by Berry Friesen
Terrorism is a staple of aggressive states. It is as ordinary a tactic as using the sword. It’s how to make opponents shake in their boots.
Chris Hedges, the former New York Times reporter who resigned amid controversy related to his opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, highlights this reality in The American Empire: Murder Inc., an essay describing the work of reporter Allan Nairn. “The indiscriminate slaughter of real or imagined opponents is considered a prerogative of imperial power,” says Hedges. “Violence is the primary language we use to speak to the rest of the world.”
By writing about state terrorism, Hedges addresses a reality rarely discussed publicly. “The few atrocities that come to light are dismissed as isolated aberrations. The public is assured what has been uncovered will be investigated and will not take place again. The goals of the empire, we are told by a subservient media and our ruling elites, are virtuous and noble. And the vast killing machine grinds forward, feeding, as it has always done, the swollen bank accounts of defense contractors and corporations that exploit natural resources and cheap labor around the globe.”
For more than thirty years, Allan Nairn lived in and reported from the places where US-backed terrorism has been most intense, most deadly. Nairn is able to recognize the methods of terrorism, understand the important role it plays in the strategies of imperial powers, and see through the deception used to cover it up.
“The powers have always been willing to use these tactics,” Nairn says. “For centuries they were proud of it. All you have to do is look at the holy texts of the major religions—the Bible, the Quran, the Torah. They’re full of one massacre after another. People forget. The story of David and Goliath is put forward as a great story. At the end of the story David decapitates Goliath. He parades around holding up his head. For years and years the powers were proud of these tactics. They advertised it.”
Nairn emphasizes that the use of state terrorism is not unique to the US-led empire. If you want to be a player on the world stage, you must have “some kind of killer force . . . capable of fast mass killing. Without that you (have) no chance.”
“All big powers do this," he says. "But in the recent period, because the U.S. has been the dominant power, the U.S. has the biggest death toll. If you added all the operations up it would go into the several millions.”
The last US president to openly talk about using violence in a way that makes opponents afraid was Teddy Roosevelt, says Nairn. Subsequently, US presidents have hidden such activity behind veils of altruism and idealism. Pushing back those veils has been Nairn’s lifework, which is why Hedges’ essay honors him.
Donald Trump knows this history well and wants to return to the candor of old. He’s a bold, plain-spoken man like Teddy Roosevelt, not at all shy about acknowledging the important role violence plays in the conduct of an empire. He’s contemptuous of people who lack the fortitude to face this reality squarely; “incompetent” is his favorite word to describe them.
Recently, NBC host George Stephanopoulos asked Trump to explain his flippant response in an earlier interview to allegations that Russian President Putin uses murder to eliminate members of the media who criticize Putin’s policies. Trump had been dismissive: “I think our country does plenty of killing too.”
In his reply to Stephanopoulos, Trump referred to decisions former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made in Libya and the “thousands and thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people (that) have been killed” as a result of those decisions.
Trump went on: “Now, we should have never gone into Iraq. . . . We made a big mistake with Libya. We’ve destabilized all these places. We now have a migration with thousands and hundreds of thousands and even millions of people that don’t know where they’re going. I mean, it’s a terrible thing.”
A bit later, Trump summed up his position: “Well, take a look at, excuse me, take a look at the rampage all over the place. And you know what we’ve gotten for Iraq? We’ve spent $2 trillion, OK? We’ve—thousands, hundreds of thousands of people killed. We’ve lost thousands and thousands of our great young people, soldiers. So $2 trillion, deaths, wounded warriors, we have nothing and Iran is now taking over Iraq with the second largest oil reserves in the world. And I said, don’t go in. But I said, when you go out, take the oil. And I’ve been saying that for four years to you and others and we were so incompetent, we didn’t even get the oil.”
There is a clear critique in Trump’s comments; he opposed the invasion of Iraq and says it was “a big mistake” to destabilize Iraq and Libya. The core problem, as he sees it, is incompetence; the empire is getting a lousy return on its investment in violence.
Nairn explains how the veiled nature of US violence can be used politically. “If presidents are reluctant, or seem reluctant to [utilize terrorism], they get castigated. They get called a wimp." The first President Bush, President Clinton and President Obama each felt the sting of this scorn, he says.
Beyond the analysis, Hedges’ essay takes us to the places where imperial terrorism does its work: the Philippines during the ‘50s, Indonesia during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Central America during the ‘80s, the Middle East in the post-9/11 years.
Torture, mutilation, decapitations, crucifixions, village exterminations, assassinations—these are the tools of the trade. Death squads of local paramilitary units do the dirty work; their accountability to government officials is blurry. Of course, the empire denies any involvement whatsoever and denounces the murdering as violations of human rights.
“It’s systematic,” Nairn says. “It’s the exact same tactics in country after country, with local adaptations, and often the officers are all trained at the same US military bases—Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Leavenworth [and] the Inter-American Defense College, in the case of the Latin American officers.”
For a keen observer like Nairn, ISIS is not a new development, but simply the latest iteration of a very old pattern.
“The world is finally starting to understand what’s involved in political killing when they see the videos of ISIS,” Nairn explains. “In Salvador, not only would they kill but they would cut off hands, they would cut off arms, and they would display their handiwork on the road. Passersby would see it. In the same period—I spent most of those years in Guatemala, which was even worse—they were killing more than 100,000, perhaps more than 200,000 by some estimates. One day in the library of the Polytechnica, the military academy of Guatemala, I found the Spanish translation of a U.S. military counterinsurgency document. It gave instructions on how to ‘create terror;’ this was the way they put it. And they described methods used in the Philippines in the campaign against the Huks.
“In the case of the Philippines, they were talking about leaving the bodies by the rivers. So you mutilate the bodies, you cut them, you amputate, and then you display the bodies on the riversides to stir terror in the population. And of course that’s exactly what ISIS is doing today.”
In coming posts, I hope to write more about the astonishing popularity of Donald Trump. But first, it’s important to grasp the reality Hedges and Nairn describe: terrorism as an everyday tool of US foreign policy, the pretense and subterfuge surrounding that terrorism, and the frustration of Americans who perceive the pay-off to be far less than they expected it to be.