Political Terrorism
Jude Wanniski
December 17, 1999


With Y2K just around the corner, the government has warned that political terrorists may have designed acts of destruction in various parts of the world which will be made to look as if they were caused by the Y2K computer bug. This does not make sense to me. Yes, there already are computer hackers who have designed four known programs containing viruses that are keyed to destroy files at the stroke of midnight. These are simply evil people who enjoy destruction for its own sake. They have nothing to do with politics. Political terrorism also is different from plain old criminal terrorism, which promises relief from terror in exchange for money -- kidnaping, for example. Political terrorism is a criminal political act, designed to strike a political blow that the perpetrator does not believe can be made in legitimate venues.

Any political acts of destruction that occur at Y2K will not be made to appear as if they were acts of God or computer. The perpetrator almost always will want it to be known that he or she struck for a political purpose. It would not be surprising, though, for there to be acts of political terrorism at the calendar rollover, maybe several at once in different parts of the world. The significance of the date may have inspired work to begin on some complicated scheme even a year or two ago. They would not then be seen as random acts, but as acts of revenge directed at some political power. I've been of the view that our government -- Democratic administration and Republican Congress -- has put us all in jeopardy with a foreign policy that generates the kind of frustration abroad, especially in Islamic countries, which results in the kind of political terrorism that was directed at the World Trade Center. It is appropriate to devote today's lesson to this topic, following Pat Buchanan's speech Thursday to the Center for Political and Strategic Studies. In it, he called for a lifting of all economic embargoes which the United States now places on 61 different countries of the world -- including the embargoes on Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, the Sudan and North Korea. It is my belief that this kind of "Moral Foreign Policy" is the only kind that extinguishes the outrage that is at the heart of political terror.

Edward Peck, who was our envoy to Baghdad in the Carter administration, was the deputy director of the Reagan administration's task force on terrorism, which spent seven months coming up with 51 ideas on how to combat political terrorism. At the time, Vice President George Bush, who chaired the task force -- which included Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz -- advised the staff that it need not worry about the causes of terrorism, but to concentrate on the defenses against it. It was, says Peck, the general assumption that political terrorism was the province of the Arab/Islamic world in that period and had at its base the Palestinian problem.

Peck recalls a discussion about how to tell the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, which suggested that a terrorist is someone who is financed by them and freedom fighters are financed by us. He remembers George Shultz rejecting the inference, in the sense that there is no "moral equivalence" between them and us. If we are better than they are, our terrorists cannot be considered criminal, no matter how illegal the activities, no matter how many innocents are killed. Up to a point -- a point of diminishing returns -- Shultz is correct. In a family unit, parents are expected to dictate proper behavior to children who misbehave. In the family of nations, rank also has these privileges. But just as parents discover their children will rebel against dictates that are based simply on rank or raw power, even superpowers find the costs of getting their way by the sheer exercise of power can get out of hand.

The seven-month exercise was essentially a waste of time, says Peck, because the unwritten conclusion was that there is no defense against political terrorism, especially in a democracy. In a police state, where you can search anything, anytime, anyplace, you can put up a defense. But if a terrorist is not concerned with escape, there is no way to prevent him from committing the act he has in mind. With all its security, Israel remains vulnerable at all times to acts of political terror, as does the United States, yet there is almost no discussion about the causes of political terror. He recalls one anecdote of an academic expert on terrorism from Harvard, who was invited to present his findings to the task force. The professor made the point that in the Islamic faith, the Shi'ite fundamentalists teach that if one dies as a defender of the faith, he is instantly transported to Paradise. Such believers make perfect terrorists because they are willing to give up their lives. And how, asked Peck, does one defend against such believers? The professor answered that the Shi'ite fundamentalists must be persuaded to stop this manner of teaching. Oh, said Peck, then this is a long-term project you are recommending. Yes, said the professor, it has to be long term.

The chief cause of political terror is a breakdown in communication between those in authority and those seeking justice or at least the adjudication of a grievance. Here I return to the idea that the family unit is the basic building block of the nation state and we can learn something of terrorism by thinking of the injustices that occur within a family that lead to irrational behavior by one of its members. If the head of the family casts out a child and offers no avenue back to the family's good graces, or if one child is systematically treated unfairly or perceives that he is being treated unfairly, we can expect an explosion of some kind. On the other hand, if a child knows he or she can approach an angry father through the good offices of mother, or vice versa, the open avenue dispels the frustration that in time would otherwise gather into hatred, rage and miscreant behavior. Healthy families have myriad ways to resolve perceived acts of injustice before they grow into outrage. Remember the terms injustice and outrage in combination, as they belong together for an understanding of political terrorism.

Aristotle discusses the concepts at great length in his Politics, differentiating between voluntary and involuntary acts of injustice. That is, an authority figure unwittingly may produce an injustice that nevertheless produces an explosive act of outrage. These are easier to fix with political mechanisms that nab them early. (I like the aphorism, "Well begun is half done.") Of all the nations on earth, the United States has had the least difficulty with acts of political terror because the mechanisms designed by the founding fathers provide myriad avenues to disperse a sense of injustice. Voting for elected representatives is not the most important of these, because corrupt politicians can become the source of injustice. At the time of the terrorist occupation of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, my son Matthew surprised me by writing an essay on the importance of constitutional democracy. He argued that Peru simply does not have the private institutions that can assist in the adjudication of grievances before they come to a boil. These have evolved here under the protection of our Constitution.

The "Bill of Rights," especially the "First Amendment" -- which guarantees the right of expression -- enables groups who feel dispossessed the right to assemble and demonstrate and make their grievances know in the media. As corrupt as the political system may get, and it is now as bad as it has ever been -- because of the temptations offered by the intricate tax system and the bonanza of spending programs -- there is still a federal court system reaching to the Supreme Court that is as solid and as free of corruption as we can reasonably expect.

The bombing of the World Trade Center and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City are the two most serious acts of political terror we have experienced. Because we had so mesmerized ourselves into thinking only Muslims would terrorize us, and because of our support for Israel, it immediately was assumed that the Oklahoma City bombing was an Iranian affair. Instead, it grew out of the unintended consequences of the ill-considered use of force at Waco against the Branch Davidians. Oklahoma City was political terrorism on a different scale, intended by Timothy McVeigh to vent his outrage against a federal establishment that he perceived as being corrupt. On a different scale, the bombings of abortion clinics belong in the category of criminal political acts. The few deaths in bombing incidents attributed to the militant Jewish Defense League also should be mentioned. You may recall I posted a "memo on the margin" to Chairman Jesse Helms of the Senate Foreign Relations recently, which quoted at length from the terrorist convicted of blowing up the World Trade Center. Please read it carefully as part of this lesson, even if you read it when it appeared. It makes Ed Peck's point that if a terrorist does not care if he escapes or not, he can blow up just about anything.

The purpose of my writing to Helms was to urge him to hold hearings on the Islamic world. If our government simply would announce a willingness to hear the petitions of Muslims, to hear out their grievances, the incidence of terrorism and the threat of terrorism would drop sharply here and around the world. That is, the people of Israel would be less likely to lose their lives and limbs if the Arab/Islamic world could have its list of grievances simply heard by Uncle Sam. Helms did send me a note saying I'd given him a lot to mull over. There has been no sign of hearings and I don't expect any. This is because I believe the Jewish Political Establishment in the United States -- not necessarily in Israel -- is determined to close off serious political discourse with the Islamic world in the mistaken belief that in so doing it is protecting Israel. It is the worst possible thing to do, practically inviting terrorism, but it grows out of a deeply-held conviction by those Americans -- Jew and Gentile -- who decide such matters that the Arab world is THE ENEMY of Israel and that maximum force and minimum diplomacy is the correct posture.

History will credit Richard Nixon's presidency for opening the door to Communist China. By opening communication, the paranoia that existed on both sides of the Bamboo Curtain gradually dissolved. China was permitted to re-enter the family of nations without having to submit to humiliation and national disgrace. Capitalism now flourishes in China and representative democracy has begun to taken root at the local and regional levels of government. Still, Mao Tse-tung's portrait hangs in the most prominent place in Tiananmen Square. Nixon, though, always had his "enemies' list," which was at bottom the source of his own disgrace. The President of the United States can not list his "enemies" without offering a reasonable venue by which they can be removed from the list, or they will have no choice but to make his life even more miserable.

Our foreign policy toward Iraq and Iran today is part of that Nixonian legacy, just as our policy toward China reflects the thinking of those Nixonians who remain influential in our foreign policy establishment. Here is Nixon writing in September 1991, several months after the conclusion of the Gulf War. This is on page 215 of his book, Seize the Moment: America's Challenge in a One Superpower World:

In the Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition scored a knockdown but not a knockout. We won round one, but Saddam Hussein's strategy is to go the distance. Because he knows he cannot fight us toe-to-toe, Saddam will try to win on points by staying in power, recovering gradually, retaining his weapons of mass destruction, and waiting for the United States to lose patience and throw in the towel. While we should allow Iraq to purchase some humanitarian supplies, we must keep the sanctions in place as long as he remains in power. We should insist that Iraq comply with the U.N. resolutions calling for the destruction of its chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons facilities. If Saddam Hussein persists in playing cat and mouse with U.N. officials, we should bomb sites suspected of containing weapons and material related to producing weapons of mass destruction.

We should view with skepticism Iran's expressed interest in closer ties to the West. While a moderate Iran would help stabilize the region, the extreme fundamentalists clearly want Teheran to reclaim the throne as the dominant regional power. Those who blame the United States for the poor relations with Iran miss the mark. Iran has continued to finance international terrorist networks that target the United States, including those that bombed the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks in Lebanon in October 1983 and that downed Pan Am flight 103 over Scotland in December 1988. Its extreme fundamentalist regime, which has used its embassies to coordinate anti-Western terrorist groups, has been linked to more than four hundred terrorist incidents worldwide. Moreover, Iran played a spoiler role in the Persian Gulf War, pitting each side against the other until Iraq's fate had been clearly sealed.

Nixon is gone, but his determination to combat Islamic terrorism with maximum force and minimum diplomacy lives on. When Nixon left the White House in 1974, we tend to forget that he left his team behind, the intellectuals who fashioned foreign policy with him. When he pronounced Islamic fundamentalism the greatest threat to world peace, it did not matter that he was a private citizen living in Saddle River, N.J. The idea was the expression of his team, which today lives on, unable to alter course. The idea of combating aggression with Force is of course basic to civilization. The idea of combating Islamic terrorism with Force is a stupid one, for as Edward Peck will tell you, unless you stop teaching defenders of the faith they will go to heaven if they blow up you and themselves for Allah, the enemies' list will have millions of names on it. Actually, most Islamic religious leaders around the world -- including the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan here in the U.S. -- consistently have spoken out against the terrorism. In December 1977, the World Islamic Conference in Teheran issued a statement signed by all participants decrying terrorist acts. The news media here almost never report on the statements, and when they do, they sometimes suggest the religious leaders are just kidding. The NYTimes report on the Teheran conference suggested the religious leaders only meant intramural terrorism, among Muslims, not against Israel.

Having been a student, an admirer, and a defender of Nixon in his darkest hours, I would like to believe that if he were alive today he would have altered the course he etched out in 1991. In many ways, the policies we now are following so assiduously were set by this man who is no longer around to check on them. The officials of our government to this day are not permitted to have any contact with the government of Iraq. Our UN Ambassador Richard Holbrook is not permitted to speak to his Iraqi counterpart. His predecessor, Bill Richardson, was not permitted to speak to his counterpart, Nizar Hamdoon, even though the two had been friends in an earlier part of the U.S.-Iraq relationship, when we were supporting Saddam Hussein in his war against the Iranian fundamentalists.

Why would I shift gears when my old comrades in arms plough ahead on the same tired line? I think it has to do with my belief that when I peel away history to the root cause of the problems we have with Iran and Iraq, I find it in Nixon's 1971 decision to go off the gold standard. I covered this February 18 and 19 in my thumbnail history "Where Did Saddam Hussein Come From?" Briefly, it was the social and cultural upheaval in Iran, caused by the great inflation that followed Nixon's decision, that ignited Islamic fundamentalism and put a sword in the hand of the Ayatollah Khomeini. In other words, it was Nixon and his economic advisors who were responsible for these economic and financial convulsions, and the security threat they posed when we met their grievances with force and their terrorist acts with isolation and threats of greater force. Once again, we find the Law of Unintended Consequences writ large. As the cartoon character Pogo would say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

It's hard to imagine our country being the object of political terrorism, but it also is often hard for some parents to understand why their children misbehave to the point of being little terrors. One remedy is the use of force, as punishment, but there have to be others as well. In a situation involving war and survival, a war between nations, political terrorism can be and usually is employed as a weapon of war. The atomic bombing of Japan was an act of terror, directed at civilian populations, not the military, justified because it was us versus them. It is now peacetime, although there are little wars going on all over the world, especially in Africa and Russia. For the United States to be acting like a bully, dropping bombs and embargoes as if we were still at war, invites political terror. In some ways, this is the objective of our warrior class, those who have been trained for war, especially intellectuals who have lived all their lives training to fight the Cold War but seeing it come to a satisfactory finish. If they are going to have another war to occupy themselves with, they will have to goad peaceful nations into taking warlike actions, even welcoming acts of political terror because it will then "prove" their skills still aref needed.