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Terrorism brouhaha, then and now

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For a talk at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I was searching the internet to see what I could find about Shimpei Fukue, one of the Japanese generals who were sentenced to death for war crimes after World War II. Lt. Gen. Fukue had left a couple of remarkable “farewell-to-the-world” haiku before facing a firing squad on April 27, 1946.

Among the several items I readily found on him was a Straits Times article, “Jap General Executed in Singapore,” that began with “A red patch of sand on Changi beach early yesterday morning marked the spot where a Japanese General met his death as a war criminal.” But just below it was a one-paragraph dispatch with the headline, “Dutch-Indonesian Clash.”

“Batavia, Apr. 27 — Referring to the reported clash of Dutch and Indonesians outside Batavia, an official Dutch report today stated that Allied troops attacked a concentration of terrorists near Tjiteureup, south of Batavia, yesterday killing 19 and taking 150 prisoners. — Reuters”

“Terrorists”? My father, an officer of the Special Higher Police, was stationed in Java during the war, so he, like many of his fellow officers, was detained on suspicions of war crimes when the Dutch came back on the heels of Japan’s defeat in August 1945.

He was released by the following summer. However, the Dutch revanchism was not just to “deal with all of the ‘war criminals’ who had collaborated with the Japanese, but to hang ‘traitors’ like the nationalists Sukarno and Hatta” — an idea that struck Laurens van der Post as “incomprehensible and frightening” as he wrote in “The Admiral’s Baby” (1996). He knew that meant a new war for the Netherlands to regain its glory as a colonial power.

Readers of this paper may know Van der Post, as he’s the author of the 1963 book “The Seed and the Sower,” which was turned into the film “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” in 1983. A South African officer under the British Army, Van der Post had become a Japanese POW in Java. Upon Japan’s surrender, he was thrust into the role of liaison between the Dutch, British and Japanese forces in the power transfer, becoming Adm. Louis Mountbatten’s aide: hence “The Admiral’s Baby.”

As he explained in a “secret” report he wrote at the end of 1946 for the Foreign Office, which is included in the book, even while in a Japanese POW camp with little contact with the outside world, Van der Post had learned of “a tremendous legacy of nationalism” the Japanese would leave. After all, Japan’s ostensible aim of invading the region was to liberate it from Western colonialism — just as, you might say, the United States invaded Iraq in the name of democratization.

During the ensuing war, the Dutch and their allies killed 6,000 Indonesians in the one month from October to November 1945 alone, as Van der Post noted in his report. But they would persist in revanchism for four more years, killing up to 200,000 Indonesians. For the Dutch, the natives were “these yellow apes.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised by “an official Dutch report” labeling the anticolonial Indonesians as “terrorists,” but I was. That’s because I didn’t know that by the mid-1940s the word “terrorist” had apparently shed its meaning deriving from one etymological train tracing its origins to czarist Russia in the 19th century.

In Japan, for example, the poet Takuboku Ishikawa used it in that sense when he wrote “A Spoonful of Cocoa” with the famous lines: “I realize a terrorist’s / sad, sad heart.” He wrote this evidently thinking of the Korean An Jung-guen, who had assassinated the Japanese statesman Hirobumi Ito in Harbin in 1909. An regarded Ito as the avatar of Japan about to annex Korea, as it did several months after his execution.

So the current application of the word “terrorist” may have to an extent reverted to its “classical” sense. But what brouhaha the U.S. media makes, so disproportionate to the havoc the country makes, foreign and domestic!

Take the “2017 Westminster Attack” on March 22 or the “2017 Stockholm Attack” on April 7. In both incidents, four people were killed. For both, the U.S. media has given maximum coverage for days on end, even while giving short shrift to other killings and destruction. On March 23, for example, a U.S.-led airstrike killed more than 200 civilians in Mosul, Iraq, but how much attention did the media give it?

You might say “terrorist attacks” are different from attacks made in battles. Then you may compare the deaths caused in so-called terrorist attacks with the deaths caused by other, let’s say, regular attacks in the United States.

Last October, CNN, heeding U.S. President Barack Obama’s urging, published an article tallying the numbers of “Americans killed through terrorist attacks” versus those killed in gun violence, finding that “for every one American killed by an act of terror in the United States or abroad in 2014, more than 1,049 died because of guns.”

CNN also found that, from 2001 to 2014, a cumulative total of 440,095 people were killed by firearms in the U.S., whereas the number of U.S. citizens killed in terrorist incidents was 3,412 — 369 overseas and 3,043 on U.S. soil. The latter figure includes 2,990 people who died in the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Taking a different tack, New America looked at “deadly attacks by ideology” from 2002 to early 2017 to assess “Terrorism in America after 9/11” and came to the sum of 95 by jihadis (including 49 killed in an Orlando nightclub last June), 51 by right-wingers, and five by left-wingers. The think tank’s conclusion: “The threat is not existential.”

When it comes to “mass murders,” which the FBI defines as “murdering four or more persons during an event,” there have already been five such killings so far this year (as of April 20), but they have hardly made any news.

Hiroaki Sato is a poet, essayist and translator based in New York. In 1982 he received the PEN Translation Prize.