Photo by Gage Skidmore
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Terror Works

by / Nov. 24, 2015 9pm EST

The second-worst terrorist event in this country since Wounded Knee (on December 29, 1890, the US Seventh Cavalry slaughtered between 200 and 300 Sioux men, women, and children on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in a one-sided battle that resulted in 20 Medal of Honor awards) occurred in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Two white American army veterans, Timothy McVeigh (born in Lockport, New York; Bronze Star in Operation Desert Storm) and Terry Nichols (born in Lapeer, Michigan; hardship discharge after one year of service) set off a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people and injuring another 680. The blast also damaged or destroyed 86 cars and 258 buildings. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection in 2001; Nichols is serving 161 consecutive life terms in ADX Florence, a federal supermax prison. 

The most significant consequence of their act of domestic terrorism—other than the irreversible damage they did to all those people they killed and injured and their families—is the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which Congress passed a year later. That act vastly expanded the range of people who might be put to legal death in the US and reduced habeas corpus rights. Which is to say, we responded to McVeigh and Nichols by circumscribing our own civil rights and expanding our ability to put our own citizens to death. In that regard, McVeigh is still with us.

The worst act of terrorism in this country since Wounded Knee was, of course, the September 11, 2001 hijacking of four planes, resulting in 2,996 deaths (in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in the planes). That attack was carried out by 19 men, 15 of them from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, and one each from Egypt and Lebanon. 

That attack also changed our country, and not for the better. Domestic snooping has increased exponentially. We started two wars, one of them on totally trumped-up assumptions, made torture part of our national game plan, and set up a prison on foreign soil (Guantanamo) specifically to avoid giving the people locked up there constitutional protections. Because of those wars, many thousands of people died, the entire region was destabilized, and we spent billions of dollars that might otherwise have gone into education, healthcare, basic research, and infrastructure. 

To my knowledge, no American politician in the current run-up to the presidential election has mentioned Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, or Lebanon as a threat to the US, nor called for any special legislation blocking immigration from those nations. 

But the politicians are freaking out about Syrian refugees, all of whom are fleeing terrorists at home, which is like police responding to a violent crime by locking up or shooting the victim. There is no record of any refugee admitted to this country ever having been involved in a terrorist event. Coming here as a refugee is a long and laborious process; it can take years. Terrorists are in a hurry: They get a student visa or a travel permit, as the 9/11 killers did, or they are born here, as McVeigh and Nichols were. All the perpetrators of the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris who have been positively identified were European Union nationals. (A Syrian passport was found near the body of one attacker, but it was a fake and no one has confirmed to whom it belonged.) 

Nonetheless, the US House of Representatives voted to clamp down on admission of refugees. More than two dozen governors said the wouldn’t allow Syrian refugees to migrate to their states, though they don’t have the power to ban people from crossing state lines. Just about all the Republican candidates have jumped on the terror train.

Donald Trump called for a database for Syrian refugees, surveillance of mosques, and re-introduction of waterboarding as an interrogation device. “The people that are involved in those mosques,” he said, “they know who the bad ones are and they know who the good ones are, but they don’t talk. We have to surveil the mosques.” It’s not just Syrians on Trump’s villainy list: He has several times said he saw “people that were cheering on the other side of New Jersey where you have large Arab populations…as the World Trade Center came down…It did happen. I saw it. It was on television.”

It never happened. It was never on television. He is crazy, lying, or both.

He’s not the only one making it up as he goes. Ted Cruz (whose father was born in Cuba) said that US national intelligence director James Clapper said that “among those refugees are no doubt a significant number of ISIS terrorists.” Clapper never said any such thing. What Clapper did say was that ISIS was a “huge concern,” which is why we have that long, complex vetting process. 

According to Amy Davidson (New Yorker, November 16), Cruz told reporters in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina “that we should accept Christians from Syria, and only Christians, because, he said, ‘There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.’ This will come as a profound surprise to the people of Oklahoma City and Charleston, to all parties in Ireland, and to the families of the teen-agers whom Anders Breivik killed in Norway, among many others.” The day before, she wrote, Cruz told Fox News, “Christians who are being targeted for genocide, for persecution Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them. But President Obama refuses to do that.”

With that Obama remark, Cruz carries the fear and hatred of foreigners one step further than Trump. Why would Obama refuse to help Christians in need? Cruz knows. His Tea Party backers all know. And no so-called birth certificate from Hawaii is going to make them think otherwise.

The war on terror makes, for some people, juicy politics. People buy it. If you talk tough about it, it means you’re tough and can do the job. (Remember George W. Bush bragging about being “a wartime president” and posing for cameras on the deck of a carrier wearing a flight suit?) Trump not only calls for the reintroduction of increased surveillance and torture, but promises to send all the Syrians already here back where they came from. Cruz wants us to protect Christians but not anybody else.

Racism, demagoguery, and fear-mongering: That is the current political script. Paris wasn’t a horrible event to these guys: It was red meat.

The war on terror is a phony war. It always was. Terror isn’t a place, a country, a thing. It is a technique in asymmetrical warfare. The murderers on the four hijacked planes on 9/11 were armed with box cutters. The entire objective of the technique of terrorism is to make an entity with far greater power so uncomfortable it goes away (think of the British leaving Palestine because of the Irgun and Haganah, and Kenya because of the Mau-Mau) or so fearful it sets about destroying itself. 

The greatest damage caused by the technique of terrorism isn’t done by the terrorists, but by everybody else’s reaction to them. One hundred thirty people were killed in France earlier this month and, as a result, Britain and France have increased their military involvement in Syria, and politics in the US have gotten more openly bigoted than ever. 

A politically savvy friend said the other day he was sure Cruz or Rubio would be the Republican candidate in the next election. “Carson is in free-fall and Trump is a joke.” He’s right. Trump is a joke. Hitler was a joke, too. Until he wasn’t.

Bruce Jackson is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at UB.