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 9/11 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.

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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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