Phyllis Eckhaus

Why can’t we come to terms with ter­ror­ism? Ter­ror­ism” is like pornog­ra­phy” – we think we know it when we see it,” still, the word evades use­ful def­i­n­i­tion because it cov­ers aspects of human exis­tence we’d rather ignore than understand.

Indeed, the shock of 911 was not entire­ly unlike dis­cov­er­ing the parish priest with triple‑X videos of local altar boys – we were sud­den­ly con­front­ed with a preda­to­ry under­world we do our best not to see. It’s one of the great priv­i­leges of mid­dle-class Amer­i­can life that we typ­i­cal­ly nav­i­gate our days in flight from bore­dom rather than mur­der, star­va­tion, dis­ease or rape – and we remain blithe­ly obliv­i­ous to our pre­car­i­ous priv­i­lege and the por­tion of the world that lives otherwise.

Loret­ta Napoleoni looks under that rock. In Ter­ror Incor­po­rat­ed, Napoleoni, an Ital­ian econ­o­mist who quotes Noam Chom­sky and con­sults for the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty, attempts to do an end run around pol­i­tics by apply­ing the dis­pas­sion­ate tool” of eco­nom­ics. She express­es hope that by tak­ing ter­ror out of the polit­i­cal realm, she can help facil­i­tate a world­wide con­sen­sus … as to its definition.”

Of course, hers is a futile aspi­ra­tion, as the only way to come to con­sen­sus on ter­ror­ism” would be to agree on what con­sti­tutes a just world and the appro­pri­ate means of obtain­ing it. What makes a claim to pow­er, land or resources legit­i­mate? Osama bin Laden cal­cu­lates that at $135 dol­lars a bar­rel or $4.05 bil­lion a day, U.S. appro­pri­a­tion of Arab oil means Amer­i­ca owes the Mus­lim world a fortune. 

Describ­ing ter­ror­ism as big busi­ness, Napoleoni show­cas­es Yass­er Arafat as a bril­liant inno­va­tor, the Hen­ry Ford of armed strug­gle. Frus­trat­ed by the fick­le­ness of his state spon­sors, Arafat decid­ed to make the PLO self-suf­fi­cient by set­ting up shop in Lebanon and turn­ing PLO-occu­pied regions into bases for crim­i­nal enter­prise, which seed­ed legit­i­mate busi­ness­es world­wide. Alleged­ly, the PLO once owned so many poul­try farms in Africa it could have sup­plied eggs to every Arab army. By the ear­ly 80s, the group had accu­mu­lat­ed such wealth that Arafat’s trans­fer of cash out of Lebanon accel­er­at­ed col­lapse of the currency.

Oth­ers have fol­lowed Arafat’s lead, seek­ing finan­cial inde­pen­dence through legit and ille­git busi­ness. And here is Napoleoni’s real theme: She argues that Islamist ter­ror” is fueled not by reli­gion but eco­nom­ics, a desire to break the West’s stran­gle­hold on mar­kets. Napoleoni com­pares Islamist Jihad to the Cru­sades, which she char­ac­ter­izes as a cam­paign to bust up Arab con­trol of inter­na­tion­al com­merce. But as a ratio­nale of ter­ror­ism, why favor eco­nom­ics over fun­da­men­tal­ism? The rise of Mus­lim extrem­ists par­al­lels the ascen­dance of Chris­t­ian con­ser­v­a­tives with­in the Repub­li­can Par­ty – arguably facil­i­tat­ed but not sub­sumed by an unholy alliance with profiteers.

Napoleoni is earnest and thought­ful, yet her book is enor­mous­ly aggra­vat­ing. She presents Islamism as mono­lith­ic and calls the pipeline chan­nel­ing finan­cial sup­port from abroad the Mosque Net­work” – would any good edi­tor have let her describe Jew­ish sup­port for Israel as the Syn­a­gogue Net­work”? Utter­ly indis­crim­i­nate in her ref­er­ences, she even cites Lyn­don LaRouche’s Web site as a cred­i­ble source. Her slop­py research means many of her facts” fall apart upon close scrutiny. 

Most upset­ting, Napoleoni con­cludes her book with a rous­ing endorse­ment of the Patri­ot Act, prais­ing it as the first finan­cial counter-ter­ror­ism mea­sure” that oth­er nations would do well to emu­late. This sup­posed solu­tion to ter­ror­ism pre­sumes that good guy” gov­ern­ments giv­en unchecked pow­er will right­eous­ly deploy it to shut down bad guy” armed groups. Yet as Napoleoni her­self seems to acknowl­edge, there are no good guys.” Even alleged human rights heroes like Jim­my Carter prac­ticed ruth­less realpoli­tik, under­writ­ing Indone­sian ter­ror in East Tim­or and pro­vok­ing a war in Afghanistan between the USSR and our then-friends the Mujahedin.

Besides, who’s a bad guy”? Napoleoni’s sin­gle swipe at defin­ing ter­ror­ism cites three char­ac­ter­is­tics: its polit­i­cal nature, the tar­get­ing of civil­ians and the cre­ation of a cli­mate of extreme fear.” Sure­ly, this encom­pass­es vir­tu­al­ly all con­tem­po­rary wars, as bombs and guer­ril­la tac­tics replace hand-to-hand com­bat. What was Shock and Awe if not a ter­ror campaign?

Napoleoni grants states an exemp­tion from the ter­ror label they don’t deserve. Indeed, she seems not to rec­og­nize that state-spon­sored inequal­i­ties foment ter­ror far more effec­tive­ly than lax bank­ing laws. Ulti­mate­ly, com­bat­ing ter­ror in a vast­ly unjust world is like try­ing to stop a flood from below sea lev­el. There’s no prospect of suc­cess with­out mov­ing to high­er ground.

Phyl­lis Eck­haus is an In These Times con­tribut­ing edi­tor who has writ­ten essays and book reviews for the mag­a­zine since 1993, cov­er­ing every­thing from the his­to­ry of Mad Mag­a­zine to the eco­nom­ics of ter­ror­ism. Her work has also appeared in News­day, The Nation, the Guardian (U.S.) and the Wom­en’s Review of Books, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Trained as a lawyer and social sci­en­tist, with degrees from Yale, Har­vard and New York Uni­ver­si­ty, she works in non­prof­it man­age­ment and lives in New York City.
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