terrorism & blame

Australian Financial Review (Review section), 20 October, 2006


In Australia the discussion of terrorism is dominated by a doctrinal fiat that the Federal Government and its ideological supporters insist cannot be challenged - the West is always the innocent victim of terrorist attacks, never its perpetrator.

The analysis of terrorism, to the extent that politically-motivated violence actually needs to be understood, is therefore a quest to discover why others - our enemies - commit crimes against us. This is a brief exercise because the behaviour of extremists is quickly explained by their psychic disorders, their hatred of our superior values and freedoms, their religious fanaticism or their resentment at our innate goodness.

The topic 'Western state terrorism' is a non-subject because according to government discourse in the West, no such phenomenon has ever occurred. If the subject is raised, usually by left wing academics, it is simply the bile of conspiratorial minds afflicted by "anti-Americanism" and "moral relativism" - people with an irrational hatred of their own society, the United States or the West in general.1

According to academics David Martin Jones and Carl Ungerer, a focus on "our long-repressed responsibility for the cause of Islamist rage" is therefore a "delusion" and a declaration that "the West is somehow to blame for the events and violence that has occurred." 2 Responsibility for the latest wave of terrorism rests solely with militant Islam, which has no legitimate grievances against the West that could have prompted these attacks.

Cultural hatred is the preferred official explanation for 9/11 and subsequent terrorist assaults. According to Prime Minister Howard, Islamic militants seek "to destroy our way of life." Like US citizens, Australians are targeted by extremists "because of who we are, not because of what we have done [emphasis added]. We are a Western country and what these terrorists hate is Western civilisation... ." They have a "detestation of Western values." We have nothing to apologise for.

Accordingly, no rational account of the behaviour of terrorists can be found and no dialogue with individuals willing to commit such heinous acts is possible. Attempts to identify the sources of their alleged grievances are, according to Mr Howard, "convoluted argument[s] about the alleged dispossession or prolonged disputes in other parts of the world" and constitute "obscene rationalisations that the apologists for terrorists have engaged in." 3 Palestinians take note.

Howard's account of the threat from Islamic militants is identical to those annunciated by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, but it is directly contradicted by the former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, who argues that

"Bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. None of the reasons have anything to do with our freedom, liberty, and democracy, but have everything to do with U.S. policies and actions in the Muslim world. ... his hatred and war-making have nothing to do with our society, values and ideas."4

Despite the authority of its source and several other detailed analyses which concur, Scheuer's explanation remains a dissenting one.5 The cornerstone of Western orthodoxy about the September 11 attacks and the age they prefigured is that they are in no way connected to intractable conflicts elsewhere in the world or the foreign policy of Western states, either past or present.

Seeking to explain why these attacks take place - to examine their "root causes" - effectively condones them and implies that they were in some way deserved. No analysis of the behaviour of the West is required because this constitutes self-hatred, racism (anti-Americanism) and blaming the victims for what has happened to them.6 Or so we are told.

the suppression of history

Given this orthodoxy it is unsurprising that when the non-subject of Western state terrorism rears its ugly head in print, attempts are made to immediately censor it. Such is the fate of Paul Gilby's Power and National Politics , which has the temerity to suggest that a serious examination of terrorism should include an analysis of all acts of terror, including those committed by the West.7

The examples Gilby cites in his book are unremarkable to anyone familiar with international politics - US terrorism in Nicaragua (Cuba is an equally outrageous example), Israeli state terror in Palestine, Russian crimes in Chechnya, Turkey's attacks on Kurds, Indonesia terrorism against East Timorese, Achenese and West Papuans. He might also have mentioned US attacks in Iraq since 2003 - most notably the siege of Falluja in November 2004, which is almost certainly a grave war crime.

Gilby also notes that the victims of state terrorism dwarf those of private, retail terrorism - such as the number of people killed by Al Qaeda and its affiliates - by a figure that would be difficult to overestimate, if only because the West refuses to count its crimes.

Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop, however, wants no such analysis in Victorian schools. Instead she would like to censor this discussion, demanding that Gilby's book be immediately withdrawn from classrooms. Bishop dismisses the suggestion that contemporary terrorist attacks are connected to historical grievances for which the West bears some responsibility. "It is inconceivable that information is being taught in schools which claims Australia is 'reaping the harvest' of our foreign policies and our 'Western imperialism'," she claims.

The full quote from Gilby is: "The result of this failure to understand [the grievances of Muslims], some argue, is leading to the phenomenon of 'blowback', where the USA and its allies are 'reaping the harvest' of their foreign policies and Western imperialism." 8 This statement is incontrovertibly correct - "some", in fact many, claim precisely this, as we shall see. Bishop omits the qualifier "some argue" to imply that these are Gilby's own words and that this is the only view on the issue presented in the book. This is untrue on both counts.

If the minister is saying, for example, that Australia's current occupation of Iraq has no connection to the intensification of Islamic militancy in the Middle East and elsewhere, she is ignoring both recent US intelligence assessments and the arguments of the most detailed independent studies of the conflict. The links between the war in Iraq and the spread of terrorism can be challenged, and they are by governments whenever they are raised, but they are hardy "inconceivable."9

This aversion to historical enquiry is a curious position to take for someone who only days before this outburst convened an emergency history summit in Canberra (17 August, 2006) to rescue the teaching of "facts and details" from pedagogical threats posed by postmodernism, critical theory and thematic teaching. Clearly the history of US foreign policy in the Middle East, to take the most obvious example, isn't part of either an "essential narrative" or a "body of historical knowledge" which Minister Bishop believes "should be taught to all Australian students."10

Bishop is greatly concerned by the book's suggestion that "the Howard Government is deliberately using the threat of terrorism to keep Australians fearful and thus supportive of Government policies and actions." According to Gilby this is the view of "critics of the Howard Government," another obvious truth.11 Surely the Minister is being disingenuous in feigning outrage at such a suggestion?

It is understandable that governments dislike the issue being raised, however since 9/11 several have exploited and exaggerated the threat posed by Islamist terror for domestic political advantage. Immediately after the 2001 attacks the Turks (Kurds), Israelis (Palestinians), Russians (Chechens), Colombians (rebels) and Chinese ( Uyghur) intensified their domestic conflicts on the retrospective pretext that they too were prosecuting the global war on terror. They weren't, but 9/11 gave them a window of opportunity to crack down without difficult questions being asked in the West.

To a much less violent extent, the Howard Government, which has form on 'Tampa', 'children overboard' and 'Iraq's WMD', is no exception to the rule. The exploitation of fear is a foundation stone of counter-terrorism, which at times is difficult to distinguish from terrorism itself. As US journalist H.L. Mencken famously wrote, "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."12

Ministers of Education are normally expected to launch books instead of trying to ban them - even those which raise uncomfortable questions for government. Mrs Bishop's actions are both disturbing and mistaken. If the challenges posed by terrorism are to be met and overcome, the whole subject must be taught, discussed and understood - not just a politically correct version which sanitises history and exculpates the West for anything and everything.

Why is there such a determination by governments and conservative commentators to oppose efforts which examine the West's responsibility for Islamist terror? Why has 'blaming ourselves' become such a popular method of deterring political self-analysis?

There are two explanations which operate conjointly. They both deserve explication. The first is ethical, the second is historical.

first responsibility

Psychologists can provide elegant explanations for an individual's aversion to introspection. They can also suggest reasons why a person might want to deny their past behaviour.

However, in academic circles opposition to an examination of the history of Western foreign policy is based more on a widespread misunderstanding of a scholar's primary ethical duty than it is on some psychic affliction. If a small number of Western intellectuals seem preoccupied with the failings of the West and less interested in assigning blame to others, it is because that is precisely what they should be concerned with.

The basic principle behind consequentialist ethics is that we are responsible for the predictable consequences of our own actions or inaction, a responsibility which, in democratic societies, extends to the decisions taken on our behalf by governments. They represent us and are ultimately accountable to us. We are not responsible for the actions of others, including foreign governments, which in most cases we can do little to influence or bring to account. That is a responsibility for their populations.

Given the opportunities to criticise and influence our own governments without punitive consequences, our responsibility to speak out about the crimes for which we bear responsibility is much greater than it is for someone in an authoritarian state who faces harsh penalties for similar actions. There are no excuses in liberal democracies for shielding governments, both past and present, from scrutiny. We should also apply to ourselves the same standards by which we judge others - the principles of reciprocity and universality.13

Whilst it is tempting to look elsewhere for explanations of cataclysmic events such as 9/11 - to blame others for our misfortune - the first responsibility of Western scholars is to examine and assess the West's behaviour, just as scholars in the Arab world should primarily focus on their governments' actions, African scholars on African governments, etc, etc,. This is such an obvious point it is baffling to know why it is so widely misunderstood and flatly ignored.

If Western governments have been complicit in actions which have alienated the Islamic world, it is a prime responsibility of scholars in the West to expose this behaviour and advocate a change of policy. If no such links can be found, research should head in another direction. Avoiding the subject as if it were taboo, however, is both unethical and professionally negligent. The problem cannot be solved until all of its causes are properly ventilated and understood.

This leads to the key question which Western governments reflexively answer in the negative before they seriously consider it: does the Western world share responsibility for the rise of Islamist terror? If so, which actions have contributed to the threats we are now facing?

allergies to history: blowback

A serious examination of contemporary non-state terrorism, which Gilby's text is, must discuss the 'blowback' thesis of conservative scholar Chalmers Johnson, which suggests that attacks by Al Qaeda and affiliated groups are "the unintended and unexpected negative consequences of covert special operations that have been kept secret from the American people and, in most cases, from their elected representatives."14

'Blowback' is not a conspiracy theory. In the West a crucial missing component from government accounts of 9/11 is the extent to which attacks on secular nationalism in Central Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, which were often led by the United States and it allies, gave rise to Islamic fundamentalism. There are many examples, including Israel's invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s which spawned Hezbollah and its attacks on the PLO in the late 1980s which gave rise to Hamas.

For the United States, a classic example of 'blowback' occurred in Iran after the CIA overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and restored the Shah to power. The coup thwarted attempts to nationalise British-Iranian Oil and enabled US oil companies to help themselves to 40% of the industry. However, it also destroyed a secular, modernising government, ushered in 25 years of repression and corruption, and paved the way for Islamic fundamentalism to become the dominant form of political opposition in the country. 'Blowback' eventually took place in January 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini and the mullahs came to power in a revolution which has proved a disaster for American interests in the region ever since.15

Would Islamic fundamentalism have arisen in Iran if Washington had not overthrown a legitimate government and backed the Shah for so long? Is it possible to explain US-Iranian relations today, especially growing tension over Iran's nuclear developments, without this history? Surely this is an "essential narrative?"

Afghanistan is an even more disastrous example of 'blowback' for the West. It is now known that even before the Red Army invaded on 24 December, 1979 to prop up a failing client, the CIA had joined Pakistani intelligence and Saudi Arabian financiers in recruiting, training and arming the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists they could find to act as mercenaries and proxies. Their strategy was first to entice and then attack Soviet influence in the country - the so called 'Afghan trap' which is also called the Soviet Union's Vietnam.16

The CIA spent $US3 billion in Afghanistan during the 1990s building up anti-Soviet Islamic resistance, a figure almost matched by the royal family in Riyadh. With their commitment to militant Islam, these soldiers of fortune were seen in Washington and Islamabad as the perfect antidote to communism in Central Asia: another opportunistic and vicarious struggle in the Cold War. As in Iran a quarter of a century earlier, a significant effect of this intervention was to destroy modernising influences in the country, paving the way for religious fundamentalists to take power. In 1996 the most extreme group, the Pakistani backed Taliban, entered Kabul.

Amongst the mujaheedin fighters receiving this support was a Saudi favourite, Osama bin Laden, then regarded as an "asset" who would later become an enormous liability for Washington.17 The seeds of Bin Laden's anger with the United States were sown when Washington suddenly withdrew support for the mujaheedin after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving a devastated, impoverished and ethnically divided country in its wake. He and his fellow Islamists had been willing pawns in a game which ultimately gave no serious consideration to their interests or to those of the Afghan people. The same people earlier praised as "freedom fighters" soon became "terrorists."

Australian soldiers in Afghanistan are currently fighting a secondary battle in the country. Regime change in Kabul was only added to the agenda of the coalition forces three weeks after the war against Afghanistan began in October 2001. It was an afterthought.18

Their presence in the country and the forces confronting them can only be fully explained if the history of Western involvement in Afghanistan dating back to the 1970s is properly recognised. Far from it being "inconceivable" that "Australia is 'reaping the harvest' of our foreign policies and our 'Western imperialism'," it is, in fact, an essential prerequisite to understanding why they are there and who they are fighting. These are 'facts' and 'details' which need to be known. As Paul Gilby argues, "students of politics need to gain an historical perspective on the incidence of terrorism..."19

conclusion: reaping the harvest

Regardless of whether 'blowback' is only vicious irony, it is a thesis which deserves serious consideration in any examination of the background to the September 11 attacks. It establishes connections between past superpower behaviour and contemporary events around the world. These links are cause and effect rather than coincidental. At the centre of the argument is the belief that in foreign policy, states eventually reap what they sow.

When governments ignore the likely if unintended consequences of their actions and fail to communicate those expectations to their constituents, shocking events can ensue. 9/11 proved how foolish it had been for Washington to build alliances of convenience with Islamic fundamentalists. And yet five years after the attacks, this is still a non-subject in official discourse.

Faced with a population which has been largely ignorant of the West's role in creating extreme Islamist networks, but which wants to know more about this history, governments in Washington, London, and Canberra deny the connections, pretend that they don't exist and attack anyone who raises the subject. The most serious consequence of this approach - the refusal to examine the historical background to these events - is that further attacks are more likely.



1. On the non-subject of Western state terrorism see, for example, Alexander George (ed), Western State Terrorism (Polity, Cambridge 1991) and Noam Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World (2 nd ed, South End Press, Cambridge MA 2002). For examples of neo-conservative complaints see Imre Salusinszky & Gregory Melleuish (eds), Blaming Ourselves: September 11 and the Agony of the Left (Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney 2003).

2. David Martin Jones & Carl Ungerer, 'Delusion reigns in terror studies', The Australian , 15 September, 2006 and Justine Ferrari & Verity Edwards, 'Research blames West for terror', The Australian , 15 September, 2006. These responses were prompted by a debate which began with Merv Bendle, 'Don't mention the terror', The Australian , 6 September, 2006.

3. John Howard, Address to the National Press Club Canberra, 13 March, 2003; John Howard, Interview on Radio 4BC Brisbane, 23 May, 2003; John Howard, Address to the Sydney Institute, 1 July, 2003; John Howard, Address to the Australian American Association, 2 September, 2003; John Howard, Interview in The Bulletin , 16 September, 2003; John Howard, Interview on Radio 2UE Sydney, 11 September, 2003. On defending Western values, see John Howard, Speech at Australia House, London, 10 November, 2003.

4. Michael Scheuer ('Anonymous'), Imperial Hubris (rev ed Potomac, Washington 2005), pp.x & 159.

5. See, for example, Gilbert Achcar, The Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (Monthly Review, New York 2002), Ken Booth & Tim Dunne (eds), Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order (Palgrave, Basingstoke 2002), Noam Chomsky, September 11 (rev ed Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest 2002), Yosri Fouda & Nick Fielding, Masterminds of Terror (Penguin, London 2003), Gabriel Kolko, Another Century of War? (rev ed New Press, New York 2004), Jason Burke, Al Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam (Penguin, London 2004).

6. There is evidence the Prime Minister has recently had a change of heart about 'root causes', see Tom Allard, 'PM acknowledges the root causes of Islamic terrorism' , The Sydney Morning Herald , 12 September, 2006.

7. Paul Gilby, Power and National Politics: VCE National Politics Units 3 & 4 , (VASST, Melbourne 2005). 'Textbook links US, Israel to 'state terrorism', The Age, 10 September, 2006 - http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/textbook-links-us-israel-to-terrorism/2006/09/09/1157222384098.html

8.Paul Gilby, Power and National Politics: VCE National Politics Units 3 & 4 , (VASST, Melbourne 2005), p.147.

9.National Intelligence Estimate: Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States (Washington, April 2006 partially declassified September 2006). See Michael Gordon & Bernard Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (Atlantic, London 2006) and Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq (Allen Lane, London 2006).

10. Julie Bishop, Address to The Australian History Summit Dinner 16 August 2006: Forgetting Our Past, Failing Our Future: The Teaching of Australian History , http://www.dest.gov.au/Ministers/Media/Bishop/2006/08/b001170806.asp

11. Paul Gilby, Power and National Politics: VCE National Politics Units 3 & 4 , (VASST, Melbourne 2005), p.147.

12. H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (Vintage, New York 1982), p.29. On the deliberate escalation of threats by governments see John Mueller, 'A False Sense of Insecurity?', Regulation , Fall 2004 and John Mueller, 'Simplicity and Spook: Terrorism and the Dynamics of Threat Exaggeration', International Studies Perspectives , 6, 2005.

13. These points are based on Noam Chomsky, A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West (Verso, London 2000), pp.8-9. See also Ted Honderich, After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2002) and Ted Honderich, Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7 ... (Continuum, London 2006).

14. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs And Consequences of American Empire (rev ed Time Warner, London 2002), p.xi. See also Patricia M. Thornton & Thomas F. Thornton, 'Blowback' in John Collins & Ross Glover (eds), Collateral Language (New York Uni Press, New York 2002).

15. See Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (rev ed I.B. Tauris, London 2003), ch.2 and Stephen Kinzer, All The Shah's Men: An American Coup And The Roots of Middle East Terror (Wiley, New Jersey 2003).

16. Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs And Consequences of American Empire (rev. ed. Time Warner, London 2002), pp.xiii-xv.

17. See John K. Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (rev ed Pluto Press, London 2000; 3 rd ed 2002). For a comprehensive study of US involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 until 9/11 see Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (Penguin, New York 2004).

18. See Noam Chomsky & Gilbert Achcar, Perilous Power: The Middle East and US Foreign Policy (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, (London 2007), pp.71-5.

19. Paul Gilby, Power and National Politics: VCE National Politics Units 3 & 4 , (VASST, Melbourne 2005), p.147.