughout the '30s and then in the '40s, and those clearly were acts of terrorism. The way they deal with this during this conference with the definition is basically by not mentioning those acts that would actually qualify under their own definition of terrorism as acts of terrorism. So that way Begin can say that the Irgun were freedom fighters and not terrorists, by simply ignoring the historical record.

GG: As you indicated a little bit earlier, the use of the word terrorism within American political discourse really began to intensify in the 1980s, and not necessarily in connection with a lot of the attacks from Middle Easterners, which we think of as terrorism today, but really with regard to what we were doing in Central America.

Talk about that development, and also related to it, the question of whether or not these definitions of terrorism allow for states, for actual governments, to engage in terrorism, or whether it has to be nongovernment actors.

RB: Yes, that's the other big question when it comes to the definition of terrorism. As I mentioned earlier, the first question is whether there is a difference between a struggle for national liberation and terrorism, and the other question is whether states can be engaging in terrorism, whether the concept of state terrorism exists or not.

In '81, we had indeed the birth of a discourse on terrorism in the US political discourse, and it focuses nearly completely on Latin America and Central America. Reagan when he talks about terrorism in the '80s, very very rarely mentions the Middle East, even rarely mentions Khaddafi, which is surprising to most people probably. He mentions all the time the situation in El Salvador and in Nicaragua, and when he is talking about Nicaragua and El Salvador, he is basically saying that military aid to El Salvador is justified because they're fighting the terrorists, meaning the FMLN in El Salvador, and aid to the Contras is also justified because they're fighting against the Sandinistas, and the Sandinistas are a state sponsoring terrorism.

This is where the question of whether a state can be involved in terrorism comes into play. It is obvious in the American political discourse, in the presidential discourse in the '80s, that a state can be involved indirectly, meaning as a sponsor of terrorism. During the '80s you have very harsh debates in Congress between Republicans and Democrats, because they completely disagree on who are the terrorists. The Democrats throughout the '80s say over and over again that the Contras are terrorists, and they state specifically that they are terrorist because of the methods that they use, and they quote many, many studies by Amnesty International, by Human Rights Watch and others, and they said the same thing about El Salvador. In El Salvador the Democrats say that because of the methods that they use, the death squads in El Salvador are guilty of terrorism, and because of the links between the death squads and the government of El Salvador, the government is also guilty of state terrorism, and therefore the US should not be sending military aid to the government.

GG: In fact, if that argument were true, and it's hard to dispute it if you settle on a clear definition of terrorism, but if it's true that the Contras in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador were themselves terrorist organization, then it would necessarily follow, wouldn't it, that the United States, which was funding and supporting those organizations, was itself a state sponsor of terrorism?

RB: Absolutely, and in fact the Democrats, many, many Democrats in the '80s say that, in the House and in the Senate, they say specifically that if we give aid and support to the Contras or military aid to El Salvador, this will go to the commission of terrorist acts, we know it, and therefore the US will be involved in state sponsoring of terrorism. For that one reason you have an amendment that was proposed by Senator Dodd, Chris Dodd, in '84, and he proposed it twice, in April and then in October of '84, and basically the Senate had just voted in favor of military aid to the Contras, he had voted against, and after having been defeated, he said, well, maybe what we could do at least is add a little amendment saying that no funds that we just voted for, no funds should go to the commission of acts of terrorism. Very clear, simple,...

GG: It was basically an amendment providing that the United States shall be banned from funding terrorist groups?

RB: Funding terrorism and terrorist acts, literally and explicitly that.

GG: What was the vote on that amendment?

RB: The vote was, in both cases, in April and October, every single Democrat senator voted in favor of this, and every single Republican voted against it. So they had a very slight majority, and so the amendment was never passed. What's interesting here, aside from the debates, which were fantastic, which were fascinating, because they had to deal with the definition of terrorism, and Dodd did actually what you did in one of your pieces, where he used one specific definition of terrorism, and then you applied it to specific cases.

That's what Dodd did: he said, I'm using here the definition of the State Department, and according to the State Department's definition, what the Contras do is undoubtedly terrorism. So we should put an end to that. And the Republicans, the very few who actually agreed to take part in the debate - Specter did, Stevens did - their arguments were just striking, and basically they were that the Contras were freedom fighters, they were not terrorists, and that the US could not vote for an amendment like this because doing so would be admitting that the US had been involved in state sponsoring of terrorism, and that's just not something that the US does.

GG: Right. Inherently.

RB: We do not do terrorism, therefore we shouldn't admit that we did, because that would send the wrong signal. That's the level of the arguments that were used by the Republicans, and Dodd points when Stevens used the argument of the freedom fighters, that this is the arguments that the PLO used in the '70s, saying that we're not terrorists, we're freedom fighters. We cannot possibly be terrorists because our ends are good. Of course that's an argument that we refuse when the PLO uses it. But that's the only argument that the Republicans put forward against the amendment.

Of course, another aspect of it that's interesting is that this amendment doesn't exist if you look at the media. It was just never reported in the US media.

GG: You mean the debate over the Dodd amendment to ban the funding of terrorism and the vote that took place?

RB: Yes, exactly. Meaning that you have an amendment on one of major issues of US foreign policy in the '80s, most big-name senators talk about it on the floor, Kennedy talked about it, Dodd talked for, like, half an hour. You have a very clear-cut vote on a central issue of the time, which is international terrorism, and yet in The New York Times the only mention of it is in a column by Anthony Lewis a few months later - because obviously Anthony Lewis was on the left on the political spectrum in the opinion pages of The New York Times, personally knew senators, so he was aware that the debates had happened and that the amendment had been voted on. But it was never reported, not once in the news pages of The New York Times.

GG: Okay. Let me ask you this. The United States for a long time, for several decades now, since this concept arose of state sponsor of terrorism, has maintained a list, as a result of congressional legislation, of the so-called state sponsors of terrorism. Talk a little bit about the history of that list - how and why countries like Iraq or Iran have made their way on the list, and then off the list, and how that has worked.

RB: The list comes from an amendment in '79; it's called the Fenwick amendment, this is Millicent Fenwick, a representative from New Jersey, and what's interesting is that there were previous attempts to come up with a list of states that sponsored terrorism. These attempts were basically led by senators Ribicoff and Javits, and what they wanted to do in the late '70s was to have Congress come up with a list of terrorist states, or state sponsors of terrorism, and then the executive would have to impose sanctions on it.

And as soon as they started to try to figure out how to legislate on this, they of course bumped into the difficult question of the definition of terrorism, and they realized that they couldn't agree on a definition. Basically one among many issues, one problem was for example that in the Middle East, if suddenly you realize that Saudi Arabia is giving aid and support to the PLO, then you have to put Saudi Arabia on the list, and that means sanctions, and of course you don't want to put Saudi Arabia on the list, you only want to put Syria on list, or Iran, enemies basically, but not Saudi Arabia. So basically they couldn't agree on a definition and therefore it didn't go anywhere, and the only reason that the list came into being was because Mrs. Fenwick proposed an amendment and put it as a rider on a larger bill, and it was not discussed - there was no discussion, so it passed, and that's how we got the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

From the very beginning on the list you had South Yemen, you had Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Cuba. Cuba is fascinating, because it's there from the beginning, from '82, and it's still on the list. Basically there are only two states that have been taken off the list. You have South Yemen, because South Yemen doesn't exist, now it's Yemen, so they're off the list, and you had Iraq, and Iraq of course is interesting because Iraq was on the list from the very beginning, and then in '82 it's taken off the list, and for reasons that have nothing to do with Iraqi sponsoring of terrorism going down, but because the US wanted to be able to sell weapons or dual use technology to Iraq because it was taking the side of Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War and so in order to sell those weapons or dual-use technologies, the US had to take Iraq out of the list. So it was out of the list until 1990, when Iraq invades Kuwait, and then suddenly it's back on the list.

GG: Right.

RB: Obviously that has nothing to do with terrorism. I mean, it's a crime, it's a crime of aggression, but it's not terrorism. But it's an enemy again, so it's back on the list. And Cuba is there - of course today there's absolutely no clear reason why Cuba should be on the list, and that's a whole different subject.

GG: Right. Just a couple last questions. With regard to Iran: at the time that the Reagan administration was selling highly sophisticated weapons to the Iranian regime, was Iran on the list of terrorist states?

RB: Iran was, yeah, yeah, yeah, Iran was on the list, absolutely. That was one big part of the problem with the Iran-Contra scandal, right? One side was that the United States was selling weapons against policy, first, the US had always said and Reagan had always said that the United States did not negotiate with terrorists or terrorist states, and of course that's what was happening. The weapons were sent because the US was negotiating to free the hostages, and also the problem was that it was illegal under US law; the US was not allowed to sell weapons to a state that was on the list of the terrorist states.

GG: Right. And then the money that was generated from the sale of those weapons was then used to fund the Contras, a group in Nicaragua that met every definition on terrorism as well, so there was really dealing with terrorism on both sides of the equation, basically.

RB: Absolutely.

GG: Okay. Yeah - go ahead.

RB: One aspect of that that's interesting is that clearly if you have a fair definition of terrorism you apply it to all sides. When you look at Iran-Contra, terrorism is on the Iran side and on the Contra side. It is not only on the Iran side. What's interesting is when you look at how the media covered the Iran-Contra Affair, and especially in the case of my research, The New York Times, what you find is that suddenly, as the Iran-Contra scandal bursts onto the scene, The New York Times, indeed the editors of The New York Times, they forget that they called the Contras terrorists, and so for them the Iran-Contra scandal is problematic because of terrorism issues only because of the weapons sold to Iran, but not anymore because of the weapons and the training and the money we sent to the Contras.

Of course it is very significant that the editors of The New York Times took that stance, because we were talking impeachment, possible impeachment, of Reagan, and the charge that the US was not only selling weapons to free hostages, but also using the funds to fund terrorists in Nicaragua would have been immensely stronger than just focusing on the hostages.

GG: Right. Now, let me ask you this, and this will be the last question, but, you referred earlier to the fact that there is no agreed-upon definition on terrorism, even to this day, in terms of any international efforts or even on the part of the US government. What are the difficulties that have prevented those definitions from being agreed upon, and what's been the history of that effort to try and get a definition agreed upon at the UN?

RB: As I said, the two basic difficulties are, the specific questions are, if there is a difference between terrorism and fighting for national liberation, on one hand, and then whether the concept of state terrorism is a valid one, whether it exists or not. At the UN, basically, the debates started in '72, following the terrorist incident at the Munich Olympic Games, you've had a very clear-cut distinction into two groups, essentially, to over-simplify : you had the unaligned states and the Soviet Union on the one side, and then you had the Western world on the other side. And basically for the unaligned states and the Soviet Union, the terrorists are Israel, South Africa, Portugal (because of its remaining colonies) and the US in Vietnam.

Those are the terrorists, and in fact the resolutions that were passed in the '70s - in '72, '73, '76, '79 - they have one paragraph, the fourth one, which is the only paragraph that actually condemns terrorism, and what it says is that it condemns "terrorist acts by racist, alien, and colonial regimes," meaning South Africa, Portugal, and Israel, but it doesn't condemn the "terrorism" quote-unquote of "groups of national liberation movements". And on the other side, on the Western side, there is a rejection of the concept of state terrorism and there is rejection of the idea that the goodness of the cause, for example national liberation, justifies any method use justifies terrorism. So that's the position on the Western side.

But it's not a clear position and very importantly, and that's something I found at the UN that really surprised me, the US position is completely unique at the UN, and it's absolutely not the same one as, for example, Israel. Starting in 1981 the US at the UN said that, if a state is involved directly or indirectly in an act, it's not terrorism because it's already covered by international law. And when the US says that, very clearly the US says that state terrorism doesn't exist but more importantly that state sponsored terrorism doesn't exist. And that position, again, the US is the only state to have ever taken that position.

And that position contradicts everything else that the US says on terrorism outside of the UN. It contradicts the existence of a list of states sponsors or terrorism, obviously, because according to the US at the UN, states cannot be involved in terrorism. It contradicts everything that Reagan has ever said about state sponsored terrorism. It contradicts the idea that the Soviet Union is behind terrorism or that Cuba is behind terrorism, because a state cannot be behind terrorism. If it's a state and it's involved in an act of terrorism, it's not terrorism. That's the US position, and the US has been the only country to make that case, and legally it's very sound reasoning, right? The idea is that if a state is involved, whether directly or indirectly, we already have international law instruments to deal with it. It's already a crime. So we don't need the concept of terrorism.

In that sense, then, that reasoning is immensely clearer and I think legally much more sound that the position of the rest of the Western world. The rest of the Western world at the UN is silent, always, on the issue of state terrorism. State terrorism is something that the rest of the world always talks about; for them it's the real kind of terrorism. And yet the Western world is silent on the issue; it doesn't say if it exists or not, but by voting it clearly shows that it rejects the concept itself.

The problem with that is that, at the same time that they reject the concept of state terrorism, they use the concept of state sponsored terrorism. So basically they separate state terrorism and state sponsored terrorism, and there is no argument for that. There is no legal argument for that. If you decide that state terrorism doesn't exist, and you claim it doesn't exist because it's already covered by international law, then the same argument leads you to the obvious conclusion that state sponsored terrorism doesn't exist either. So you have to either reject both, state terrorism and state sponsored terrorism, or accept both. But you cannot separate the two.

And that's why the West has always been completely silent on the issue at the UN, and again the US, and I think to its merit, has been the only state to actually make this very clear legal case about this provision, but what's fascinating is that no-one knows that, meaning that that position that the US has declared at the UN, it doesn't exist. It has never been reported ever, and by ever I do mean ever, in any US media, by any wire service. It's not mentioned in a single article on terrorism that I've read, a single book on terrorism that I've read. That position, again, legally I think it makes sense, but it contradicts everything else that the US has ever said on terrorism. But that position doesn't exist. It's one of those cases where... and the US repeated it: that position was repeated by the US in '81, in '83, in '85... the last time the US makes that case is in 2000, December 2000, a year before 9-11.

GG: I think the most amazing and striking part of all of this is it's incredible that there's a word that plays such a central role in so many of our policy disputes, our government actions and our sense of moral right and wrong, and that's been that way for several decades and yet there's literally no definition of that term. And not only is there no formal adopted definition, there's no de facto definition either because it's been applied so self-servingly and inconsistently, and it's just amazing to really see the history.

Well, this has been really fascinating and I know... Go ahead.

RB: Just a little thing. Since '87 there has been a proposal at the UN to convene an international conference to define terrorism and differentiate terrorism from struggles of national liberation. That's the wording of it, and it's been proposed by Syria. Every other year it's voted on; every other year the rest of the world, meaning the unaligned states, votes, the majority of member states votes in favor of it, and every other year, the Western world, every single Western state votes against it. So there is a clear decision on the Western side, that we don't want a definition, and it's interesting because as I said, even within the Western world, there is no agreement, right?

Where the US takes that one position and is the only one to take that position, one that's very different from the Israeli position for example. The Western world doesn't want to have a conference, and the excuse is that we're not going to get to an agreement. That is the only argument that they use is that it's not going to lead to an agreement, so we shouldn't have a conference. But the rest of the world they want to have a conference, and that tells you a lot about how power is wielded in the world, and of course for those countries that are not powerful, the UN is the one place where they have a voice, where they feel like they have some power, so of course they do want the definition. We don't, because it serves our interests to not have the definition.

GG: Absolutely, it definitely serves our interests in lots of ways to have that term be undefined and malleable, to put that mildly.

Again, thanks so much for taking the time; I find this a topic very fascinating, and I know there's a lot more to your research than what we just talked about, that we really have been just skimming the surface, and I'm sure I will talk to you again and have you back, and we can delve into it a little further.

RB: Alright.

GG: Thanks so much.

RB: Thank you so much for having me, Glenn.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

By Glenn Greenwald

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