Terrorism is Terrorism

We whitewash history when we ignore the fact that states sometimes engage in terror, too.


In his rebuttal to Glenn Greenwald's critique of the "terrorism expert industry," Daniel Trombly profoundly mischaracterizes both my research and the specific points on which Greenwald's post quoted me verbatim. Trombly writes:

In his rebuttal to Glenn Greenwald’s critique of the "terrorism expert industry," Daniel Trombly profoundly mischaracterizes both my research and the specific points on which Greenwald’s post quoted me verbatim. Trombly writes:

"[Greenwald] rejects ‘terrorism’ as a useful term altogether, arguing, along with scholar Remi Brulin, that the term terrorism is primarily ‘propaganda’ for ‘justifying one’s own state violence’– especially of the American and Israeli variety — rather than a possible subject of expertise."

My research, presented in my recently completed Ph.D. dissertation, in a book chapter, and in an extensive 2010 conversation with Greenwald at Salon, addresses the definition and deployment of the concept of terrorism in American political discourse since 1945 and, more specifically, between 1972 and 1992, when this discourse was born. Much more narrowly, in Greenwald’s post I attempt to show how "terrorism experts," in this case scholars writing for the two main "terrorism studies" journals, Studies on Conflict and Terrorism and Terrorism and Political Violence, have wrestled with the definitional issue in the specific context of American policies in El Salvador in the 1980s.

Replying to a comment that noted his focus on "non-state groups," Trombly notes: "Author here: I apologize for the lack of clarity. I was explaining the origin of the term as applied to non-states, which was almost a century after it was first used to describe the French revolutionary regime. My point was that even in its origin of its later application to non-state groups (which is now the common use of the term), it was not a term of propagandistic condemnation, but self-identified tactical and ideological description. Obviously state terrorism exists." (Emphasis mine.)

As I write in Greenwald’s post, a comprehensive analysis of the two main "terrorism studies" journals shows that the (very few) scholars mentioning the issue of "death squads" or discussing U.S. policies in that country in the 1980s all (with one exception, Ariel Merari) accept that "state terrorism" exists, and that their definition of "terrorism" includes "death squads." In this they agree with Greenwald, with me, and indeed with Trombly.

But this is far from being the end of the story. Indeed, despite this, not a single article in these journals has ever applied this definition to U.S. support for El Salvador in the 1980s. In essence, the two main "terrorism studies" journals have been silent about this topic not by defining "terrorism" in a way that would exclude such actors and policies, but rather simply by never writing about it at all (while at the same time publishing countless articles where the United States is described as being "opposed to terrorism" or "fighting terrorism").

Bruce Hoffman’s book was specifically mentioned by Andrew Exum during a previous online debate as the work of someone who clearly deserves to be called a "terrorism expert without the scare quotes." Furthermore, Hoffman’s stance is of much interest since he explicitly excludes "death squads" from his definition of "terrorism," stating, on p. 27 of Inside Terrorism:

The use of so-called ‘death squads’ (often off-duty or plain-clothes security or police officers) in conjunction with blatant intimidation of political opponents, human rights and aid workers, student groups, labor organizers, journalists and others has been a prominent feature of the right-wing military dictatorships that took power in Argentina, Chile and Greece during the 1970s and even of elected governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and Peru since the mid-1980s. But these state-sanctioned or explicitly ordered acts of internal political violence directed mostly against domestic populations – that is, rule by violence and intimidation by those already in power against their own citizenry – are generally termed ‘terror’ in order to distinguish that phenomenon from ‘terrorism’, which is understood to be violence committed by non-state entities.

Besides its tautological quality, this argument is extremely problematic since it makes no sense once placed in its historical context.

First, it is silent about what should be a central fact when discussing the El Salvador conflict, namely that Ronald Reagan repeatedly presented U.S. aid to that country as being part of the "fight against terrorism."

Second, it is silent about the arguments used by the American president when (this admittedly happened quite rarely) he had to answer tough questions about the violence of Salvadoran right-wing groups, namely that he always replied that the United States was "opposed to terrorism of the right or left," as he said on March 6, 1981. Similarly, Vice President George H. W. Bush, during his visit to El Salvador on Dec. 11, 1983, famously stated: "The brave Salvadoran patriots who are now fighting to build their new democracy are under attack not only from communist guerrillas supported from abroad but also from extremist rightwing terrorists, the death squads. […] These cowardly death squad terrorists are just as repugnant to me, to President Reagan, to the U.S. Congress, and to the American people as the terrorists of the left."

Third, at the heart of Reagan’s position, and of the arguments of the representatives of the executive branch before Congress, was the claim that the Salvadoran government was a moderate regime stuck between two "extremes": the "left wing terrorists" represented by the FMLN (sponsored by "terrorist states" like Nicaragua, Cuba or the Soviet Union) and the "right wing/death squad terrorists." Aid was necessary to enable the Salvadoran regime to fight all the "terrorists." Reports from human rights organizations and religious groups, which claimed that the "death squads" were in fact intimately tied with the Salvadoran security forces, were dismissed as lies, ideologically motivated, or as something that the U.S. government had no clear intelligence about.

Fourth, opposition to U.S. aid among Democrats was motivated precisely by the involvement of the security forces in "death squad" exactions, and the congressional record is peppered with accusations that U.S. military aid was going to "terrorists" and could not be reconciled with Reagan’s claim to be "fighting terrorism" there.

Thus in October 1985, defending the Central American Counterterrorism Act of 1985, under-Secretary of State Michael Armacost explained that "We are confronting a rising terrorist threat in Central America," that "this threat is also directed openly against us," and that "an active counterterrorism program of assistance to civilian police and the military will constitute a positive forward response, a significant contribution to a forward strategy [but is] a response really to an incident which occurred last June [at Zona Rosa.]" At the time, many Democrats opposed this bill because it focused solely on "left-wing terrorism" while being silent about "right wing terrorism." Several of them explicitly stated that one of the "major sources of terrorism" (Dodd) were precisely the security forces that would be the recipients of U.S. aid, and Sen. John Kerry asked that a recent CIA report on the situation in El Salvador be declassified before any vote was taken.

Kerry’s request was rejected, but this report has now been declassified. It reveals (or rather confirms, since it is similar in this respect to literally dozens of CIA documents from the 1970s and 1980s) that the CIA knew that there were indeed clear ties between the "death squads" and the Salvadoran security forces, and that the CIA itself systematically used the term "terrorism" to refer to the "death squads" and right-wing violence in general. Entitled "El Salvador: Controlling Rightwing Terrorism, An Intelligence Assessment," the report states, "We agree that a large but unknowable percentage of the political violence in recent years has been carried out by rightwing civilian and military extremists. While we are certain of the broad sponsorship for rightwing terrorism by ARENA, rural vigilantes, and elements of the military, the precise scope and operations of terrorist groups is more difficult to assess." (ARENA was a right-wing political party led by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who from 1982 to 1984 was president of El Salvador’s Constituent Assembly. In 1993, a U.N. commission confirmed that he had given the order to assassinate Archbishop Romero in 1980.)

Hoffman’s claim that what "death squads" do is generally termed "terror" and not "terrorism" is thus profoundly a historical, in the sense that such a position was, at the time and in Washington, nowhere to be found. Naturally, any scholar is entitled to take a stance on whether his definition will include or not specific actors. One would think, however, that historical accuracy would require such a scholar to note that the Reagan administration claimed to be "fighting terrorism" in El Salvador and that it denied what dozens of CIA documents show it knew at the time (namely that the "death squads" were indeed "state sanctioned," something proven incontrovertibly in 1993 by the Truth Commission on El Salvador). Historical accuracy should also require any scholar to state that in deciding to use the term "terror" when referring to "death squads," thus excluding this topic fully from the rest of his book, he is taking a stance that no political actors in Washington at the time ever took. At the time, Republicans, Democrats, the CIA (in fact even the Salvadoran regime, when attempting to distance itself from especially gruesome acts) all agreed that the "death squads" were "terrorists."

My research shows that "terrorism experts" have been consistently silent about how U.S. officials have talked about "terrorism" when expressing themselves in adversarial contexts of enunciation such as the U.S. Congress or the United Nations, that is to say in contexts where these officials are forced to wrestle with the difficulties posed by the definition of that term. Conversely, the two main "terrorism studies" journals have provided these experts with safe contexts of enunciation, where the position that "state terrorism exists" and that "death squads are a form of terrorism" can be expressed without any consequences, without any mechanism that would force this stance to be confronted to its meaning for real-world policies of, for example, the United States in the 1980s. This is what was meant by my conclusion about the role of "terrorism experts" in Greenwald’s post.

Needless to say, nothing here is meant as a critique of the seriousness and importance of much of what Hoffman and many "terrorism experts" do write about. It is a critique of what is so often left out as not being "about terrorism" by most experts (one will note of course the creation, in 2007, of the Critical Studies on Terrorism Journal, which aims at correcting this bias) and of the arguments (or lack therefore) too often put forward to justify this stance.

Had Trombly contacted me or looked up my work, we might have had a productive discussion on these topics — and I certainly would welcome this discussion with him and any others. The question of the definition of "terrorism" is very much still with us, and what the experts in the field do and do not write about (or are invited by the media to talk or not talk about) does very much matter. One only has to remember that in 2005 (during the second "war on terrorism") Newsweek reported on the possibility that the United States was considering adopting what it called the "Salvador Option" in Iraq. How fundamentally different might the terms of the political discourse have been at the time had "terrorism experts" routinely included, since the 1980s, an analysis of U.S. policies in El Salvador during the first "war on terrorism"?

<p> Rémi Brulin is research fellow and adjunct associate professor at New York University. </p>

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