- Are the recent warnings about the threat of terrorism
a reasonable precaution by the government to a real and present danger,
or are the media and government once again promoting anti-Muslim and anti-Arab
hysteria under the guise of vigilance against terrorism? Whatver the case,
the arrest of an Algerian man last week, allegedly for trying to enter
the United States from Canada with bomb-making materials, has set off yet
another free for all of media speculation about vicious Muslim plots to
blow up the United States on the eve of the millenium.
- To many people this hysteria appears to be nothing more
than a reasonable response to a frightening possibility. But if we examine
the US government's own data about terrorism, it is a completely unjustified
overreaction which puts at risk all of our civil liberties and freedoms,
but especially those of Arab and Muslim Americans who are despite all the
lessons of Oklahoma City, TWA 800 and other incidents, still the first
to fall under suspicion and to be victimized by repressive measures such
as the use of secret evidence and passenger profiling.
- So, is all the focus on the threat of "Islamic"
terrorism justified and based in fact?
- To put the issue in perspective, I examined the State
Department's own annual report, "Patterns of Global Terrorism, 1998."
- Below I have summarized some facts from the report about
events which the State Department defines as international terrorist incidents
(in other words excluding domestic terrorism by purely US-based groups,
such as anti-abortion groups). The report uses the following definitions:
"The term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated
violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups
or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. The
term "international terrorism" means terrorism involving citizens
or the territory of more than one country. The term "terrorist group"
means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice,
- 1) TERRORISM WORLDWIDE IS DECREASING SIGNIFICANTLY AND
- There has been a significant and consistent downward
trend in international terrorist incidents in the period 1979-1998.
- In 1998, number of international terrorist incidents,
at 273, was the lowest ever in the period, and the annual number has shown
a consistent downward trend since it reached a peak of 666 in 1987.
- 2) THE VAST MAJORITY OF INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST INCIDENTS
ARE NOT RELATED TO THE MIDDLE EAST, MUSLIM "EXTREMISTS" OR ARABS
- Since 1995, Latin America has consistently had the highest
annual number of international terrorist incidents of any region, followed
by Western Europe. In 1998 there were 110 attacks in Latin America, 48
in Western Europe and 31 in the Middle East. There were 21 in Africa and
zero in North America.
- The incidents in Latin America are primarily connected
to conflicts in Colombia and Peru, while the vast majority of incidents
in Europe are, according to the State Department, attributable to Basque
separatists in Spain, the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Kurdish movement
in Turkey and various anarchist groups in Greece. Middle East or "Islamic"
terrorism was not a significant factor in either region.
- In terms of casualties (deaths+injuries), the highest
number have consistently been in Asia since 1993. In 1998 there were over
5,000 in Africa 635 in Asia, 405 in Western Europe, 68 in the Middle East
and zero in North America.
- 3) EIGHTY PERCENT OF ATTACKS AGAINST UNITED STATES
TARGETS ARE IN LATIN AMERICA
- Consistently, the vast majority of events defined by
the State Department as "anti-US attacks" occur in Latin America.
In 1998, there was a total of 111 anti-US attacks. Eighty seven were in
Latin America, 13 in Western Europe, 5 in the Middle East and 3 each in
Africa and Eurasia.
- By far the most common target of terrorists are businesses.
Attacks on diplomats, military or government installations are relatively
- The total number of US fatalities from these attacks
in 1998 was 12, all related to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
- 4) VERY FEW AMERICANS ARE KILLED BY TERRORISTS
- Here are the numbers for the total U.S. Citizen Casualties
Caused by International Attacks, 1993-98. Note that the figures show no
- 1993 7
- 1994 6
- 1995 10
- 1996 25
- 1997 6
- 1998 12
- (The 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
caused a large number of non-US casualties in addition to the US victims).
- These numbers suggest that terrorism is a relatively
insignificant cause of death and injury to Americans compared with other
forms of violence. For example, according to the Illinois Council Against
Handgun Violence, 14 children are killed EVERY DAY in the United States
by handguns. In the State of Illinois alone, 320 are killed each year (National
Center for Health Statistics, 1997).
- 5) MIDDLE EAST VIOLENCE IS RELATED TO LOCAL POLITICAL
CONFLICTS, NOT "HATRED OF THE WEST"
- Although the level of international terrorist events
in the Middle East has been lower than in other parts of the world, such
violence as occurs is principally related to local political conflicts,
not to generalized "hatred of the West" as often portrayed in
the media. The numbers and descriptions of patterns of violence in the
Middle East suggest that as in other regions like Northern Ireland, violence
diminishes when broad-based political processes or solutions are set in
motion. The State Department report, acknowledges that the downward trend
in terrorism "reflects the improved political climate that has diminished
terrorist activity in recent years in various parts of the world."
- There is a complete disparity between the facts about
international terrorism as presented by the government on the one hand,
and the media, official and popular response to the issue on the other.
There is no objective connection between the frequency of terrorist attacks
originating from and occurring in the Middle East, and the amount of attention
that such attacks receive. President Clinton and other government officials
have repeatedly defined terrorism as one of the greatest threats facing
- There is little or no media attention to the facts about
terrorism, as reported by the government, and a generalized willingness
to continue to blame and speculate about the Middle East as a principal
purveyor of violence. This situations continues to hurt and marginalize
Arab and Muslim citizens of the United States, and to distort public perceptions
about the Middle East, a region in which US taxpayers are being asked to
invest a lot of money, often in the name of "security."
- Each and every life lost due to terrorism is one too
many and of course there must be vigilance against terrorism, and support
for genuine efforts to prevent it. But clearly other policy agendas, totally
unrelated to public security, are being served by the obsessive focus on
Middle East terrorism, when the facts suggest a more balanced approach
would be appropriate.