A recent denunciation of U.S. government foreign policy offers insights
into a paradox of the war of terrorism. On January 24, 2006, the East Timor
Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation denounced the U.S. government
for backing the 1975 Indonesian invasion of East Timor. In the following decades,
a quarter million East Timorese residents died as a result of this incursion.
The commission declared that U.S. “political and military support were
fundamental to the Indonesian invasion and occupation.”
The Indonesian invasion and occupation of East Timor were among the most barbaric
actions of the late 20th century. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger met with Indonesian President Suharto in Jakarta the day before
the invasion and gave U.S. approval. The primary concern of U.S. officials seemed
to be to get back to Washington before the bloodbath began. Kissinger told Suharto,
“We understand your problem and the need to move quickly but I am only
saying that it would be better if it were done after we returned.” Kissinger,
doing his best imitation of Lady Macbeth, urged Suharto, “It is important
that whatever you do succeeds quickly.”
Indonesia used U.S. military weapons to bombard East Timor and to crush resistance.
The Indonesian military finally left East Timor in 1999, inflicting one more
orgy of burning and killing on the island in the final days before its exit.
More people died as a result of the U.S.-backed invasion of East Timor
than were killed by international terrorists in the subsequent 30 years. According
to the U.S. State Department, between 1980 and 2005 fewer than 25,000 people
were killed in international terrorist incidents around the globe.
The Bush administration, in its war on terror, stresses that anyone
who aids and abets a terrorist is as guilty as the terrorist. By this standard,
the U.S. government was guilty of enabling the Indonesian government to terrorize
the Timorese people. The Timorese victims of U.S.-backed aggression received
far less than 1 percent of the attention than have American victims of terrorist
The U.S. government currently bankrolls and arms many foreign regimes that
terrorize their own people, including Colombia, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Frida Berrigan of the World Policy Institute noted that the State Department’s
2002 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices “lists 52 countries that
are currently receiving U.S. military training or weapons as having ‘poor’
or ‘very poor’ human-rights records.”
President Bush declared in 2002, “Our mission is to make the world free
from terror.” But the only way that Bush’s pledge makes any sense
is by relying on a myopic – if not absurd – definition of terrorism.
The United States has long insisted that government agents cannot be terrorists.
The FBI defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against
persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population,
or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
Since government action is almost always lawful – or at least not considered
criminal by the government itself – governments almost never qualify as
terrorists under the U.S. definitions.
A far sounder definition was offered by Israeli National Security Council chairman
Major General Uzi Dayan, who defined as terrorist in a December 2001 speech
“any organization that systematically harms civilians, irrespective of
its motives.” This definition catches all types of terrorism – not
just actions that lack political blessings or official sanctions.
If a government systematically attacks civilians, the government is no less
culpable than private cabals that blow up planes, buses, or cafés. By
this standard, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor was as much a terrorist
action as the bombings of Bali nightclubs in October 2002 that killed hundreds
The U.S. terrorism definition is the key to the Bush administration claim that
the war on terrorism is automatically a war for freedom. Without the “state-exempt”
concept of terrorism, fighting terrorism would, in most parts of the world,
have little or nothing to do with defending freedom. With an honest definition
of terrorism, many governments in the Bush “freedom-loving coalition”
are guilty of inflicting more terrorism than they prevent.
Having a “state action” exemption to the concept of terrorism
is like having a “mass murder exemption” in the homicide statute.
Any action carried out by private citizens that would be considered terrorism
should also be considered terrorism if carried out by government agents. The
United States should recognize that its bankrolling and support of governments
that terrorize their own people make a mockery of Bush's promise to rid the
world of evil.
James Bovard [send him mail]
is the author of the just-released Attention
Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Terrorism
& Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil.
He serves as a policy advisor for The
Future of Freedom Foundation.