Since 9/11 (the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, not the US backed military coup of Chile’s democratically elected leader in 1973 which led to many more deaths than the former), terrorism has become one of the most politically loaded terms in the English language. In most mainstream Western media and in official discourses, militants who broadly oppose Western interests (or to be more precise, the interests of transnational capital), are consistently referred to as terrorists. On the other hand, militants who broadly serve those interests, for instance by fighting against a regime not sympathetic to Western concerns, are usually referred to as ‘freedom fighters’ or ‘rebels’.
A perfect example of this hypocritical and inconsistent use of terminology is the way the CIA funded and trained the Mujahedeen in their war with the Soviets, with the Reagan administration publicly describing them as “freedom fighters”. This group spawned Al Qaeda, using the weapons, money and relations provided by the Americans. After 9/11 of course, Al Qaeda were international enemy number one, labelled terrorists. Thanks to constant reinforcement and repetition of the term terrorism in relation to Islamic extremist militants, the phrase has become synonymous with the ideology of militant Islamism. Of course this is a complete manipulation of the phrase which traditionally refers to a methodology of using violence and terror to serve political ends.
Language is used to mediate most social relations and not only describes, but discursively constructs the world we live in. The use of language reflects wider power relations, and the recent alterations in the meanings inscribed by the word terrorism reflect the interests of transnational capital, which benefits greatly from ‘The War on Terror’ and has chosen militant Islamism as its new ‘other’ to define itself in opposition to, in the absence Soviet style communism. The implication of the altered meaning of the word terrorism is that it is something that is carried out by the enemies of the great Western powers, and never by those powers themselves.
On Western Terrorism then, can be seen as bold attempt by close friends, and long time correspondents Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek to redress that balance, and expose the barefaced hypocrisy of those gatekeepers who use the term terrorism with such vitriol. It is perhaps somewhat surprising that the book chooses not to directly engage with the recent discursive phenomenon relating to the word terrorism. In fact, the word is barely mentioned, and doesn’t even have an entry in the index. Nor at any point do the authors seek to explicitly justify the title of the book, instead allowing the reader to draw the conclusions themselves from the evidence they present.
This may seem strange, and counter-intuitive in a way, but in fact it is a masterstroke, showing off Chomsky’s innate understanding of discursive power relations, no doubt deriving from his expertise as a linguist. By refusing to engage directly in a discursive contestation with the dominant paradigm, Chomsky and Vltcheck are thus refusing to acknowledge its legitimacy; if they had attacked it directly from a marginal position they would risk implicitly reifying the hegemony of the dominant Western position. Similarly, by not directly seeking to justify the title of the book, the authors illustrate that they are comfortable with the concept of Western terrorism, which invites the reader to feel at ease with it too. This has the effect of subtly making Western terrorism seem a given, when of course usually the term would invoke a sort of cognitive dissonance to Western audiences.
The book takes the form of a conversation between Chomsky and Vltchek as they exchange firsthand experiences, insight and knowledge. This makes for a very easy read, despite the gravitas of the content, yet the book manages to maintain an overarching and logical structure with chapters loosely based on periods of history and geographical regions. That’s not to say that within the chapters there isn’t a fair bit of flitting from one subject or region to another, which at times can be a little confusing, but all in all the narrative holds up well. Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the conversational format is that none of the book is referenced and there are very few footnotes to signpost the reader to other important sources.
The book covers everything from the legacy of colonialism and post- colonialism, the Cold War, media complicity in Western atrocities, as well as in-depth discussions about developments in South Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. Chomsky sees reasons for optimism in the latter two in particular. The book opens with the claim that ‘Along with the 55 million or so people killed [since World War II] as the direct result of wars initiated by the West, pro-Western military coups and other conflicts, hundreds of millions have died indirectly, in absolutely misery, and silently’. Much of the content that follows outlines just some of the conflicts, crises and even genocides that have contributed to that figure, such as 8-10 million murdered in the last few years in the Congo, the US/UK backed massacres in East Timor over a 25 year period, the Vietnam War and countless others.
The Western moral superiority involved when our governments talk about freedom and democracy involves a sort of collective amnesia about the atrocities and genocides carried out to serve the interests of our elites over the last several centuries, which the book demonstrates outstrips that of Soviet communism and Nazism combined by an order of magnitude. It also relies on distortion and refusal to engage with the facts by the media. Chomsky and Vltchek use comparative examples to illustrate their points effectively. For instance, comparing the number of people killed by Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia (presented as one of the most brutal in recent history), with the many millions more killed by the US carpet bombing of the country just before his rule when Henry Kissinger gave the order for “anything that flies against anything that moves”.
Another startling comparison is that of the much-lauded democracy of India, a darling of Western press, and China under Mao, which is consistently demonised. The book highlights research comparing the two nations during the time of Maoist rule in China which found that 25-30 million died as a result of famine during this time, in India during the same period more than 100 million died due to lack of healthcare, food and rural aid. The later is rarely, if ever, invoked as an indictment against capitalist democracy.
The book covers such a breadth of topics revealing a vast trove of inconvenient truths. It is absolutely essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the current context of contemporary geo-politics by revealing the often-hidden histories that have given rise to it, as well as highlighting the pressing issues facing the world which are usually ignored going forward.
Joe Turnbull studied politics at the University of Manchester. Since graduating he has been the subeditor of two emerging culture magazines. Joe is interested in the idea of counter-hegemonic culture and his work aims to critique the neoliberal status quo.