Aug. 22 marked the 80th anniversary of the execution of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in Massachusetts on trumped-up murder charges. Their executions exposed the ugly face of the Red Scare era, during which thousands of immigrants and dissidents were persecuted and deported under draconian laws upheld by the Supreme Court. Today, the fate of Sacco and Vanzetti is a warning as to how far America’s obsession with fighting terrorism could yet go.
Where there are strong similarities between the Red Scare and our current “global war on terror,” the threat itself is quite different. That threat changed fundamentally with the crushing defeat of the allied Arab nationalist armies against Israel in 1967. In its aftermath, Palestinian activists took the recently developed tactic of airplane hijackings to a global level.
The People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) began carrying out a dizzying array of high-profile hijackings, including five in 1970 that were eventually flown to the Jordanian desert where three of the planes were blown up before a crowd of international TV crews.These events were not 9-11-type actions. As traumatic as they were, these were media campaigns intended to focus world attention on the plight of an utterly desperate people without a home. If they succeeded in generating that attention, they failed miserably in the one thing that mattered most: gaining a Palestinian homeland.
For the first time since the modern era of nonstate terrorism began with the assassination of Russian czar Alexander II in 1881 by the People’s Will, those engaged in conflicts for national liberation had powerful weapons in addition to dynamite and guns at their disposal. Airplanes were now being used as both media spectacles and weapons.
Like the People’s Will 90 years before them, the PFLP engineered these hijackings because they believed that they had exhausted every other legal, nonviolent and violent (yes, war is legal) means to reach their objectives. Nearly 40 years later, we now know that holding world opinion hostage is alone insufficient to solve problems of injustice and violence.
Despite the end of the Cold War, hot wars have continued to rage over the control of oil, timber and minerals. Lucrative weapons sales, trade and debt have fueled fantastical alliances between democratic and authoritarian, even genocidal, states. Enormous wealth continues to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands while billions lack basic necessities like food and clean water. Environmental devastation only catches our attention when a village or major city is wiped off the map. These catastrophes grip world attention for a moment even as the suffering ebbs on for years, even decades, afterwards without relief.
America has been paying the price for its elusive search to insure itself against the resulting political instability. The Patriot Act, racial profiling and persecution of Muslim Americans; the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; the establishment of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA prisons; unrestrained presidential power, domestic spying, criminalization of dissent, alliances with Sunni resistance groups and the genocidal Sudanese government carry a costly premium most Americans are no longer willing to pay.
The price we are paying for America’s global war on terror, as costly as it is, is hardly unprecedented. Matthew Carr, author of the new book The Infernal Machine, explains that its rhetoric, its assumptions and many of its methods have been borrowed from previous counterterrorist crusades such as the Red Scare and McCarthyism.
What may at first appear to be an effective counterterrorism policy eventually proves illusory. Military historian Robert Asprey warned in his book, War in the Shadows, that in the history of empires “we find plentiful examples of the arrogance of ignorance compounded by arrogance of power, with resulting misery and frequently, loss of kingdom, and even empire.”
Even as America continues to scan the skies for more airplanes, on the ground our society is plagued by a seething, frustrated expectation. The Oklahoma City bombing, the Earth Liberation Front, the Unabomber, Army of God, Minutemen, Jesus “camps” and militias go hand-in-hand with evaporating voter turnout and party affiliation. Alienation is increasingly measured by exit polls warning of voter backlash to rising corporate power and widespread political corruption. For increasing number of Americans, all the options have been exhausted and desperation has begun to set in. And as that happens, the arrogance of ignorance makes for an explosive combination.
Robert Ovetz teaches political science at College of Marin. The Byrne Report returns next week.