Addict (drugaddict) wrote,

TO: Distinguished Recipients

TO: Distinguished Recipients
FM: John Whitbeck
After holding hundreds of men without charges at Guantanamo Bay for
roughly five years, the United States has finally brought what must be
presumed to be its best case, charging Australian David Hicks, a former
kangaroo-skinner and convert to Islam who was seized by bounty-hunters
and sold to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, with ... "material support for
As Hicks' estimable U.S. military lawyer has pointed out, these charges
are "made up" for the occasion. At the time he was seized and sold,
"material support for terrorism" was not only not a crime in the country
where Hicks found himself or in any country where he had ever been, it
was not a crime under Unites States law. Indeed, this "crime" was only
created last year, in the infamous Military Commissions Law which also
revoked the Great Writ of /Habeas Corpus/, with the clear and specific
intention of applying it retroactively to the wretched detainees at
Guantanamo Bay against whom, five years on, no pre-existing crime could
even be alleged, let alone proven, even before a kangaroo court.
Of course, /ex post facto/ laws are expressly forbidden by the U.S.
Constitution. However, prosecutors will no doubt argue that this is
irrelevant in the "legal black hole" of Guantanamo Bay, the holding pen
carefully chosen in the expectation that none of the fundamental human
rights which Americans *purport* to hold dear -- but, as has been
demonstrated since September 11, 2001, really don't give a damn about --
would apply there.
One does not need to be a lawyer to be appalled by this travesty of
"justice". One only needs to be a decent human being.
In this context, I am transmitting below an article of mine which was
first published five years ago this month. Several paragraphs toward the
end are directly relevant to the situation in which David Hicks finds
himself. Unfortunately, the whole article remains relevant.
This article is a greatly expanded version of my December 2001 op-ed
article on the use and abuse of the word "terrorism" which was
commissioned by the quarterly journal GLOBAL DIALOGUE (Nicosia) for its
Spring 2002 issue focused on the repercussions of September 11. It has
also been published in Spanish in the March/April 2002 issue of POLITICA
EXTERIOR (Madrid), in German in the Spring 2002 issue of INTERNATIONAL
(Vienna), as well as in booklet form by the SOCIETY FOR AUSTRO-ARAB
RELATIONS, and in English in the June 2002 issue of the PUGWASH
NEWSLETTER, the semiannual magazine of the Council of the Pugwash
Conferences on Science and World Affairs (winner of the Nobel Peace
Prize in 1995). In September 2002, it was posted on the official website
of the U.S. Democratic Party ("").


By John V. Whitbeck

The greatest threat to world peace and civil society today is clearly
"terrorism" – not the behavior to which the word is applied but the word
itself. Since the word “terrorism” (like the behavior to which the word
is applied) can never be eradicated, it is imperative to expose it for
what it is – a word.

For years, people have recited (often with a wry smile) the truisms that
"One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" and that
"Terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder". However, with
the world's sole superpower declaring an open-ended, worldwide "war on
terrorism", proclaiming that this “war” has only just begun and
promising to persevere until “victory”, the notorious subjectivity of
this word is no longer a joke.

It is no accident that there is no agreed definition of "terrorism",
since the word is so subjective as to be devoid of any inherent meaning.
At the same time, however, the word is extremely dangerous, because many
people tend to believe that it does have meaning and many others use and
abuse the word by applying it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding
and discouraging rational thought and discussion and, frequently,
excusing their own illegal and immoral behavior.

There is no shortage of precise verbal formulations for the diverse acts
to which the word "terrorism" is often applied. "Mass murder",
"assassination", "arson" and "sabotage" are available (to all of which
the phrase "politically motivated" can be added if appropriate).
However, such precise formulations do not carry the overwhelming,
demonizing and thought-deadening impact of the word "terrorism", which
is, of course, precisely the charm of the word for its more cynical and
unprincipled users and abusers. If someone commits "politically
motivated mass murder", people might be curious as to the cause or
grievances which inspired such a crime, but no cause or grievance can
justify (or even explain) "terrorism", which, all right-thinking people
must agree, is the ultimate evil.

Crimes such as “murder”, “arson” and “sabotage”, as well as assorted
gradations of them, are already on the statute books, rendering specific
criminal legislation for “terrorism” as such both unnecessary and
undesirable. Creating distinct crimes and punishments for “terrorist”
offenses injects a wholly subjective element into criminal law, which,
to be fair and to be seen to be fair, should be based rigorously on
/what/ a person has done, not /why/ he did it (let alone who he is or to
whom he did it). A crime labeled “terrorism” is almost always punished
more severely than the same act to which the label “terrorism” is not
attached. Thus, killing to advance a cause in which one deeply believes
is deemed more reprehensible than killing because one dislikes the
victim or wants to steal his property. One can understand why those in
power might consider the former motivation more dangerous. The moral and
ethical balance between the two motivations is less clear.

Any dispassionate analysis of the use of the word “terrorism” also
reveals that the choice to use or not to use the word is frequently
based not on the act itself but on who is doing it to whom. Prior to
Israel’s withdrawal of its occupation forces from southern Lebanon,
French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, on a visit to the region, used a
press conference to publicly denounce as “terrorist acts” attacks by
Hezbollah fighters against Israeli occupation forces within Lebanon. Mr.
Jospin seemed genuinely surprised when, the next day, Palestinians
showered him with stones as he left a meeting with President Yasser
Arafat in Ramallah. He should not have been surprised.

Mr. Jospin would never have dreamed of characterizing as “terrorist
acts” attacks by French resistance fighters against German occupation
forces in France during the Second World War. Such fighters are France’s
greatest heroes. Yet, objectively, there is no distinction between the
two resistance struggles. The only distinction is who is resisting
whom – a distinction blindingly clear to an Arab or Muslim audience. Mr.
Jospin, a fundamentally decent man, surely did not intend to give a
demonstration of racism and bigotry at his press conference. For someone
raised in the West, where anti-Arab racism is the only socially
acceptable form of racism (indeed, where it is almost obligatory at the
highest levels of society), where Islamophobia is a deeply entrenched
historical and social phenomenon and where anti-Arab and anti-Muslim
propaganda is relentless and rarely questioned, it just came naturally.

Arabs and Muslims are acutely aware of the widespread Western (and
particularly American) tendency to view them as less than fully human –
or at least not as human beings entitled to basic human rights.
Enthusiastic Western (and particularly American) approval of the
transformation of the Arab land of Palestine into the Jewish state of
Israel (necessarily requiring the dispossession and dispersal of the
indigenous Palestinian population) and Western (and particularly
American) indifference to the sanctions–induced premature deaths of over
half a million Iraqi children under the age of five (characterized by
former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, without eliciting any
discernible outrage in the United States, as a “price worth paying”
for America’s Iraq policy) cannot otherwise be explained. No one who
believes that Arabs are human beings could approve of the former or be
indifferent to the latter. Holding both views simultaneously is
logically and intellectually impossible.

Arab and Muslim awareness of their dehumanization in Western eyes, an
obvious factor in enflaming the deep sense of humiliation and the
white-hot hatred which produced both the September 11 attacks and the
discreet but pervasive sense of satisfaction among Arabs and Muslims
that someone had finally hit back, can only be further enflamed by the
West’s almost exclusive use of the demonizing term “terrorism”,
particularly since September 11, to refer to causes deemed just by most
Arabs and Muslims. Even when the adjective “Islamic” is omitted, it
seems to be implied and understood.

Americans in particular should not fool themselves about the true Arab
and Muslim reaction to the September 11 attacks and the reason for that
reaction. On January 30, 2002, the /Arab News/, Saudi Arabia’s leading
English-language newspaper, published the following report on an
interview given to the /New York Times/ by Saudi Arabia’s Director of
Intelligence, Prince Nawaf bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud: “Prince Nawaf
acknowledged that the vast majority of Saudi young adults felt sympathy
for the cause of Osama bin Laden after September 11… A classified U.S.
report taken from a survey of educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and
41 in mid-October concluded that 95 percent of them supported bin
Laden’s cause…. He attributed the support to people’s feelings against
the U.S., largely because of its unflinching support of Israel.”

Wars are waged against countries and people, not against religions or
subjective epithets, but a “war on terrorism” whose targets are almost
exclusively Muslim can readily be perceived by those so targeted and
demonized, with potentially catastrophic results, as not simply a war
against Muslims but a “war against Islam”. A “war on terrorism” which
brands virtually all efforts by Arabs and Muslims to right deeply felt
wrongs as not just illegitimate but criminal, and which treats Arabs and
Muslims generally as inherently suspect of “terrorist” intent and as
unworthy of basic human rights, is virtually guaranteed to produce more
and worse instances of precisely what this “war” is ostensibly intended
to eradicate.

Most acts to which the word "terrorism" is applied (at least in the
West) are tactics of the weak, usually (although not always) against the
strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort. To cite
one prominent example, the Palestinians would certainly prefer to be
able to fight for their freedom from a never-ending occupation by
"respectable" means, using F-16's, Apache attack helicopters and
laser-guided missiles such as those the United States provides to
Israel. If the United States provided such weapons to Palestine as well,
the problem of suicide bombers would be solved. Until it does, or at
least until the Palestinians can see some genuine and credible hope for
a decent future, no one should be surprised or shocked that Palestinians
use the "delivery systems" available to them – their own bodies. Genuine
hope for something better than a life worse than death is the only cure
for the despair which inspires such gruesome violence.

In this regard, it is worth noting that the poor, the weak and the
oppressed rarely complain about "terrorism". The rich, the strong and
the oppressors constantly do. While most of mankind has more reason to
fear the high-technology violence of the strong than the low-technology
violence of the weak, the fundamental mind-trick employed by the abusers
of the epithet "terrorism" (no doubt, in some cases, unconsciously) is
essentially this: The low-technology violence of the weak is such an
abomination that there are no limits on the high-technology violence of
the strong which can be deployed against it.

Not surprisingly, since September 11, virtually every recognized state
confronting an insurgency or separatist movement has eagerly jumped on
the "war on terrorism" bandwagon, branding its domestic opponents (if it
had not already done so) "terrorists" and, at least implicitly, taking
the position that, since no one dares to criticize the United States for
doing whatever it deems necessary in /its /"war on terrorism", no one
should criticize whatever they now do to suppress their own
"terrorists". Even while accepting that many people labeled "terrorists"
are genuinely reprehensible, it should be recognized that many others
are idealists motivated by thoroughly legitimate grievances not
susceptible to remedy by non-violent means and that neither respect for
human rights nor the human condition is likely to be enhanced by this
apparent /carte blanche/ seized by the strong, in a sort of “unholy
alliance” of all established regimes, to crush the weak as they see fit.

Writing in the /Washington Post/ on October 15, 2001, Post Deputy Editor
Jackson Diehl cited two prominent examples of the abuse of the epithet
"terrorism": "With their handshake in the Kremlin, Sharon and Putin
exchanged a common falsehood about the wars their armies are fighting
against rebels in Chechnya and the West Bank and Gaza. In both cases,
the underlying conflict is about national self-determination: statehood
for the Palestinians, self-rule for Chechnya. The world is inclined to
believe that both causes are just.... Sharon and Putin both have tried
to convince the world that all their opponents are terrorists, which
implies that the solution need not involve political concessions but
merely a vigorous counter-terrorism campaign."

Perhaps the only intellectually honest and globally workable definition
of "terrorism" is an explicitly subjective one - "violence which I don't
support". This definition would explain the universal condemnation
of “terrorism” in a world which, apparently, is full of it. By
definition, you cannot support what you don’t support, while, as a
matter of usage, if /you/ support it, it cannot be “terrorism”. Indeed,
anyone exposed to both Western and Arab media and public discourse
cannot help noticing that Western media and public discourse routinely
characterize as "terrorism" virtually all Palestinian violence against
Israelis (even against Israeli occupation forces within Palestine),
while Arab media and public discourse routinely characterize as
"terrorism" virtually all Israeli violence against Palestinians. Only
such an explicitly subjective formulation would accommodate both
characterizations, as well as most others.

However, the word has been so devalued that even violence is no longer
an essential prerequisite for its use. In December 2001, a Saudi Arabian
lawyer told the press while announcing a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit
against ten international tobacco companies: "We will demand that
tobacco firms be included on the lists of terrorists and those financing
and sponsoring terrorism because of the large number of victims that
smoking has claimed the world over." (On the level of relative moral
culpability, this is not an absurd concept. More Americans are killed by
cigarettes in an average three-day period than were killed in the
September 11 attacks. Moreover, the tobacco industry kills for financial
gain, not, like more traditional “terrorists”, in the hope of making the
world, at least by their own subjective standards, a better place.)

If everyone recognized that the word "terrorism" is fundamentally an
epithet and a term of abuse, with no intrinsic meaning, there would be
no more reason to worry about the word now than prior to September 11.
However, with the United States relying on the word to assert,
apparently, an absolute right to attack any country it dislikes (for the
most part, countries Israel dislikes) and with President Bush repeatedly
menacing that "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists"
(which effectively means, "either you make our enemies your enemies or
you'll be our enemy – and you know what we do to our enemies"), many
people around the world must feel a genuine sense of terror (dictionary
definition: "a state of intense fear") as to where the United States is
taking the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, in America itself, the Bush Administration appears to be
feeding the U.S. Constitution and America's traditions of civil
liberties, due process, the rule of law and fundamental fairness (the
finest aspects of American life and the principal reasons why the
country used to be respected out of admiration and not simply out of
fear) into a shredder – mostly to domestic applause or acquiescence.
Centuries-old civil liberties have suffered a similar fate in the United
Kingdom, for no apparent reason other than an irresistible inclination
to follow the United States blindly in everything it does. Who would
have imagined that 19 angry men armed only with knives could accomplish
so much, provoking a response, beyond their wildest dreams, which
threatens to be vastly more damaging to their enemies even than their
own appalling acts?

The transformation of the Taliban, in American terminology and
consciousness, from a particularly backward and repressive government
(so regarded by most Muslims as well) to a regime “harboring terrorists”
and, finally, to “terrorists” of the worst sort is a dramatic example of
the threats to international law, common sense and enlightened national
self-interest inherent in the casual, even sloppy, use of the word

It should be recalled that, soon after September 11, the United States
demanded that Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden. This ultimatum came
not only with a stick (the promise of attack and overthrow in the
absence of compliance) but also, at least implicitly, with a carrot (the
promise of not being attacked in the event of compliance). Had bin Laden
been handed over, one must assume that the Taliban would still be going
about their business of governing Afghanistan rather loosely and badly.

Afghanistan asked for evidence, none was forthcoming and the United
States attacked. Prior to the attack, although the United States has
long had very inclusive lists of “terrorist organizations” and “states
supporting terrorism”, neither the Taliban nor Afghanistan had figured
on those lists. Yet, imperceptibly but rapidly, and without it even
being alleged that a single Afghan citizen had prior knowledge of the
September 11 attacks, anyone associated in any way with the Taliban –
politically, administratively, as a simple soldier and even as
Ambassador to Pakistan – became a “terrorist”, to be “smoked out”,
“run to ground” and killed if possible and “brought to justice” if,
unfortunately, he surrendered before he could be killed. The United
States stated publicly that it was not interested in taking prisoners or
in having its hastily recruited Afghan allies do so, a stance which
itself constitutes a war crime.

On December 5, 2001, the /Arab News/ published a letter to the editor
from this writer which read: “U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is
reported to be demanding ‘physical custody’ of all Taliban leaders and
as saying ‘his legal staff was studying the question of how to try the
Taliban chief, Mulla Muhammad Omar … and other senior figures’ from the
Taliban. Perhaps ‘What for?’ would be a more relevant question than
‘How?’ It is not difficult to imagine criminal charges being leveled
against Al-Qaeda leaders, although there seems to be no confidence in
the Bush administration that such charges would hold up in an open court
with normal due process protections for defendants. But what is the
‘crime’ of the Taliban leaders? Refusing to extradite a resident to a
country with which their country had no extradition treaty? Resisting
(ineffectively) an American attack against their country? Conspiracy to
murder the CIA agent caught up in the Qalai Janghi prison massacre? Is
this the sort of ‘justice’ for which the whole world is supposed to
rally unquestioningly behind the United States?”

Well into 2002, the question “How?” was still being asked, though
principally about simple soldiers, since few Taliban leaders had been
captured. Are they to be tried by a secret American military tribunal?
By a conventional American court martial? By an American civilian court?
By a court in Afghanistan or the Taliban soldier’s country of origin?
The question “What for?” was still not being asked. Presumably, were it
to be asked, the answer would be obvious: “Terrorism”. Since these
miserable soldiers are now deemed “terrorists”, it is apparently
irrelevant that the United States attacked Afghanistan, not the other
way around, and that they never even had a chance to fight back, simply
being subjected to massive aerial bombardments until they either were
killed or surrendered. As “terrorists”, they must surely be guilty of
/some/ heinous crime and surely have no claim to any rights whatsoever.

In this context, there is something almost psychedelic about the case of
John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old “American Taliban” whose conversion
to Islam and search for some greater meaning in life than that offered
by the self-centered consumerism of the “American dream” led him to the
wrong place at the wrong time, to being bombed by American military
forces, barely surviving the Qalai Janghi prison massacre after
surrendering, being returned to the United States in chains and being
indicted (potentially subject to life imprisonment although not, despite
considerable public support for it, to the death penalty) for (believe
it or not) “conspiracy to kill Americans”. (“Conspiracy” is, of course,
the charge traditionally leveled in the United States against people
who didn’t actually /do/ anything but whom prosecutors are determined,
for whatever reason, to convict.)

On January 23, 2002, the /International Herald Tribune/ published a
letter to the editor from this writer which read: “The United States
contends that the Taliban fighters it is holding in open-air cages at
its Cuban naval enclave are not ‘prisoners of war’ entitled to the
rights and protections of the Geneva Conventions, but merely 'unlawful
combatants' entitled to no rights at all in a place specifically
selected because no law applies there. If the United States is justified
in this contention, it follows logically that the world’s only
superpower has attacked a country which was one of the poorest on earth
and whose regime possessed no military forces, making the U.S. ‘victory’
in Afghanistan more worthy of ethical embarrassment than patriotic pride.”

Seemingly intoxicated by the concept of waging a worldwide war
against “terrorists” and culturally programmed to view Arabs and Muslims
as less than fully human, the United States, by its treatment of those
captured in Afghanistan, had managed to restoke the fires of resentment
and hatred in Arab and Muslim countries to levels even higher than prior
to September 11, to sacrifice the moral high ground in countries neither
natural allies nor natural enemies and to cause public opinion even in
countries as fervently pro-American as the United Kingdom to publicly
question what sort of country the United States has become. As Robert
Fisk wrote in /The Independent/ (London) in late January 2002:
“Congratulations, America. You have made Osama bin Laden a happy man….
We are turning ourselves into the kind of deceitful, ruthless people
whom bin Laden imagines us to be. We are now the very model of the
enemies bin Laden wants to fight. He must be a happy man.” Such
assistance as other countries may continue to offer to the United States
in its “war on terrorism” will increasingly be offered out of fear or
cynical self-interest rather than out of any genuine conviction.

If the world is to avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule
is "might makes right", every "retaliation" provokes a
"counter-retaliation" and a genuine "war of civilizations" is ignited,
the world – and particularly the United States – must recognize that
"terrorism" is simply a word, a subjective epithet, not an objective
reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend all the rules of
international law, domestic civil liberties and fundamental fairness
which have, until now, made at least some parts of our planet decent
places to live.

The world – and particularly the United States – must also recognize
that, in a world filled with injustice, violent outbursts by those
hoping desperately for a better life or simply seeking to strike a blow
against injustice or their tormentors before they die can never be
eradicated. At best, the frequency and gravity of such outbursts can be
diminished by seeking to alleviate (rather than to aggravate) the
injustices and humiliations that give rise to them, by more consistent
and universal application of the fundamental religious principle to “do
unto others as you would have others do unto you” and of the fundamental
principle of the founding fathers of American democracy that all men are
created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, by treating /all/
people (even one’s enemies) as human beings entitled to basic human
rights and by striving to offer hope and human dignity to the miserable
millions who have neither. A single-minded focus on increased
military, “security” and “counter-terrorism” programs and spending will
almost certainly prove counter-productive to its declared objective,
diminishing both security and the quality of life not only for the poor,
the weak and the oppressed but also for the rich, the strong and the

The trend since September 11 has been to aggravate, rather than to
alleviate, the very problems which fueled the sense of humiliation and
hatred behind that day’s attacks. However, it is not inevitable that
this trend must continue – unless, of course, men and women of good
will, compassion and ethical values, who share a well-founded fear as to
where the world is heading and can see clearly that there must be, and
is, a better way, permit themselves to be terrorized into silence.

John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer.
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