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Scaring America Half To Death

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Scaring America half to death

William Pfaff IHT

Thursday, May 8, 2003

Mixed messages on terrorism

PARIS Foreign ministers of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations met in Paris on Monday to affirm that terrorism remains a "pervasive and global threat." Just three days earlier, the State Department had announced that terrorism is at its lowest level in 33 years.

One wonders if anything would have changed had that news reached the G-8 foreign ministers. The war against terrorism, like the war against Iraq, functions in all but total indifference to facts.

An unnamed "senior Bush administration official" told the press last weekend that he would be amazed if weapons-grade plutonium or uranium were found in Iraq. It was also unlikely, he said, that biological or chemical weapons material would be found. He said that the United States never expected to find such a smoking gun.

What was the Iraq war all about then? The official said that what Washington really wanted was to seize the thousand nuclear scientists in Iraq who might in the future have developed nuclear weapons for Saddam Hussein. He described them as "nuclear mujahidin."

The preventive war, according to this redefinition, was not directed against an actual problem, but one that might have appeared in the future.

One might have thought the official's statement merely an excuse for the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found, but this time it is President George W. Bush who seems not to have been told. He is still assuring Americans that the illicit weapons will turn up.

In its annual report to Congress on terrorism, the State Department said that the 199 recorded terrorist incidents last year represented a 44 percent drop from the previous year, and was the lowest total since 1969.

There were no terrorist attacks at all in the United States, five in Africa and nine in Western Europe. Nearly all the rest were in Asia (99), Latin America (50) and the Middle East (29). (Forty-one of the total 50 incidents reported as terrorism in all of Latin America last year were bombings of a U.S.-owned oil pipeline in Colombia.)

What the report actually indicates is that virtually all the incidents identified by the U.S. government as acts of "global terrorism" in 2002 occurred in four places: in Colombia; in Chechnya, with its separatist war; in Afghanistan, with the continuing low-scale war; and with the Palestinian intifada. Elsewhere, the Bali tourist bombing by Islamic extremists caused some 200 deaths.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, virtually none of this would have been called terrorism. It would have been called civil insurrection, or nationalist or separatist violence.

Since September 2001, vast global significance has been attributed to such episodes. They have been made the rationale for state mobilization and the restrictions of civil liberties in the United States (and at the American penal colony at Guantánamo Bay).

Elsewhere, we have heard rationalizations of methods of state repression that in the past might have won the concerned governments a place in another annual report the State Department makes to Congress: on international human rights violations.

The distorted account of terrorism has had extraordinary psychological effect on many in the United States, causing them to think they are exposed to a degree of personal risk that has virtually no foundation in statistics, or indeed in common sense.

The New York writer who recently said that since the fall of Baghdad he has, for the first time since 2001, felt himself secure from being blown to bits by a terrorist bomb while crossing Times Square, is one such case. Thousands of New Yorkers, acting on federal government warnings, this year built themselves tape-sealed rooms stocked with provisions, water and gas masks for a prolonged siege by terrorists.

Polls indicate that American voters no longer really care whether weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq. The victory was not over a threat they really identified with Saddam Hussein. It was a victory over "terrorism."

Now, in an official report few will read, or are expected to read, their government admits that terrorism is at its lowest level in three decades, and that the actual risk it poses is statistically negligible. At the same time, the same government tells them they must live in fear of "appalling crimes" and mass destruction. Where is this leading Americans?

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