Roots of Terror
States can define ‘terrorism’ however they want, collapsing groups that have genuine grievances against the government in with groups like Al Qaeda,” said political science faculty member Ray Seidelman during the six-part fall discussion series, “The United States, Iraq, and the World: Perspectives on the ‘War on Terrorism,” that he helped organize. “To deal with the very real threat of terrorism, we have to deal with its complexity. We must distinguish between terrorism and valid dissent.”
The series was sponsored by the social science faculty and the Office of the Dean of the College. Each of the panels addressed the repercussions of current U.S. foreign policy on a particular region of the world: the Middle East, Israel and Palestine, Asia, Latin America and Africa, and North America and Europe.
Faculty and guest speakers alike asserted that in countries around the world, governments are using the “war on terrorism” to justify violence against domestic political opposition, threatening the struggle for democracy and human rights. In one example, geography faculty member Joshua Muldavin suggested that the Chinese government borrowed President Bush’s anti-terrorist rhetoric to crack down on Muslim separatists in a western province. The U.S., said Muldavin, supported China’s move to label the obscure movement as terrorist, even though there is little proof tying it to violence. The group wants its region to be freed from Chinese rule; that, it seems, is enough to warrant the terrorist label.
Muldavin stressed that it is important to appreciate the context and history of opposition groups: “You can’t take resistance movements with different histories and backgrounds and lump them all together.” Even pro-democracy groups get caught up. In Zimbabwe, recounted political science faculty member Elke Zuern, six journalists who have reported on pro-democracy organizers were imprisoned by the government. The journalists’ crime? “Abetting terrorists.” Terrorism, Zuern said, is often in the eye of the beholder: Nelson Mandela was called a terrorist, not a political prisoner, during his long imprisonment in South Africa—not even Amnesty International took issue with the label.
Kasturi Ray (literature) and Monica Varsanyi (political science) argued that government-sanctioned racial profiling and new laws that curtail constitutional rights have endangered Arab-Americans, people who look like Arab-Americans, and immigrants of all stripes. They claimed that members of these communities are unable to speak out against perceived human rights violations for fear of governmental persecution. What should concerned citizens do? “Americans who are unmarked,” said Muldavin, “those who—by virtue of their race, citizenship or economic status—are not as vulnerable to suspicion, need to take up the battle against injustice.”
In another lecture, guest speaker Guillermo Ferrió, a Cuban labor organizer, contended that social inequality and lack of education are the roots of terrorism. He contended that terrorism will not end until these underlying causes are addressed.
Seidelman maintained that the discussion series itself was one antidote to both authoritarianism and terrorism. “These panels are firmly within the democratic tradition,” he said. “Public debate and the upholding of democratic ideals are our best instruments to fight real terrorism.” Commented Dean of the College Barbara Kaplan: “This discussion series helped students link what they’ve learned in class to what is happening in the real world. These are issues of life and death for people around the world; but without being informed, people cannot take action.”
—Suzanne Walters MFA ’04