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Terrorism in its most serious form

by Jeff Kingston

WAR AND STATE TERRORISM: The U.S., Japan and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century, edited by Mark Selden and Alvin Y. So. Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, 293 pp., £22.95 (paper).

This provocative examination of state terrorism asks readers to reconsider their assumptions about who are the “bad guys” and to question why so many outrages are committed against innocent civilians with impunity.

In the post-9/11 world, it is important to understand both status quo and “subversive” views about the nature of terrorism. Here, the subversives raise many troubling questions that are usually shunted aside in public debate.

Critic Noam Chomsky has often stated that the most serious form of terrorism is state-directed terrorism. The 11 contributors to “War and State Terrorism” agree, defining state terrorism as “systematic state violence against civilians in violation of international agreements, state edicts, and precedents established by international courts designed to protect the rights of civilians.”

Here we learn that states themselves have unleashed far more violence on innocent civilians and do so with immunity. Richard Falk criticizes this double standard in which “anti-state violence is demonized, while the greater state violence is virtually immunized from criticism.”

Although the United States has targeted civilian populations in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, it has never been held accountable for these acts. Fire bombings of civilian targets, the atomic bombings of urban populations, the destruction of dikes to release deadly floods, and chemical warfare (Agent Orange) in Vietnam represent some of the acts of state terror detailed in these pages.

Mark Selden laments that state terror is conducted with impunity because “the U.S., which for decades has had no rival in the commission of war atrocities, dominates the international order and the framing of human rights laws.” He bestows no compliment in pointing out that “the U.S. has pioneered the routine targeting of civilians from the air.”

Richard Falk argues that American unilateralism under U.S. President George W. Bush is undermining the framework of global cooperation and is thus harmful to everyone’s interests. In his view, America has targeted civilians in its Asian wars and they are victims of state terror. The body count continues to pile up. He laments the tendency to turn a blind eye to what he refers to as “the criminal nature of America’s military tactics.” He concludes that “the Bush administration’s approach is likely to intensify reliance on state terrorism beneath the banner of antiterrorism, while at the same time the administration renounces the traditional American role as the champion of the rule of law and of international institutions as the means to improve the quality of life for all peoples.”

Brian Victoria, in one of the most interesting chapters, focuses on how institutionalized religions have been routinely involved in ratifying war and thus are complicit in state terrorism. He notes Buddhist organizations’ strong support for Japan’s Asian rampages (1895-1945), while Christianity “was the handmaiden of the state in providing moral and spiritual support and an ethical rationalization for U.S. wars.” While recognizing that some religious groups have firmly opposed war, Victoria states that there have been “far more instances of religious support for the most illegitimate uses of state power, including aggression, repression, mass murder of noncombatants, and even genocide.” Sadly, “religion has again and again served to demonize (and dehumanize) the enemy and to sacralize the act of killing as part of the just struggle against evil.”

Ben Kiernan discusses U.S. involvement in the genocides committed in Cambodia and East Timor. Peter Dale Scott writes that, “The role of oil in U.S. geostrategic thinking is generally acknowledged. Less recognized has been the role of drug proxies in waging and financing conflicts that would not have been financed by Congress and U.S. taxpayers. Less recognized still has been the role of U.S. interventions in preserving and expanding the global drug traffic.”

Ever since the U.S. led the invasion of Iraq, commentators have drawn parallels to Vietnam. Here, Marilyn Young reminds us that rising public anger toward leaders for getting into the Vietnam War was overshadowed by broad public support for escalation, in preference to withdrawal, in order to finish the war once and for all. Will history repeat itself?

Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1967 that the U.S. was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” It is a sad but telling commentary that Bush Jr., the self-proclaimed “war president,” has shifted world opinion in favor of King’s assessment.