This morning I had the opportunity to present a lecture on International Terrorism to Dr. Larry Grubbs' American History Since 1865 survey course. Either because they were so interested or because attendance was mandatory, nearly all 300 students came.
I used a number of examples of international political terrorism to ferret out the sources and background for our modern terrorist crisis. Since we'd spent so much time already talking about the civil rights movement, I tried to apply some of the analytical lessons we'd learned there to the problem of Islamic terrorism. Namely, by examining striking and dramatic events, we worked backwards to find the root causes – real or rhetorical – and tried to come to a conclusion about the causes and sources of conflict. I chose to use terrorism as a narrative device because it is the medium through which most Americans became aware of their government’s actions and interests in the region.
There are, of course, several reasons for this troubled history but today I examined only two principal points of conflict: U.S. support for Israel and U.S. political intervention in the Middle East. I framed the lecture on seven terrorist attacks, pairing them topically (avoiding 9-11 because it and al-Queda remain such politically charged topics). For instance, I used the 1972 Munich attack on the Israeli Olympic team, often seen as the beginning of the modern terrorist epoch, and the 1976 Entebbe raid to launch into a brief history if Israel. Specifically, I tried to explain why, if the US was interested in Arab oil and desperate to keep the Soviet Union out of the region, it would so readily support a small, oil-poor, antagonized state that ran contrary to those interests. The answer is simpler that you might think. Many scholars and diplomats agree that the reasons why the US’s supports Israel are:
1. Admiration for a fellow frontier state with a strong religious identity
2. Holocaust guilt
3. Courtship of Jewish-American Voters
I also used inter-Arab terrorist conflicts to illustrate the difficulties US intervention in the region made for local regimes. Specifically, I looked at the 1979 seizure of the grand mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat, who had just made peace with Israel at Carter's behest. Through these examples I attempted to show the conflict created by the US manipulation of Arab regimes in an attempt to:
1. Maintain Oil supply
2. Ensure regional security
3. Contain Soviet interests in the region
I was thrilled that so many students seemed to immediately recognize the inherent conflict between the Arab-intervention rationale and the pro-Israel rationale mentioned above.
But for children of 9-11 (most of my freshmen were only 12 or so when the towers went down) I was most interested in showing the the US had been a target long before the Bush administration. By looking at the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, the 1983 Beirut embassy and Marine barracks bombings, and the 1993 World Trade Center attack I tried to bring the Israeli and Arab issues home, reminding my students that all of these attacks were either responses to US or Israeli action in the Arab world.
It makes sense, I think, to remember that terrorism is not a uniquely modern or Middle Eastern phenomenon. Some form of terrorism has existed since the beginning of recorded history. The term itself comes from the French Revolution. American revolutionaries are often remembered as terrorists by the British, as were Southerners by the North during the Civil War. Likewise, recent history has shown us examples of Israeli terrorists in the inner-war period, French terrorists in World War II, and American-financed Irish terrorists in the 1970-90s.
The lesson is not that terrorists can be excused. Merely that terrorism is itself a symptom of a larger disease. By teasing out the causes of terror we find the root cause of ill. And in the modern terrorist epoch, I think we find that there is blame enough to go around.