The Meaning of ‘Terrorism,’ According to the United States

The government uses a shifting definition of ‘terrorism’ as a tool to stifle dissent and protect elite interests.

The United States has a nasty habit of labeling disparate groups of people across the political spectrum as terrorists. Domestically, that includes everyone from 1960s radicals such as the Weather Underground to animal rights activists and environmentalists, Atlanta’s “Stop Cop City” protesters, and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. January 6 rioters have been called terrorists by U.S. officials, and some have been given draconian prison sentences, with even nonviolent offenders being charged with felonies that can carry up to 20 years in prison. In 2020, President Trump said he wanted to label Antifa as a terrorist organization. The U.S. Navy has categorized socialists as terrorists in its training materials. The FBI has labeled anarchists and antiracists as domestic terrorists; the agency’s Counterterrorism Division has labeled Black activists as “Black Identity Extremists” who are considered “threats to national security.” Someone called me a terrorist when I was marching during the 2020 uprisings. Internationally, familiar designants include Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the African National Congress—the party of now-revered anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. Nations such as Syria, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, and Cuba have found themselves listed on America’s list of naughty “state sponsors of terrorism.” These are just a small selection of those lumped together in America’s rabid culture of anti-terrorism.

Members of these groups harbor distinct ideologies and motivations for engaging in a range of actions including bombings, hijackings, property destruction, peaceful protest, direct action, and civil disobedience. Labeling all of them simply as terrorists flattens important distinctions. It prevents us from uncovering the true motivations of those who engage in particularly egregious and calculated mass casualty events such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the 9/11 attacks. “One often hears that we must not consider these matters,” writes Noam Chomsky, “because that would be justification for terrorism, a position so foolish and destructive as scarcely to merit comment, but unfortunately common.”

Over the years, the U.S. State Department has maintained multiple terrorist lists, adding or removing designees often for political expediency. The state’s definition of terror is largely provisional, certainly hypocritical, and divorced from any consistent, universal principle of justice. The U.S. tends to respond to “terror” with “anti-terror” violence of its own, which—with rare exception—tends to exacerbate the underlying problems which motivated the act of “terror” in the first place. For the U.S., anti-terrorism is a tool that perpetuates the root causes of injustice and conveniently stifles dissent at home and abroad. 

‘Why’ in Their Own Words

The mainstream media generally does a poor job of covering terrorism, failing to explain the motivations of various actors, the contexts for their actions, and the relevant history of U.S. foreign policy. As Michael Parenti writes in The Terrorism Trap

[S]eptember 11 had a terrible shock effect on the millions of Americans who get all their news from the corporate media…. [A]lmost all of America know[s] next to nothing about how U.S. supported terrorists have taken millions of lives in scores of other countries. The media have little to say about those acts of terrorism, and so the general public knows relatively little about them. 

And as Antony Loewenstein writes in The Palestine Laboratory:

How terrorism was defined, and by whom, was rarely asked in the mainstream media in the decades after 9/11…. There is an interchangeability between terrorism experts who appear in the media to talk about the never-ending risk from insurgents big and small, deliberately conflating Hamas with Hizbollah, al-Qaeda with ISIS, and the Taliban with the Islamic Republic of Iran as if they are all the same irrational, Jew-hating force to be defeated by military means alone.

In a pre-9/11 review of the coverage in the mainstream press about Middle Eastern affairs, Daya Kishan Thussu comments on a passage from the U.K.’s Sunday Times which reads: “Should Iran, Iraq or any other country where Islamic fundamentalism hold[s] sway ever become nuclear powers, the world would move into a new age of terror.” Thussu explains that putting “both Iran and Iraq in the same fundamentalist camp despite the fact that they are sworn enemies and represent two entirely different political ideologies (Iraq is one of the most secular Arab countries) demonstrates that facts can be sacrificed for propaganda reasons.”

Instead of offering nuanced analysis about such complex issues, the media often defaults to the bellicose propaganda and braindead patriotism of U.S. officials—similar to what the late journalist Robert Fisk called the “language of power”—to fill in the gaps. The country was at war against an “axis of evil,” President George W. Bush said after 9/11. The Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas were “an act of sheer evil,” President Biden said. “We are fighting against human animals,” said Israel’s Defense Minister, referring to Gazans in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks.

With the mainstream media unquestioningly joining the state in deeming something as an act of terror and its perpetrators as evil, sub-human terrorists, this automatically negates any discussion of what the motivations for the act were. “‘[W]hy’ is a question the media are trained to shy away from,” Gore Vidal wrote in an analysis of the case of Timothy McVeigh, considered the nation’s most deadly domestic terrorist. It’s “too dangerous” to ask why, Vidal wrote. “One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful.” Similarly, Chomsky wrote shortly after 9/11: “To refuse to face this question is to choose to increase significantly the probability of further crimes of this kind.”

So to actually face this question, there are three examples of “terrorists” whose words we could learn from. One is Cathy Wilkerson, a former member of the infamous militant group known as the Weather Underground. Wilkerson was one of two survivors of the Greenwich Village explosion, where a bomb-in-the-making unexpectedly went off and killed three of her fellow Weathermen. In her memoir Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman, she wrote:

Those of us in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and, later, Weatherman, saw ourselves as part of a worldwide uprising of young people working for freedom and equality. By the late ’60s, a great many young people were reeling from the rapid bombardment of many ideas—about feminism, national liberation, black nationalism, environmental destruction, and the apparent impotence of our electoral system.

In choosing the route of violence, she explains, the Weathermen mirrored the violence of the monsters in power. 

[I] made a series of decisions, from a standpoint of rage, hopelessness, and fear, in which I accepted the same desanctification of human life practiced by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and William Westmoreland. I accepted their supposition that, in the end, violence is the only effective strategy for social change; that might makes right, despite the fact that treasuring humanity—and each life within it—was one of the values that I had fought for. I abandoned myself to the sanctimoniousness of hating my enemies.

Much less contrite are the words of Timothy McVeigh, whose motivation for the Oklahoma City bombing was retaliation for federal agent militarization and disproportionate use of force at the Waco siege (a 1993 standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidian cult which McVeigh himself witnessed) and other similarly violent federal actions such as Ruby Ridge (a 1992 standoff between federal agents and Randy Weaver, a member of the separatist movement, which resulted in law enforcement killing Weaver’s wife, son, and dog). The police drove a tank through a building with innocent children inside it at Waco. Ultimately, 25 children and 51 others, including two pregnant women, were killed. In McVeigh’s own words: 

[F]or all intents and purposes, federal agents had become “soldiers” (using military training, tactics, techniques, equipment, language, dress, organization and mindset) and they were escalating their behavior.… Additionally, borrowing a page from U.S. foreign policy, I decided to send a message to a government that was becoming increasingly hostile, by bombing a government building and the government employees within that building who represent that government. Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations. Based on observations of the policies of my own government, I viewed this action as an acceptable option. From this perspective what occurred in Oklahoma City was no different than what Americans rain on the heads of others all the time, and, subsequently, my mindset was and is one of clinical detachment [emphasis mine].

While McVeigh murdered many innocents in his attack on a physical symbol of U.S. power and oppression in Oklahoma City—168 people to be exact, including 19 children—he was nevertheless reacting to the very real problem of U.S. law enforcement, increasingly militarized, acting all too often as judge, jury, and executioner. McVeigh’s reasoning—which is a disturbing and simple reminder that violence begets violence—is, to this day, little known or remembered. And it is notably similar to the reasoning given by Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 terror attacks. In a 2001 statement, bin Laden said:

What America is tasting now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years.… Millions of innocent children are being killed as I speak. They are being killed in Iraq without committing any sins.… To America, I say only a few words to it and its people. I swear to god.… neither America nor the people who live in it will dream of security before we live it in Palestine and not before all the infidel armies leave the land of Muhammad…

At the time, the Bush administration asked networks to “exercise judgment” about airing bin Laden’s words, lest he relay coded language to spur more attacks. The American people were thus shielded from bin Laden’s express motivations.

In November of 2023, bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” which was published by The Guardian in 2002, was given new life by young people who found much discovery and resonance in his words, given they’d been raised on the many lies that America tells to its children. Newsweek reported that the letter went viral on TikTok, with one user saying, “It’s actually so mind-fucking to me that terrorism has been sold as this idea to the American people…. that this group of people, this random group of people, just suddenly wakes up one day and just fucking hates you…. it doesn’t make sense.” Another person said, “He was right.” After the newfound virality, The Guardian deleted the letter from its website on November 15, 2023. TikTok has since suppressed videos discussing the letter.

While the U.S. government feels the need to hide bin Laden’s words from its citizens, some of his arguments bear striking resemblance to those made by stalwart critics of U.S. policy such as James Baldwin and Noam Chomsky. In one passage, bin Laden emphasized the historical crimes for which the U.S. has yet to pay:

As for the war criminals which you censure and form criminal courts for—you shamelessly ask that your own are granted immunity!! However, history will not forget the war crimes that you committed against the Muslims and the rest of the world; those you have killed in Japan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon and Iraq will remain a shame that you will never be able to escape. 

This notion of inescapable memory is similar to one of the great themes elucidated in James Baldwin’s work. Baldwin wrote:

And the West quite fails to see the unforgivable enormity of Hiroshima—repeat: unforgivable—nor, since it believes in a history that is entirely its invention, does it have any sense of the dreadful tenacity of human memory, what that memory records, and how every bill must be paid.… I can tell you not only that my soul is a witness, but that what goes around, comes around.

Elsewhere, bin Laden argued that the American people were not innocent of their government’s crimes. After all, Americans pay taxes that “fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq.” While the average American has little say in the foreign policy enacted at the highest levels of government, it’s not too much of a stretch to see Americans as morally responsible, to some degree, for what the government does in their name. Chomsky argued as such in regards to America’s dastardly 1998 bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. He wrote, “Our crimes, for which we are responsible: as taxpayers, for failing to provide massive reparations, for granting refuge and immunity to the perpetrators, and for allowing the terrible facts to be sunk deep in the memory hole.”

What America suffered on 9/11 was “something insignificant” compared to what the U.S. rained on the heads of others “for scores of years,” bin Laden said. His assessment is similar to that of Chomsky’s: “There’s no moral equivalence between [9/11] and the [U.S.] destruction of Nicaragua, or of El Salvador, of Guatemala. The latter were far worse by any criterion.”

The U.S. has a vested interest in hiding the words of terrorists from view because those words often present a vision of reality that stands in stark contrast to the official narrative. What would the American people do if they really knew what their country was responsible for? Ultimately, Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” is an Islamist screed which calls for the imposition of Sharia Law, contains antisemitic tropes, and was indeed written by a man who is responsible for monstrous, unjustifiable crimes. But the grievances it contains are well founded and should be listened to and understood. The same goes for the others. And as we will see, if the term were given universal application, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Benjamin Netanyahu, Tony Blair, and many of their ilk would be standing right alongside Osama bin Laden as some of the worst “global terrorists.” 

Terrorizing Dissent

Domestically, anti-terror laws have been used to infringe upon constitutional rights and to break radical movements—often on behalf of corporate interests—in what journalist Will Potter has called the “Green Scare.” As environmental and animal rights activism increased in the 1980s and ’90s, corporations lobbied lawmakers to label these activists as terrorists and suppress direct actions that targeted their companies. As post-9/11 anti-terror hysteria worsened the already widespread criminalization of these movements, industry pressure kept federal priorities on environmentalists instead of, say, right-wing extremists that they might have otherwise pursued. Corporations have since worked hand in glove with law enforcement to stifle dissent against their business practices. The fur industry provided lists of names of known activists to the Justice Department. Enbridge, a fossil fuel company, gave funding and tactical advice to Minnesota police departments to protect the company’s oil pipeline construction. Fossil fuel corporations have gathered dossiers on activists and suggested specific criminal statutes for prosecuting them.

Convicted activists have been sent to Communications Management Units, secretive and highly restrictive prison units that were created by post-9/11 counterterrorism policies. Environmentalists have been violently removed from tree sittings and other occupations. They have had pepper spray-soaked cotton swabs rubbed in their eyes, a practice that Amnesty International deemed “tantamount to torture.”

In recent years, the penalties have become more severe for resistance to environmentally destructive projects, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline near Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas. In 2016 and 2017, two Catholic Worker activists, Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, set fire to pipeline construction equipment and burned holes in the pipeline using welding torches. In 2017, 84 members of Congress wrote a letter to the attorney general pressuring federal prosecutors to charge pipeline protesters with domestic terrorism. (Those Congress members had received a combined total of $36 million from the fossil fuel industry, which has a long history of lobbying to criminalize environmentalists.) Ultimately, Reznicek and Montoya were both given terrorism enhancements. Reznicek was sentenced to eight years in prison and Montoya to six years. The enhancement, which was written into law a year after the Oklahoma City bombing, increases the length of prison sentencing.

Severe penalties have also been levied against protesters of Atlanta’s “Cop City,” a sprawling, $109 million police training facility which has destroyed parts of the Weelaunee Forest, one of the city’s largest green spaces. In March of 2023, dozens of people attending a Weelaunee Forest music festival organized by protesters were swept up in a mass arrest and many charged with domestic terrorism. This sweep occurred shortly after property destruction had been carried out against nearby construction equipment for Cop City. An Intercept headline explained the absurdity of the situation, in which authorities sought to link festival attendees to the acts of vandalism: “Atlanta Cop City Protesters Charged With Domestic Terror for Having Mud on Their Shoes.” In separate incidents, other protesters have been charged with terrorism for things like “trespassing on posted land,” “sleeping in the forest,” and possessing “a climbing harness and rope.” At an Atlanta City Council meeting in 2023, Micah Herskind, then a public policy associate with the Southern Center for Human Rights, summed up the situation:

We’ve seen sweeping repressions, mass arrests, overzealous criminal prosecutions and over 40 people have been charged with domestic terrorism, many for things that amount to no more than criminal trespass…. Charging protesters who are part of a social movement with domestic terrorism is a dangerous sign of where things are going when it comes to police repression of our movements.

On the animal rights front, authorities have used the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) to target activists. The law criminalizes as terrorism any action that is carried out “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” One need not even be directly involved in actions to be targeted for arrest. Consider the case of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC). SHAC was a 15-year campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences, a research company that conducted experiments on animals in ways that can be reasonably be described as torture. SHAC organizers tried to pressure companies and individuals who did business with Huntingdon to end their ties with the company. These pressure campaigns involved letter writing, phone calls, protests, vandalism, and intimidation of company employees. The group also ran a website that disseminated news of such actions. SHAC activists were charged and sentenced to prison for “encouraging and publicizing radical tactics”—not for actually carrying out any of the actions.

In another case, two activists were sentenced under AETA for having freed 2,000 minks from a fur farm in 2013. One of those activists, Kevin Johnson, wrote: “The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act achieved its intended outcome. When the distinguishing feature of a ‘terrorist’ is simply an ethical concern for animals, such concerns become marginalized, and voicing them becomes dangerous. What remains is silence.”

The nation’s political hysteria in response to 9/11 resulted in passage of the PATRIOT Act, which ushered in a new age of mass surveillance against a backdrop of ongoing policies including indefinite detainment, torture, and presidential kill lists. The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq, as part of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, marked the beginning of two decades of costly wars in the Middle East. Far from an “emergency measure,” these laws have been perennially renewed by Congress and now seem like an unalterable normal.

Before 9/11, though, an earlier act of domestic terror first led our nation down the path of constantly looking for terrorists inside our toilet bowls: the Oklahoma City bombing. Following the bombing in 1995 (which several media outlets initially blamed on Islamic terrorism), Congress passed the 1995 Rescissions Act, which gave emergency funding to “anti-terrorism initiatives.”

Later, in 1996, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, adding new tools for the criminalization of domestic terror. The law established the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list, a designation made by the State Department, and allows for the criminalization of anyone who gives “material support or resources” to those on the list. As we will see, the determinations made for who gets put on the FTO list are far from impartial. The law also created the terror enhancement charge later used against Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, as well as many other environmental activists caught in an FBI dragnet in the early 2000s.

The Official Definition

The U.S. defines terrorism, both in international and domestic forms, as “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States” and “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” This official definition seems a somewhat reasonable formulation. If applied universally, as laws should be, there would be little here to object to. But problems with this legal definition arise immediately if we turn our focus to the violent actions of the U.S. and its allies. From Central America to Africa, from the Middle East to East Asia, the U.S. and its proxy forces have carried out immense campaigns of violence directed against civilian populations in order to secure their own interests. America’s official definition of terrorism can remain coherent only if it is understood to apply to our enemies and not to us.

This willful hypocrisy serves U.S. interests quite well and it is amply validated and disseminated in mainstream media, scholarship, and think tank reports. The national security think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Washington, D.C., analyzed ideologically motivated acts of violence and defined domestic terrorism as “the deliberate use—or threat—of violence by non-state actors in order to achieve political goals and create a broad psychological impact” (emphasis mine). The point is clear: states, specifically our state and our allies, are exempt from the definition of terrorism and therefore have a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence.

The Western nations, those “self-declared enlightened states,” Chomsky writes, “which have the power to determine norms and to apply them selectively at will,” have demonstrated over decades their capriciousness in who they define as terrorists or terrorist states. Let us turn to some revealing examples.

Shifting the Definition for our Own Interests

In 1979, Congress passed a law regulating commerce with foreign nations and included stipulations regarding states that are deemed to be sponsors of terrorism. With this and other subsequent laws, the State Department has the authority to list nations as state sponsors of terror if they “have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” Once a nation is put on the list, the U.S. can levy unilateral sanctions against it and other nations or individuals who do business with it, including banning weapons sales, restricting foreign aid, and prohibiting any financial transaction between a U.S. citizen and the designated governments. Two states which have appeared on the list provide useful insight into how the list is politically weaponized: Iraq and Iran. 

The original 1979 list included Iraq for its support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and others. At a key moment, the U.S. would remove Iraq from the list.

In 1984, a few years after the Iranian revolution overthrew the CIA and MI6-installed Shah, the embarrassed U.S. State Department added Iran to the state sponsors of terrorism list. With the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the U.S. decided that stoking the conflict would be to its benefit. Thus, Iraq was delisted as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1983, allowing the U.S. to provide weapons and logistical support, including help in chemical weapons manufacturing (illegal under international law) and key U.S.-supplied intelligence which facilitated the gassing of Kurdish people by Iraqi forces. Additionally, as exposed in the Iran-Contra Affair, the U.S. secretly supplied Iran with arms during the conflict. Thus, by playing both sides in the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. violated its own law against doing business with a “state sponsor of terrorism.” 

Only after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 (after Saddam Hussein thought he received the go-ahead from his American ally) would the U.S. again add Iraq to the state sponsors of terrorism list, thus giving the U.S. carte blanche to wage war and levy harsh, murderous sanctions against Iraq. When it comes to matters of geopolitical hegemony, the U.S. has no qualms about redefining nations as sponsors of terrorism simply to suit its own interests, though not without blowback. The many premature deaths of Iraqi children that resulted from U.S. sanctions were explicitly cited by bin Laden as motivation for the 9/11 attacks.  

A similar cynical dynamic is apparent with how the U.S. has treated the aforementioned MEK, an Iranian militant group which opposes Iran’s revolutionary government. The MEK was deemed a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 1997, so anyone who gave material support to them was criminalized. As noted by many, the MEK is a bizarre, cult-like organization that is deeply unpopular within Iran. It has carried out suicide bombings and assassinations in Iran, targeting Iranian scientists and government officials, and has killed a dozen or so Americans. In 2012, after a successful lobbying blitz (terrorist groups can lobby Congress apparently), the MEK was removed from the FTO list. Since then, high profile right-wing Americans such as John Bolton and Rudy Giuliani have given paid speeches at MEK events where they have voiced support for regime change in Iran. Again, never having gotten over the successful Iranian Revolution, the U.S. has played with its own anti-terrorism laws in order to demonize and destabilize Iran without regard to fairness or any objective notions of what constitutes terrorism.

The law which instituted the FTO list contains within it a loophole for just this kind of capriciousness. The law states that a terror group may be removed from the list “at any time…. if the Secretary finds that…. the national security of the United States warrants a revocation.” Under the law, “national security” is defined as “the national defense, foreign relations or economic interests of the United States” (emphasis mine). Never mind whether innocents are killed—U.S. economic interests can always take precedence over consistency, justice, and human lives.


In contrast to the state’s cynical vacillations with the MEK stands the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The PKK has consistently remained on the FTO list since the list’s inception for two main reasons: its ideology and its stated enemies. The PKK was founded as a revolutionary socialist organization, two dreaded words for the capitalist United States. The group’s general aim is to establish Kurdish autonomy, with their chief opposition being the state of Turkey, a key NATO member with a long history of oppression against its Kurdish population. 

Since its founding, the PKK has harmed few if any Americans. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has assessed that the group poses a “minimal threat to American citizens or government personnel,” citing its good working relations with the U.S. military, while the NSA described the group as a “third-tier terrorist organization,” unworthy of the resources the agency devotes to higher tier groups. 

Despite the FTO designation, the U.S. once considered the PKK and other militant Kurdish groups as key bulwarks against the threat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, with the Pentagon funding PKK-affiliated groups to the tune of tens of millions of dollars year over year, in direct opposition to Turkey’s misgivings. 

While the U.S. again violates its own anti-terror laws by giving material support to an FTO group, the U.S. nevertheless keeps the PKK on its FTO list mostly to appease Turkey, a key NATO ally. U.S. officials pay lip service to Turkey while still supporting the PKK materially. Joe Biden even equated the PKK with ISIS, saying “there is no substantive difference” between the two (never mind little quibbles of ideology, such as the PKK being founded as a Marxist-Leninist group, shifting to something more like anarchism in recent years, and having many women in its ranks who engaged in armed combat against the repressive, atavistic ISIS members fighting for Sharia Law). The U.S. and its client states have little curiosity or patience for such nuance in regards to their declared enemies. This is the kind of brain rot that happens when every militant group is sweepingly labeled as terrorist. If the Turkish regime ever starts defending PKK notions of national self-determination and sovereign rights to their natural resources, you can bet your ass that the U.S. State Department will be looking for ways to moderate PKK leadership, delist them as an FTO, and get some Stinger missiles into those guerillas’ hands. 

Palestine and Israel

Perhaps nowhere is the terrorism double standard demonstrated as nakedly and consistently than with the intractable Israeli occupation of Palestine. As Daya Kishan Thussu writes, “Despite its violations of U.N. resolutions and international law in its routine attacks on Arab lands, Israel has never been characterized as a ‘rogue’ nation or a ‘terrorist’ state[,] the phrases routinely used to refer to the enemies of Washington.” Stacks of books have been devoted to this subject, so a few demonstrable examples should suffice here. 

In a recently released report by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Palestine Legal, the authors find that anti-terrorism laws in the U.S. have, from their inception, been targeted against supporters of Palestinians. They find that “the earliest mention of ‘terrorism’ in a federal statute, in 1969, dealt specifically with restricting humanitarian aid to Palestinians and inaugurated a pattern of rendering Palestinians synonymous with terrorism.” Since October 7, pro-Palestinian protesters have been accused of giving “material support to Hamas,” a criminal act, and pro-Palestinian student groups have been banned from college campuses.

In 2006, when Hamas, considered an FTO by the U.S., was democratically elected to majority seats in the Palestinian Authority, the Western world, that sole purveyor of global democracy, collectively lost its mind and shouted “No! We didn’t mean democracy like that!” Congress quickly passed a law barring any aid to the Palestinian Authority unless it demonstrated “progress toward purging from its security services individuals with ties to terrorism, dismantling all terrorist infrastructure and cooperating with Israel’s security services, halting anti-American and anti-Israel incitement, and ensuring democracy and financial transparency.” Likewise, the “Middle East Quartet” composed of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and the Russian Federation, issued a statement, saying, “A two-state solution to the conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel’s right to exist, and disarm.” Wait, what? So that means Israel also needs to renounce terror, accept Palestine’s right to exist, and disarm? Netanyahu’s own party platform specifically denies support for a Palestinian state.

Looking at the question of civilian casualties between Palestine and Israel, a clear double standard arises. Three years after the Palestinian elections, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the people of Gaza, resulting in the deaths of around 1,400 Palestinians, of whom 1,172 were deemed civilians, including 342 children. Hamas responded with rocket attacks that killed three Israeli civilians. Later, in 2014 fighting, Israel killed 2,202 Palestinians, of whom 1,371 were deemed “non-hostile.” In the same fighting, 68 Israelis were killed, five of whom were civilian. Based on these numbers alone, Hamas is better at avoiding civilian casualties than the Israeli Defense Forces are. The U.N.’s 500-page Goldstone Report concludes that Operation Cast Lead was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population” and that “the repeated failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians appears to…. have been the result of deliberate guidance issued to soldiers.” We had to destroy the village to save it. Kill anything that moves. We’ll show those human animals what happens when they vote for Hamas. Collective punishment rules the day.

Israel is a routinely belligerent nation that has bombed Egypt; bombed Jordan; bombed Tunisia; is currently bombing Syria; and invaded, occupied, and subjected Lebanon to state terror and aided mass torture there throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Israel regularly assassinates Iranian civilians. It is carrying out the longstanding occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, which began in 1947. Yet “Israel has the right to defend itself,” goes the common refrain of Western elites. Meanwhile, every rock thrown by a Palestinian child at an Israeli armored vehicle is considered an act of international terrorism. In this narrative, a vote for Hamas is a vote for terror, while a vote for the genocidal right-wing Israeli party currently in power is a vote for democracy. 

Such hypocrisy is to be expected when the laws that define terrorism are written by and for powerful interests. Because of its unwillingness to truly understand the forces of terrorism, the U.S. government knows all too well that its power to denote who is and is not a terrorist is, in fact, the ability to fashion convenient and unarguable enemies in comportment with its “national interests,” which are, emphatically, not the same interests of the nation’s people, but instead that of the ruling class.

Criminals at Large

Of course, there have always been conspicuous absences from America’s terrorist lists. As Michael Parenti points out:

[N]either the Clinton nor Bush administration ever placed Afghanistan on the official State Department list of states charged with sponsoring terrorism, despite the acknowledged presence of Osama bin Laden as a guest of the Taliban government. Such a “rogue state” designation would have made it impossible for a U.S. oil or construction company to enter an agreement with Kabul for a pipeline to the Central Asian oil and gas fields.

Similarly, America has always treated the oil-rich Saudi Arabia with kid gloves, “despite the Saudis’ devastation of Yemen, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and even suspicions that parts of the royal family funded Osama bin Laden,” write Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick in Except for Palestine, making it clear that “human rights are not the primary predicate for U.S. policy in the [Middle East].”

In Latin America, we find the case of Pinochet’s Chile, responsible for (with CIA support) the overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende as well as Operation Condor, a project of international terrorism carried out against dissenters to the fascist Chilean regime. Condor operatives went so far as to bomb a former official of President Allende’s leftist government, Orlando Letelier, while he was driving with his young American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, in Washington, D.C. Both were killed. This killing of an American on U.S. soil was insufficient to ever warrant putting fascist Chile on the state sponsors of terrorism list. 

Likewise, though Nelson Mandela and other members of his African National Congress party were on a U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008, apartheid South Africa never joined any such list. Irish Republican Armies have been, and are, considered  FTOs, but the U.K., with its roving paramilitary death squads in Ireland, never joined America’s list of terrorist states. “Loyalist gangs, often operating with the tacit approval or outright logistical assistance of the British state, killed hundreds of civilians in an endless string of terror attacks,” writes Patrick Radden Keefe in Say Nothing, a book about The Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland. He continues:

These victims were British subjects. Yet they had been dehumanized by the conflict to the point that organs of the British state often ended up complicit in such murders, without any sort of public inquiry or internal revolt in the security services…. “We were not there to act like an army unit,” one former British officer who served in the [Military Reaction Force] later acknowledged. “We were there to act like a terror group.” 

There are many other examples. Any casual look at the history of U.S. foreign involvement, from Central America to the Middle East, Europe to East Asia, yields a clear pattern of cynical support for “our” terrorists—“freedom fighters” being the preferred term—and unremitting cruelty for any terrorists that don’t serve our interests. Thus, in all the official State Department lists, you will never find some of the worst terrorist offenders.

This fanatical anti-terrorist attitude in the U.S. maintains a vicious cycle of violence and oppression. So long as we manufacture everlasting enemies, so long as we permanently menace entire peoples, the whole of our society will be under threat from both within and without by that same menace we think to be our salvation. Is it any wonder that as we cover up our nation’s crimes by demonizing those who lash out against us, and as we continue to ravage the Holy Lands, watering the sand with blood, that these people, these future terrorists—representing at once our shameful history and our future legacy—are running up behind us with a knife aimed squarely at our back?

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