Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army major and psychiatrist who murdered 13 military and civilian personnel and injured dozens more at the Fort Hood Army Base in Texas on November 5, 2009, has explained why he did so: “I would like to agree with the prosecution that it wasn’t done under the heat of sudden passion. There was adequate provocation—that these were deploying soldiers that were going to engage in an illegal war.”
Hasan intended to preempt these soldiers from fighting in Iraq. He saw himself as a soldier fighting against American troops in a U.S. war of aggression.
Proponents of a U.S. foreign policy status quo enjoy looking at all anti-American terror attacks as acts of war and all assaults on U.S. soldiers as terrorism. It conveniently allows for the best of both worlds: extreme measures justified by the exigencies of war and the portrayal of the enemy as lawless, rather than as acting according to the logic of war, just from the other side.
War indeed can constitute terrorism, and vice versa. We should attempt to maintain moral consistency and not sink into relativism in a patriotically correct attempt to view all U.S. actions as defensible and the actions of U.S. enemies as dastardly. But if this is too much to ask, Hasan’s description of his motives should at least establish the reality of blowback—the undeniable fact that U.S. actions abroad, whatever ethical appraisal they deserve, incite violence on American soil seen by its perpetrators as directly responsive to U.S. policy.
The attacks on September 11, 2001, shocked most Americans, who could not understand why people would commit such an atrocity, mostly against civilians, on U.S. soil. Bush administration officials immediately cast the event in terms of good and evil. The president announced that day: “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward, and freedom will be defended.” Consistently, Bush and his top officials described the struggle in Manichean terms, and soon after the attacked he even vowed “to rid the world of evil doers.”
On September 13, 2001, humorist Dave Barry published a column that probably resonated with most American readers. It echoed the clean narrative of an essentially good country, the United States, defending itself against simply wicked foreign enemies. “The people who did this to us are monsters,” Barry wrote. And although America “is definitely not always right,” and is even sometimes “terribly wrong,” the columnist wrote with certainty that Americans “don’t set out to kill innocent people” and “don’t cheer when innocent people die.”
Thus did Barry speak for many compatriots when he elaborated on the terrorists’ impetus:
That’s what’s so hard to comprehend: They want us to die just for being Americans. They don’t care which Americans die: military Americans, civilian Americans, young Americans, old Americans. Baby Americans. They don’t care. To them, we’re all mortal enemies. The truth is that most Americans, until Tuesday, were only dimly aware of their existence, and posed no threat to them. But that doesn’t matter to them; all that matters is that we’re Americans.
Indeed the terrorists had committed an evil act, failing to differentiate civilians from soldiers, and killing innocent Americans in their strike against the United States. Some suggested that, perhaps, the motive behind this gruesome crime was not so elusive: Some foreigners targeted America, including its civilians, in desperate revenge after decades of aggressive U.S. policies that had killed hundreds of thousands in the Muslim and Arab countries. Many people dismissed this explanation outright, arguing that Muslim fanatics would hate Americans regardless, and that previous U.S. policies had little to do with the attacks. Yet Osama bin Laden himself had stated in his fatwa declaration five years before:
The youths hold you responsible for all of the killings and evictions of the Muslims and the violation of the sanctities, carried out by your Zionist brothers in Lebanon; you openly supplied them with arms and finance. More than 600,000 Iraqi children have died due to lack of food and medicine and as a result of the unjustifiable aggression (sanction) imposed on Iraq and its nation. The children of Iraq are our children. You, the USA, together with the Saudi regime are responsible for the shedding of the blood of these innocent children
Obviously, none of these grievances can morally or even strategically justify terrorism, but the grievances were real. The Iraq sanctions, for example, did indeed kill hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Iraqi civilians. And making life miserable through this bloodletting stood at the very center of U.S. Iraq policy in the 1990s. The destruction of civilian life was deliberate. The Clinton administration set out to overthrow Saddam, using innocent Iraqis as disposable pawns. Dave Barry was simply wrong that Americans “don’t set out to kill innocent people,” assuming we define Clinton officials as Americans.
In 2003, the U.S. government unleashed a torrent of devastation upon the Iraqi people, particularly in urban centers like Baghdad. The Bush administration called its opening salvo of the second war on Iraq, the bombing of Baghdad, “Shock and Awe.” In the first month of Operation Iraqi Freedom, about eighteen hundred air craft launched 19,948 guided munitions and 9,251 unguided munitions, some of which were 2,000 pound bombs that each wreaked massive carnage. Robert Higgs elaborated on it during the bombing campaign:
As described recently by Newhouse reporter David Wood, the 2000-pound JDAM “releases a crushing shock wave and showers jagged, white-hot metal fragments at supersonic speed, shattering concrete, shredding flesh, crushing cells, rupturing lungs, bursting sinus cavities and ripping away limbs in a maelstrom of destruction.” Hardly anyone survives within 120 meters of the blast, where pressures of several thousand pounds per square inch and 8,500-degree heat simply obliterate everything, human and material. Metal fragments are spewed nearly three-quarters of a mile, and bigger pieces may fly twice that far; no one within 365 meters can expect to remain unharmed, and persons up to 1000 meters or farther away from the point of impact may be harmed by flying fragments. Of course, the explosions also start fires over a wide area, which themselves may do vast damage, even to structures and people unharmed by the initial blast.
During this whirlwind of destruction, millions of Americans cheered. In the first year, as American pride in the war continued, thousands of civilians died, a totally predictable consequence of the invasion and occupation, and thus an element of these undertakings that cannot be morally separated from them. Sewage flooded the streets, infrastructure fell to rubble, the cradle of civilization collapsed into a bloodbath that persists today. Many Americans continued to celebrate the bombings and other U.S. methods that inevitably killed civilians. Barry was simply wrong when he said Americans “don’t cheer when innocent people die.”
It’s true that Americans proud of the war were mostly focused on the blow against Saddam’s regime, but they had to know that thousands of Iraqis lost everything in just the first chapter of this “liberation.”Some foreigners cheered on 9/11, but they too most likely conceived of the attack mostly in terms of a strike against the United States regime, rather than just the innocent American people predictably murdered on that day. Of course, from the American perspective, the essential nature of the 9/11 attacks was terrorism. Similarly, for many Muslims, the attack on Iraq in March 2003 was also terrorism. The Guardian reported in the beginning of the war that “To some in the Arab and Muslim countries, Shock and Awe is terrorism by another name; to others, a crime that compares unfavourably with September 11.”
Historically, the U.S. government has engaged in multiple acts of civilian killing even more unambiguously deliberate than anything in the last decade or two: In particular, the dropping of the atomic bombs and strategic bombings in World War II and the carpet bombings of Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the Cold War. In all these cases, it is beyond controversy that the U.S. government set out to kill innocents by the hundreds of thousands, and it is a matter of simple observation that many Americans did and continue to look upon these acts with exuberant glee.
Again, one does not need to agree that there is a moral similarity between the U.S. government deliberately and predictably killing foreign civilians in an attempt to unseat foreign governments and the deliberate killing of American civilians in order to influence U.S. policy. Both satisfy the material definition of terrorism, but people are free to believe terrorism is sometimes justified because Americans exist in a world of moral relativism, or even to play word games that somehow categorically exempt U.S. behavior from the definition of terrorism. The point here is not semantic, and we can learn something even outside the realm of ethics.
The point is why a handful of Muslim radicals are willing to attack Americans on U.S. soil, and why others cheer them on. In most cases, straight from the mouths of the perpetrators, we have a clear answer: It’s retaliation in response to or a preemptive strike in anticipation of U.S. policy. From the point of view of millions of foreigners, the U.S. government is a terrorist state, and a war against this state justifies attacking civilians or preempting potential warriors on U.S. soil. You don’t have to agree with their moral evaluation to grasp this. Dave Barry was wrong when he said the 9/11 attacks and their supporters were “so hard to comprehend.” Just look at the tribally loyal Americans who cheer U.S. wars that kill hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians. Just consider how upset you’d be if a foreign agent snuffed out your family in a fiery act of vengeful destruction—and how this anger would exist whether you lived in Manhattan or Baghdad.