Although the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. has treated us to nutty and racist rants, which included saying that the even more bigoted Minister Louis Farrakhan is one of the greatest voices of the 20th and 21st centuries, and that the U.S. government was capable of having used the AIDS virus to commit genocide against minorities, his equally shocking views on U.S. foreign policy are largely true. Wright has said that the U.S. has committed terrorist acts overseas, and he quoted Edward Peck, a former U.S. ambassador during the Reagan administration, as saying that the United States’ "chickens have come home to roost." Presidential candidate Barack Obama lumped all of Wright’s views into one basket and denounced them as being offensive, but he should have taken a second look at Wright’s analysis of terrorism.
Not all terrorism experts agree on the definition of terrorism, mostly because, as Wright argues, it might incriminate the U.S. government. Another trick among such experts to exclude U.S. government actions is to use the term "terrorism" to apply only to attacks by small, non-governmental groups, rather than the much more potent terrorist attacks by governments. That ploy is a curious twisting of the term "terror," because the term originated during the French Revolution to describe the slaughter of the revolutionary French government. Over the centuries, governments have had many more resources than the relatively poor ragtag groups and thus have slaughtered on a much grander scale. Finally, these groups, like governments, sometimes perpetrate terrorist attacks and sometimes commit non-terrorist attacks.
A good analytical working definition of terrorism is the purposeful targeting of civilians in the adversary’s country to get them to put pressure on their government to change policy. After all, if a group or government is targeting an adversary’s government or military, we probably should call this a "war," not terrorist strikes. Of course, the term "terrorism" is never neutral; it’s always politically charged. Although it may be politically incorrect to say so, by the aforementioned analytical definition, only two-thirds of the successful attacks on 9/11 could be properly labeled as terrorist attacks. Since the goal of al-Qaeda was to kill civilians in the two World Trade Center towers, these attacks could rightly be labeled terrorism. The third attack was aimed at the Pentagon, the national command center of the U.S. military. Since Osama bin Laden had declared war on the United States, this attack might be described as a diabolical surprise attack, but not terrorism per se. Similarly, any attacks whether against Israeli military or civilian targets by Hamas and Hezbollah, groups that do not recognize Israel’s right to exist, are incorrectly bundled together by the U.S. government and media as terrorist strikes.
By the prior analytical criterion, is Wright’s accusation correct that the U.S. government (notice I did not use the words "we" or "America" here) has committed terrorist attacks? Wright mentioned the attacking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs at the end of World War II. (One might also add the conventional fire-bombings of German and Japanese cities.) The primary goal of these attacks was to purposefully attack the adversary’s civilian population in order to damage morale and motivate the enemy’s citizens to pressure their government to sue for peace. Proponents of such bombing will say that the enemy was nefarious, and in the case of Japan, dropping the atomic bombs obviated the need for a U.S. invasion, thus saving the lives of many U.S. military personnel. Nevertheless, by the analytical definition, these attacks were terrorist strikes that were questionable when the war had already been won, when the United States knew that the Japanese had made overtures to surrender, and when exchanging the lives of civilians to save military combatants was morally dubious. Furthermore, because Japan is an island, instead of an invasion, the United States simply could have blockaded the Japanese into surrender which would have been much more humane, especially if emergency food and medical supplies were allowed to transit the quarantine.
Although Wright does not mention these added examples, the U.S. also bombed dams in North Korea during the Korean War to flood the fields and starve the population, and President Richard Nixon, during the Vietnam War, carpet-bombed North Vietnam (unlike the graduated bombing campaign of President Lyndon Johnson) and scolded Henry Kissinger that Kissinger was excessively worried about civilian casualties. In the Philippine insurrection after the U.S. "liberated" the islands during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the U.S. military burned villages and crops, committed many atrocities against civilians, and engaged in torture.
But what about Wright’s implication that U.S. foreign policy causes blowback terrorism against the United States? Again, the facts are on his side. Poll after poll in the Arab/Islamic world indicates that U.S. political and economic freedoms, technology, and even culture are popular in these countries, but U.S. interventionist foreign policy toward the Middle East is not. Bin Laden has repeatedly said that he attacks the United States because of its occupation of Muslim lands and its support for corrupt Middle Eastern governments. Finally, empirical studies have linked U.S. foreign occupation and military interventions with blowback terrorism against U.S. targets.
The upshot of Wright’s remarks is that if the United States militarily intervened less overseas, the chickens would not be roosting as much in the U.S. henhouse. It is too bad that Wright’s largely correct analysis of U.S. foreign policy is being thrown out along with his wacky and bigoted ravings.