On the Preeminence of  State Terrorism, Past and Present

By Edward S. Herman
February 2006

By any  generally applicable standard--i.e., excluding the fraudulent but widely used “terrorism is what somebody else does” criterion--state terrorism is vastly more destructive than anti-state and individual and small group terrorism. This is the basis for distinguishing between the two as “wholesale” versus “retail” terrorism. (On definitional problems and criteria, see Noam Chomsky, Pirates & Emperors Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World [South End: 2002]; Edward Herman, “The World Confronts U.S. Wars of Terrorism,”  Z Magazine, July/August, 2002.)
Wholesale trade implies large scale business operations that deal with many smaller retail operators; the retailers have little capital and do business with a small set of local customers.
State terrorists apply their violence over a wide terrain using the large resources of the state, and they can employ a broader and more cruel range of  techniques of intimidation, including devastating weapons like napalm, phosphorus, depleted uranium munitions,  and cluster, thermobaric and 500-pound bombs, advanced delivery systems like helicopter gun-ships and cruise missiles, and torture.

Retail terrorists operate more narrowly in space, with fewer personnel, limited resources, and working with relatively unsophisticated weaponry and delivery systems. As the Argentinian National Commission on Disappeared Persons stated in the aftermath of  that country’s era of  military rule and state terrorism (1976-1983), the terrorism of the military regime was “infinitely worse than that which they were combatting.”  The 9/11 attack was an extreme outlier in the record of retail terror, whereas massacres of similar or larger size by state terrorists have been numerous.

Retail terrorists also use torture only occasionally and on a small scale. But for state terrorists torture is big business, and is an important part of their overall effort at intimidation. In Argentina under military rule, there were an estimated 60 separate detention centers at which torture was administered to the victims of this terrorist state (AI, Testimony on secret detention centers in Argentina, 1980). As is well known, the United States today practices torture at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq, and the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and sends out many others to be tortured in torture centers in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the process of “extraordinary rendition.”

Israel has used torture on an administrative basis for decades, compellingly exposed in a major Sunday Times [London] study almost 30 years ago (“Israel and Torture: An Insight Inquiry,” June 19, 1977), but already long-standing and institutionalized. Noam Chomsky and I showed back in 1979 that 26 of the 35 countries that were then using torture on  an administrative basis were U.S. client states; this was rampant state terrorism,  carried out under U.S. sponsorship (see Chomsky and Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism [South End Press: 1979], Frontispiece, “The Sun and Its Planets” ). Under U.S. auspices torture is now once again flourishing and has even become a growth industry (see Neil Mackay, “The New Boom Industry: Torture,” Sunday Herald [Scotland], Dec. 4, 2005).

As noted, state terrorists also kill on a much larger scale than anti-state and private terrorists.
In an admittedly crude computation I did some years ago, the ratio of  major killings of state terrorists to the CIA’s estimate of all terrorist killings from 1968-1980 was found to be over 500 to 1 (“Killings by State and Nonstate Terrorists: Numbers and Orders of Magnitude,” Table 1 in Herman and O’Sullivan, The “Terrorism” Industry [Pantheon: 1990]). The ratio of  Israeli state killings of Palestinians to Palestinian killings of Israelis was long over 20 to 1, and only declined to 4 or 3 to 1 in the second intifada (Ibid., Table 2).  New York Times reporter James Bennet claimed a decline from 25-1 in the first intifada to 3-1 in the second (“Mideast Turmoil: Mideast Balance Sheet,” NYT, March 12, 2002).
In Iraq , Saddam Hussein undoubtedly killed scores of thousands of his own citizens and ran a notorious torture operation, but the United States beats Saddam out even in his home state, with credit for a million or more Iraqi civilian dead via sanctions that killed more civilians than “all the weapons of mass destruction in human history” (Karl and John Mueller, “Sanctions of Mass Destruction,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999), and a “shock and awe” and followup capital intensive pacification program that all independent analysts estimate to have killed many more civilians than the insurgency. And U.S. operatives simply stepped into Saddam’s shoes as torture managers in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

State terrorism is also preeminent, not only because of  its vastly larger scale and use of  more ferocious tactics and weapons, but also because it is very commonly either causal, inducing a derivative retail terrorism, or the mechanism that protects intolerable conditions that might themselves be considered a form of terrorism. It was very evident in Latin America from the 1950s onward that the National Security States that were emerging in the U.S. backyard, and with U.S. sponsorship, were supporting and enforcing terrible economic conditions for the masses, to the advantage of  transnationals and local businesses (a main theme of my The Real Terror Network [South End Press: 1982]; see chapter 3). These states were regularly denounced by representatives of the indigenous Catholic church in documents with evocative titles like “The Cry of the People” and  “The Marginalization of the People” that focused on what they described as the forced “atomization” and fragmentation of the people, referred to now as “flexible” labor markets. (A classic account is Penny Lernoux’s book entitled Cry of the People [Penguin: 1980];  Chomsky and Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism covers the same ground.)

After the U.S.-organized overthrow of the democratic government of Guatemala in 1954, unions and peasant organizations were destroyed  by a repressive and militarized state serving the local and expatriate elite, and as historian Piero Gleiljeses has written, “Only violence could maintain the status quo.” In one telling church document it was asserted that the National Security State was “creating a revolution that did not previously exist.” In other words, the military regimes in power were helping the business community brutalize the populace to the point of  provoking  a violent response. This would then be quelled by terrorisms “infinitely worse” than those the inhuman and arguably terroristic economic policies provoked—but only the derivative and lesser violence would be called “terrorism.”

This process of  creating terrorists and then killing them--and decimating the civilian population “sea” in which the terrorist “fish” swim--was clearly evident in Vietnam and is also conspicuous in Iraq today. In Vietnam, the United States, struggling to avoid popularly supported rule by Ho Chi Minh and his leftwing Viet Minh party, imported a dictator from this country and supported him in a vicious war of pacification that literally forced the South Vietnamese Viet Minh into armed resistance (a major theme in Gareth Porter’s The Perils of Dominance [University of California Press: 2005]). When that pacification war failed the United States stepped in with a direct aggression that not only destroyed the country in order to “save” it, but by its murderous tactics and weaponry, which included the deliberate destruction of  peasant rice crops by chemical warfare (Operation Ranch Hand), and killing several million people, kept creating new cadres ready to die fighting the savage aggressor.

 A similar dynamic has been evident in Iraq, where the initial joy at the removal of Saddam Hussein was rapidly transformed by the U.S. failure to provide security or the means of  life to the citizenry and its self-serving economic and political actions, but also and increasingly in response to the brutal tactics and racist behavior of the U.S. invaders-occupiers. Abu Ghraib was a dramatic manifestation of  the attitude and behavior of  the invaders, but more important was the daily invasion of homes and bullying and humiliation of  Iraqis there, in the streets, and at checkpoints, and the lavish use of firepower that killed or injured tens of thousands of  civilians standing in the way.  As congressman John Murtha recently stated, “we put 150,000 people outside their homes in Fallujah. If you remember in Jordan, the bomber said the reason she became a bomber was because two of her relatives were killed in Falluja. We lost the hearts and minds of the people.” (Murtha, Open Letter on Redeployment of Troops in Iraq, December 14, 2005.)

These murderous effects are increasing as the Bush administration steps up its air war to try once again to quell the insurgency while keeping U.S. casualties down as it struggles for “victory” before the next election. Seymour Hersh notes that “A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the President’s public statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower,” with the likelihood that “the overall level of violence and the number of Iraqi fatalities would increase unless there are stringent controls over who bombs what.” The number of airstrikes by U.S. forces rose almost fivefold in 2005, and even more are likely to follow in 2006 (“US Bombing of Iraq Intensifies”:http://www.truthout.org/docs_2005/122505Z.shtml)..

State terrorism goes back a long way, but in its most dramatic earlier manifestations it had a clear family resemblance to state terrorism today. Assyria, back in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., was a militarized state, with advanced military technology for the time, that pioneered in “shock and awe” tactics. The Assyrians “brought to perfection a systematic terrorization of their adversaries….The accounts of their campaigns enumerate  with wearisome monotony the  punishments inflicted after each victory; to flay men alive, to impale them by hundreds, to cut off arms, legs, noses, and ears, and then to  keep their mutilated rivals shut up in cages—such was the invariable custom of their generals. Small wonder that the very names of the Assyrians inspired panic terror, and that the mere approach of their armies often forced strong kingdoms and cities to surrender and beg for mercy” (M. Rostovtzeff, The Ancient World, vol. 1,  121).

Have we progressed in humanistic behavior in warfare since the Assyrians?
Certainly the United States and Israel intend that their military prowess and threats will terrify people who stand in their way and induce quiescence. And both recognize that it is sometimes necessary to use that military force to teach troublesome peoples a lesson on the futility of resistance. “Shock and awe” in the initial attack on Iraq was openly designed to induce surrender, and so was the 1999 bombing war against Yugoslavia. Of course our generals do not “flay men alive,” impale them, cut off arms, legs and noses, and keep mutilated rivals shut up in cages (although they keep damaged torture victims in cages) .
On the other hand, modern technology makes it possible to do the equivalent of flaying men alive and cutting off their limbs and noses, at a distance, via napalm, phosphorus, fragmentation bombs, fuel-air and large bombs, cannon, and rapid fire guns. One only has to explore the Internet or watch Al Jazeera to see numerous hospital cases or street or grave scenes of  people burned beyond recognition or with body damage that would equal or exceed anything the Assyrians could produce. And what can be seen via these non-mainstream media information sources is clearly a small fraction of the burned, crushed and dismembered.

One humanistic advance, however, is that in the more democratic world of today, flaying or napalming enemy soldiers and civilians would horrify and arouse into an opposition force  large numbers in the countries dispensing this violence. So at this point in the evolution of human society such military behavior would not be acceptable--if it could be seen and understood. But now we arrive at the role of  the media and the “humanitarian intervention” intellectuals in keeping the flayed, impaled, and limbless equivalents out of sight and putting the deadly enterprises that damage and kill them in a positive light.

It works as follows: First, the leaders of the targeted people are demonized and the populations themselves are often condemned as “willing executioners. Their leaders may be brought to trial  and their crimes, real and alleged, will be heavily publicized with gruesome details, real and alleged. The media and establishment intellectuals play a crucial role here in focusing on the demons with great indignation, accepting official claims of  sincere efforts to settle matters peaceably, the ominous threat that the demon target will commit local genocide or might attack the United States itself with his weapons of mass destruction, and the benevolent and humanitarian intent of  the government once again about to unleash massive state terror. This regular pattern of  apologetics, that includes the acceptance and dissemination of  serious disinformation,  makes it easier for the home public to accept harsh treatment of the population about to be attacked.

Second, the government-media-intellectuals-axis uses (and misuses) words that put the attack and attacker in a favorable light and denigrate their targets. The word “terrorism” is used only to designate retail terrorist actions and retail responses to state violence, at least where the state terrorism is carried out by the United States or one of its allies or clients. Argentina’s “infinitely worse” state terrorism was never designated terrorism by U.S. officials or in the New York Times in the years 1976-1983; only the retail terrorism was so named, and the paper even had flattering articles on the “moderates” among the generals who were ruling and managing the infinitely worse terrorism. Argentina was a U.S. client state. Similarly, Israel never commits terror--like the United States itself, it only “retaliates” and engages in “counter-terror.” This is pure ideological bias, but is an important part of  the management of  public opinion.

Third, and supporting the use of “terrorism” only in reference to retail terror, is the distinction between deliberate killing and “collateral damage.” Retail terrorists, like suicide bombers, deliberately kill civilians, whereas with bombing raids on “suspected” Vietcong, Taliban, Hamas, or Iraqi insurgent hideouts, any civilian killings are allegedly inadvertent rather than deliberate, hence in  a different and higher moral class. This is a fallacy in terms of  practice, logic, morality, and the law itself. As regards practice, many bombing raids have been clearly intended to  kill—the civilian deaths at Hiroshima, Dresden, and Tokyo in World War II were clearly deliberate, and in many many other cases civilian deaths are either more than acceptable (as in areas supporting the enemy) or of  no concern except as a public relations problem.
As General Gregory Newbold  said about the killings at the wedding ceremony at Kakrak in Afghanistan in July 2002, “This is an area of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and Al Qaeda,” and many similar statements, as well as the evidence of many hundreds of attacks on civilian sites, indicate something other than concern for civilian casualties in all three recent U.S. wars of aggression (see my “’Tragic Errors’ As An Integral Component of Policy,” Z Magazine, September, 2002).
It is good, even essential, PR, to claim an interest in avoiding civilian casualties, but only apologists for state terror will take these assurances at face value.

In terms of logic and morality, if bombing raids on civilian sites, based frequently on unverified rumor and dubious sources, regularly kill large numbers of civilians, the fact that the individual victims were not targeted doesn’t make the deaths inadvertent and undeliberate—they occurred with a high probability value, which makes them intended in logic and also in the law. As Michael Mandel points out in his excellent discussion of  the collateral damage apologetic for killings, the law--even in the state of Texas--has long found that killing a third party while intending to kill somebody else does not exempt the killer from being guilty of murder (How America Gets Away With Murder  [Pluto: 2004], 46-56). But in the Western media and for Western establishment intellectuals killings under the rubric collateral damage are treated differently than those of retail terrorists, giving an aura of  innocence if not virtue to the state terrorist’s slaughter of  large numbers of  “inadvertent” victims.

Fourth, the word bias runs parallel with the level of  attention and indignation. The victims of  “terrorism” are “worthy” victims and get extensive and sympathetic treatment that can arouse public sympathy and help justify the attacks on the officially-identified terrorists in programs of “counter-terror.”
In the case of Argentina, 1976-1983, there was minimal attention in the U.S. media to the plight of the many thousands tortured in those 60 detention centers or slaughtered by the state terrorists. The New York Times, for example, never reviewed or even mentioned the 1980 Amnesty International report Testimony on  secret detention centers in Argentina, nor AI’s Guatemala: A Government Program of Political Murder [1981], nor AI’s “Disappearances”: A Workbook [1981], nor did it ever review  Penny Lernoux’s Cry of the People. This was the U.S. backyard and the terror states were U.S. clients, so powerful exposes of  the horrors taking place in these states would be attending to “unworthy” victims, and the New York Times and its media colleagues largely avoid this.

The same is true of  the media’s and establishment intellectuals’ treatment of  the unworthy victims of  Israeli terrorism on the West Bank and U.S. terror in Iraq. The Israeli case is remarkable as Israel has been pretty straightforwardly stealing Palestinian land and water and ethnically cleansing these untermenschen for years in gross violation of  the Fourth Geneva Convention and numerous UN Security Council and International Court rulings, and brutalizing their victims and killing them at a rate that has fallen from a  20+-1 to a 4-1 or 3-1 ratio.
But in the U.S. media the Palestinians are terrorists and the ethnically-cleansing Israelis are the victims! This miracle of  racist and immoral bias is built into the media treatment of these issues—the Palestinian victims get slight attention and little sympathy, with regular demands that they cease attacking those who the “international community” allows to ethnically cleanse them.  The attention and sympathy go to the victims of the suicide bombers; and there is no demand that the Israelis cease their ongoing dispossession, let alone return stolen land and water to the untermenschen (on media coverage, see the studies at If Americans Knew.org; Robert Fisk in the LA Times:  “Telling It Like It Isn’t,” December 27, 2005; Edward Herman, “Israel’s Approved Ethnic Cleansing, Part 3,” Z Magazine, June, 2001; and Herman, “Normalizing Israeli Repression,” Z Magazine, June 1994).

In dealing with Iraq, the media had already established a remarkable record of  service to the state before the March 2003 invasion by swallowing disinformation on Iraq’s WMD and links to Al Qaeda. It is a crushing indictment of  the media that at the time of the U.S. attack a large fraction of  U.S. citizens believed that Saddam had WMD, had links to Al Qaeda, was involved in 9/11,  and posed a serious security threat to the United States. (Even now 48 percent still think that Saddam “was a serious threat to U.S. security” [Wall Street Journal Online, Dec. 29, 2005].) The media also simply ignored the fact that the Bush administration had violated the UN Charter and committed the “supreme crime” in its invasion, and they soon took it as fact that creating a democracy in Iraq was now the Bush aim. The causal link between U.S. violence and the growth of the insurgency was rarely suggested in the media, and they quickly made the insurgents into “terrorists” fighting a U.S. striving to bring “stability” and “democracy” to Iraq.

As always, the media played down and kept largely out of  sight the fact that most  Iraqi civilian casualties were victims of  U.S. violence; and of course the fact that all the fighting flowed from the invasion was unmentioned. The stress has been on deaths caused by the insurgents, and in parallel with the official silence on overall casualties, those numbers have been largely kept out of sight. When a major study of civilian casualties was published in The Lancet, which gave a conservative estimate of 100,000 civilians deaths attributable to the invasion-occupation (“Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey,” Les Roberts et al., posted online October 29, 2004),  the media largely ignored it, and where they did discuss it on a back page, they went to pains to criticize its methodology, although that same methodology had been used and cited earlier without criticism by U.S. and British officials. When Bush recently acknowledged publicly that 30,000 Iraq civilians had died in the fighting, the media reported the Bush figure on the front page without debating the number or methodology, and without comparing it with the now 15 month old (and thus even more understated) Lancet figure.

The destruction of Falluja was a major event in a now operative U.S. policy that has been called “urbicide”--the killing of cities. Town after insurgent-friendly town has been attacked furiously and with heavy fire-power, with minimal media attention. One critical report  notes that “the pleas of American victims [of Katrina] were eventually heard loud and clear but those of people trapped inside Tal Afar or forgotten around its peripheries [90 percent of the inhabitants fled the town] are lost in the ether…There are no convoys of aid-bearing trucks and planes, stuffed with food and blankets headed in their direction. Even to be acknowledged at all would be a step up.” (Linda Heard, “Tal Afar Under Media Carpet,” September 13, 2005).

The media treatment of Fallujah itself is a microcosm of the abysmal totality. This was a Guernica on a vast scale, in which numerous war crimes were committed, a sizable city destroyed, several thousand civilians killed,  several hundred thousand people made homeless, illegal weapons employed, hospitals destroyed and medical personnel and patients mistreated, among other matters. The embedded journalists didn’t  even uncover the story of the use of  phosphorus—that was dug up by an outsider, and when it was forced into the public domain journalists treated it not as a war crime but as a PR setback for “our side.” A classic is the press treatment of the takeover of  the Falluja General Hospital, where the troops “kicked the doors in” with “patients and hospital employees rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” It was alleged that the hospital presented a problem in that they provide “inflated casualty figures…propaganda they believe for the Iraqi insurgents.” (Richard A. Oppel, Jr., “Early Target Of Offensive Is a Hospital,” NYT, Nov. 8, 2005). A photo accompanies this article showing patients and doctors being tied up and questioned.

Nowhere in this article is it mentioned that such treatment of  a hospital and its patients and personnel violates international law (nor does it or any accompanying article mention a nearby hospital destroyed by bombs, in an even more obvious violation of international law), nor is there any editorial page questioning of this tactic or the rest of the Guernica+ treatment.
That the media can normalize the murder of Falluja and the escalating urbicides across Sunni territory shows clearly how the media’s work underpins state violence and can allow that violence to go very far in violation of both the law and widely accepted morality.

Concluding Note

Modern weapons and cooperative media institutions have worked together to facilitate state terrorism and the commission of acts of violence against distant civilians that are easily competitive with the Assyrians “flaying men alive” and cutting off limbs and noses. The incentives to do this on the part of contemporary state terrorists rests on motives not far off from those of the Assyrians: material gain, the desire to possess land  and resources held by others, and a mix of  racist and religious feelings and power hunger.

It may be true that democratic sentiment today militates against such horrible behavior, but that humanizing force is kept at bay by oligarchic institutions: governments representing elite interests lie about their true aims and create demons and threats that must be destroyed and removed; a military establishment, weapons contractors, and transnational business collective provides the primary support base for these governments and their policies and lies; and an elite-dominated media and small body of  establishment intellectuals work hard to keep their own state’s victims out of sight and convince the majority that their state’s terror is “counter-terror” reacting to a real threat, and that any nasty results of  their own state’s terror are regrettable “collateral damage.”

Thus, under contemporary conditions, despite an impressive and growing but as yet ineffective democratic resistance, state terrorism flourishes, and “shock and awe,” which was only regional in the time of  Assyrian hegemony (and even the Roman), has been globalized. The hope of the future is that the only remaining contesting superpower, democratic opinion, along with pockets of  local or regional resistance, will gain strength sufficient to halt the predations of  the militarized superpower, now out of control and so zealously striving to impose its will, its domination and privileged position, and its favored neoliberal rules on others across the globe that the response it provokes is becoming equally global.

Published in Z Magazine

Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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