On terrorism, again

In 1976, Jorge Videla assumed power in Argentina after overthrowing Isabel Perén, ushering in one of the bloodiest dictatorships that country had ever experienced. More than 15,000 leftists, human rights activists and other innocent civilians were killed or disappeared. Not a single European democracy was without its share of Argentinean refugees, as well as refugees from Chile, Uruguay and Guatemala, who brought with them their ways of life, their songs, and their vigour and spontaneity. The impact on left-wing European culture was tremendous. The word “dictatorship” at the time immediately evoked Latin America, an image reinforced by Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch and a prolific body of Latin American literature that also directly influenced the “autocracy literature” that began to appear in the Arab world in the 1980s and 1990s.

During this period I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Like people on the left around the world, we communed with the plight of Latin Americans through pictures of Che Guevara, the songs of Victor Xara and the writings of Régis Debray. We condemned the US, and specifically Secretary of State Kissinger, for supporting the bloodthirsty Latin American juntas.

It was at this point in my political coming-of-age that I met the first Jewish refugees from Latin America — many of them from Argentina — in Israel. They were students at the Universities of Haifa and Jerusalem, leftists who had fled to escape the persecution of the left in Latin America. For a significant portion of these refugees, Zionism had little or no meaning, and as soon as circumstances improved back home they returned to their country. Another set of these refugees felt unable to reconcile their presence in the Zionist state with their left-wing beliefs, and emigrated to France — Paris was a focal point for left-wing South American refugees at the time — even before the circumstances improved in their native countries. Yet a third contingent of these students became Zionists and stayed, although they were dismayed by the Israeli government’s indifference to the fate of young Jewish leftists exposed to torture and abuse in the prisons of the Latin American dictatorships.

In general, however, these students were more receptive to the language of usurped rights — our medium for addressing Jewish students when we first started to organise an Arab student movement with ties to the Jewish left in the universities. Culturally, we were miles apart. The discourse of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian national movement was alien to their intellectual world, which centred exclusively on the debates concerning the Latin American left. We did converge in our anti-Americanism, on the other hand. They were the only non-communist and non-Soviet segment of the Israeli left that was opposed to the US. One of our long-standing objections to the Israel left was that it was the only such political movement in the world to believe that its country’s relations with the US would temper the injustices perpetrated by its government. We were thus able to draw on the experiences and views of these students as we discussed American policy and enumerated the crimes perpetuated by the US and Kissinger — “the professor of death” — against Cyprus, Chile, Argentina and other countries. The Arab right and Zionist left, meanwhile, smiled smugly down at our youthful ardour and our purportedly unsubstantiated clichés.

Those days came back to me as I read the reactions to US State Department documents on Argentina that were recently declassified even as Washington forged ahead with its war on “terrorism,” which has redrawn the lines between good and evil in the dominant global political culture. That these State Department documents were released in accordance with provisions of democratic transparency brings to mind other notions of good and evil, not all of which are enshrined in the naive clichés of enthusiastic young students. Among the virtues of the institutionalised traditions of the modern state is their perpetuation regardless of the shifting political mood or temporary interests. Because of this dynamic, the State Department went ahead and declassified these documents, although they contain information flagrantly at odds with the image the US is trying to create for itself in its battle against terrorism.

These documents reveal that the US State Department fully and unreservedly backed the Videla government, which had unleashed an intensive campaign of repression involving the disappearance, torture and assassination of at least 15,000 people. The documents contain correspondence between Robert Hill, then US ambassador to Argentina, and Kissinger, exposing the latter’s complicity in the crimes perpetrated by the junta in Buenos Aires through his meetings with then Argentinean Foreign Minister Admiral Cesar Guzzetti. In these meetings, Kissinger essentially reassured Guzzetti that, if Argentina could solve its “terrorist problem” (the junta’s label for its repression of the opposition, human rights activists and the left), the US would not bring up Argentina’s human rights practices. Ambassador Hill was outraged that his superiors in Washington were undermining his efforts to persuade the Argentinean government to respect human rights, and he complained bitterly that Guzzetti, following his meetings with top US officials in Washington in October 1976, returned to Buenos Aires “in a state of jubilation.”

A nice bit of information, is it not? It is important nonetheless. First, it helps keep the compass on course for those who have always maintained that the US’s concern for human rights is a sham and that US foreign policy has consistently fostered human rights atrocities around the globe. Second, it helps us bear in mind the discrepancy between the information presented in the left-wing press at the time of the Cold War, upon which we based our political attitudes, and the “bare facts” as couched in the language of US diplomacy and official documents. There is no reason why we should rejoice that the horrendous truth has come to light, apart from the very human satisfaction one derives from being able to say, “I told you so.” The US was, indeed, involved in the perpetration of terror against the citizens of many countries as it sought to outmanoeuvre the Soviet Union and reduce Soviet influence. The US pursued its Cold War strategies beneath many rubrics, from the fight against terrorism and the struggle against “extremist” national regimes to the defence of peace, security and the vital interests of the US and the democratic camp.

The recently declassified State Department documents show only the smallest corner of a vast tapestry. For US foreign policy, the notion of civilians encompasses only the citizens of the US, NATO countries and Israel. The abuse, punishment or elimination of other peoples for political reasons does not count as terrorism. Yet, this counts as an improvement. In the darker phases of American history the concept of citizenship did not extend to African Americans, left-wing activists or trade union organisers. They could be repressed with no reference to codes of liberal rights, which applied only to middle- and upper-class whites.

Today we live in another world, one in which there is universal awareness of human rights standards, rights of citizenship and societies’ need for these rights. In this world, the US has posited “terrorism” more forcefully than ever as its casus belli to target forces it deems hostile to its strategic and material interests as it perceives them. Moreover, it is constantly expanding its definition. If, in the 1970s, Washington branded the Argentinean opposition “terrorist,” today it is pushing to affix this label to the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance movements.

The global political climate today, however, is no longer that of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, when millions of human beings, civilians and non-civilians alike, were crushed in the wars and coups generated by the Cold War and the shifting alliances between the two camps. The Cold War has ended, and civil rights culture has attained a universal status independent from conflicting political ideologies, which is to say outside the bounds of the question: in whose interest are human and civil rights being abused?

Today, it is difficult to accuse “overenthusiastic students” chanting anti-American slogans of serving the Soviet Union or of being duped by anti-Western Soviet propaganda. Moreover, it is possible to formulate a discourse based on solid facts and reasonable arguments charging the US and Israel with perpetrating terrorism. Hence the need to refer to the US State Department documents which corroborate the US foreign policy tradition of supporting terrorist governments and fostering the mistreatment, torture and murder of civilians.

However we stretch our imagination to grasp the horror of the events that took place in the US on 11 September, and however chilling the accounts of the murder of innocent civilians, our imagination will produce nothing on the scale of the most appalling military operation perpetrated against a civilian populace in modern history. The US decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was taken for a purely political expedient — to hasten the capitulation of the government of Japan, even though the war had already been resolved in the US’s favour. Perhaps, too, there was another political motive, which was to demonstrate America’s nuclear might to the post-World War II world. This military operation was the most massive terrorist act in modern history and should, therefore, provide an introduction to any discussion of terrorism — which should then go on to consider Vietnam, Chile, Cyprus, Argentina, East Timor, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq.

It is important to open this discussion at the global level, avoiding exaggerations that will discredit the overall narrative while substantiating it thoroughly. The documents we rely on for this purpose may seem to diminish the catastrophes that befell the people of these countries, but they will raise a thousand questions as to the credibility of the war against terrorism and its political motives.

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.