America’s Politics of Convenience
By Narayan Lakshman
May 3, 2013
The country’s past unwillingness to call out Chechen extremism and its continuing reluctance to bring in gun control laws expose its double standards on terrorism
After the Boston Marathon bombers struck on April 15, killing four in their wake and injuring 264, the initial caution about ethno-religious stereotyping of “Islamic extremists” appears to have given way to a freewheeling discourse that seeks to firmly tie Muslims to global terror plots.
Before this rather crude logic acquires a national echo and, similar to the post-9/11 scenario, fuels hate crimes against ethnic minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs, it is important to give context to America’s cynical application of the notion of “terrorism.”
Particularly we may ask: who qualifies as a terrorist in American eyes, and how does the political leadership of this nation shape that perception?
In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, ugly evidence emerged of how ethnic stereotyping tears apart civilisational fabric. Misdirected racist vitriol saw Indian-American Sunil Tripathi falsely named as a suspect by hordes of Reddit and Twitter users. One can only imagine the wretched situation of the Tripathi family as one of their own faced a social media lynching, only to be told a week later that a body found in Rhode Island’s Providence Harbour was Sunil’s.
Then the Federal Bureau of Investigation aided the steady, trickling flow of background details on the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan (26, killed in a gunfight with police) and Dzhokhar (19, in custody but hospitalised with severe injuries), suspects in the bombing. Within days, the media unearthed the Tsarnaev link with Chechnya, Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan and a cascade of public commentary proclaimed the Islamist connection established. President Barack Obama kept the rhetoric moving along smoothly when he tacitly approved labelling what happened in Boston an “act ... of terror.”
But was it really? There are two problems with America’s eagerness to call the admittedly despicable attack on civilians “terrorism.” The first is replete with historic irony.
What happened on 9/11 on the U.S.’ eastern seaboard is often seen as the culmination of Washington’s engagement in Afghanistan during the 1980s, particularly the CIA’s shadowy Operation Cyclone, through which hundreds of millions of dollars were pumped into the coffers of Afghan fighters battling the forces of Mohammad Najibullah.
While some insist the CIA’s funding did not cross the red lines between the Afghan Mujahideen and foreign or Arab fighters, questions were raised about whether the same weapons and training that flooded Afghanistan during that era came back to haunt the U.S. in the form of an invigorated al Qaeda and Taliban in the late 1990s and 2000s.
Freeze frame and switch to another reel, this time the Russian republic of Chechnya in the early 21st century, a land in which the U.S.’ infamous “War on Terror” was inexplicably suspended.
Hypocrisy in Chechnya
Despite the grisly episodes of the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis, the 2004 Beslan school siege and several other “terror” attacks associated with Chechen separatists, the U.S., led by the neocon-staffed American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), chose to turn a blind eye to events in the region.
Back in 2004, John Laughland of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group explained that ACPC members represented “the backbone of the U.S. foreign policy establishment,” and included Richard Perle, a former Pentagon advisor, and James Woolsey, former CIA director who backed George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
The influential group heavily promoted the idea that “the Chechen rebellion shows the undemocratic nature of Putin’s Russia, and cultivates support for the Chechen cause by emphasising the seriousness of human rights violations in the tiny Caucasian republic.”
The ACPC then upped the pressure against the Putin regime even more in August 2004, when it “welcomed the award of political asylum in the U.S., and a U.S.-government funded grant, to Ilyas Akhmadov, Foreign Minister in the opposition Chechen government, and a man Moscow describes as a terrorist.”
Was Washington happy to countenance violent groups so long as rival Russia and its intractable President Putin faced the heat? In insisting Moscow achieve a political, rather than military, solution wasn’t the U.S. administration actually calling on Mr. Putin to negotiate with terrorists, a policy the U.S. “resolutely rejects” elsewhere?
The ACPC’s soft-pedalling on terror apart, evidence of the U.S.’ unwillingness to crack down on Chechen extremism came in the form of one of the most high-profile U.S. law enforcement successes in the days leading up to 9/11: the capture of Zacarias Moussaoui in Minnesota on August 16, 2001.
Whistleblower Coleen Rowley wrote recently that not only did her former employers at the FBI, CIA Director George Tenet, and other counterterrorism experts balk at allowing a search of Moussaoui’s laptop and other property but, more disturbingly, they brushed aside a critical April 2001 memo by erstwhile FBI Assistant Director Dale Watson.
That memo, entitled “Bin Laden/Ibn Khattab Threat Reporting,” warned about “significant and urgent” intelligence to suggest “serious operational planning” for terrorism attacks by “Sunni extremists with links to Ibn al Khattab, an extremist leader in Chechnya, and to Usama Bin Laden,” reported the New York Times’ Philip Shenon in his insightful 2011 story of “The Terrible Missed Chance.”
Even after the FBI’s attaché in Paris reported that French spy agencies had evidence suggesting Moussaoui was a recruiter for Khattab and despite senior intelligence officials admitting that “the system was blinking red” with the prospect of an imminent terror attack, no one seemed to want to acknowledge that Moussaoui, Khattab and bin Laden were brothers in bloodshed.
In the Boston investigation, Dzhokhar is now said to have indicated that he and Tamerlan were disenchanted with U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — their Chechen background cannot be discounted here — and this may have driven their ghastly actions.
If this is established as the true motive then history would have come full circle. That will — or at least it ought to — provoke more questions about the cynical manipulation of facts and an ever-morphing concept of “terrorism” that sustain the U.S.’ wars and its economy.
Gun Violence Paradox
A second sophisticated obfuscation of “terrorism” in the U.S. is that it is liberally applied when a person or group perceived as alien in terms of race, religion or citizenship is held responsible for an act of lethal violence, but much less so in other contexts. In this case, the discovery that the Tsarnaevs were Muslim led to an almost triumphalist cheer in some conservative corners of the country.
To give this odd overzealousness some context, consider the case of gun crime which, some such as Michael Cohen of The Guardian have argued, gets a relatively muted reaction from Americans compared to the random act of terror that hits the mainland from time to time, despite the latter’s far greater toll on human life.
Approximately 30,000 Americans die of gun violence every year compared to the 17 who died last year in terrorist attacks. On the very same day of the Boston Marathon bombing, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. In the last four months alone 3,531 Americans were killed by guns — even more than the number killed on 9/11.
Bizarrely, recent mass killings — including the Sikh Temple of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and the school shootings at Newtown, Connecticut — by mostly white, gun-toting young men, did nothing to prevent conservatives in the U.S. Congress from defeating a bill proposing rudimentary checks on gun buyers’ backgrounds before arming them.
In none of these cases did Second Amendment-warriors attach the “terrorist” label to the perpetrators. Why are James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Wade Page, and numerous others merely alluded to as “disturbed individuals?” The Tsarnaevs may be no different from these mass killers, some such as Glen Greenwald have argued, and all of these men are likely to have been driven by a combination of mental illness, societal alienation and mostly apolitical rage.
While a robust debate on the application of “terrorism” would help the American media and public avoid the frequent retreat to racist stereotyping that we have seen in recent weeks, a failure to do so would only feed the U.S.’ fatal politics of convenience and extinguish the prospect of change that could make a real difference.