The Golden Rule Of State Violence: Terrorism Is What They Do; Counterterrorism Is What We Do

A defining feature of state power is rhetoric about a ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ role in world affairs. Errors of judgement, blunders and tactical mistakes can, and do, occur. But the motivation underlying state policy is fundamentally benign. Reporters and commentators, trained or selected for professional ‘reliability’, tend to slavishly adopt this prevailing ideology.

Thus, on the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, an editorial in the Independent on Sunday gushed about ‘Bush’s desire to spread democracy as an end in itself’. It was, the paper said, ‘the germ of a noble idea’. There was  ‘an idealism’ about Blair’s support for Bush. The drawback was that the execution of the righteous vision had been ‘naive, arrogant and morally compromised by torture and the abrogation of the very values for which the US-led coalition claimed to fight’.

But now we have Nato’s ‘successful’ mission in Libya to help wipe the slate clean. The paper writes that ‘the deserts of North Africa … turned out to be more fertile soil for democracy than could have been imagined.’ Libya is the great cause ‘where the idea of liberal intervention could be rescued and to an extent redeemed from the terrible mistake of Iraq.’

Note that the invasion-occupation of Iraq is described as a ‘mistake’, not the supreme international crime as judged by the standards of the post-WW2 Nuremberg Trials.

The horrendous murder of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian, by British soldiers ‘was a reminder of how much the Iraq war tarnished Britain’s reputation abroad.’ The implication is that Britain’s ‘reputation’ is fundamentally decent, only occasionally ‘tarnished’.

The paper concludes:

‘there is a hope that Britain, with a more realistic understanding of its capability, could regain some of the ethical role in the world that it lost after its mistaken response to 9/11.’

In the wake of all that has happened in the past ten years (and more), it takes a committed form of self-deception to cling to the shredded image of Britain’s ‘ethical role in the world’.

In several powerful books, based on careful research of formerly secret UK government documents, historian Mark Curtis has laid bare the motivations and realpolitik of British foreign policy. Ethics and morality are notable in these internal state records by their absence. Curtis observes:

‘a basic principle is that humanitarian concerns do not figure at all in the rationale behind British foreign policy. In the thousands of government files I have looked through for this and other books, I have barely seen any reference to human rights at all. Where such concerns are evoked, they are only for public-relations purposes.’ (Unpeople, Vintage, 2004, p. 3)

But the myth of benevolence must be maintained, even to the extent of active deception of the British public:

 ‘in every case I have ever researched on past British foreign policy, the files show that ministers and officials have systematically misled the public. The culture of lying to and misleading the electorate is deeply embedded in British policy-making.’ (Ibid., p. 3)

In his political work, Noam Chomsky often cites a definition of terrorism from a US army manual as:

‘the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature. This is done through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.’

By this definition, Chomsky points out, the major source of international terrorism is the West, notably the United States.

As for Britain, Curtis says:

‘The idea that Britain is a supporter of terrorism is an oxymoron in the mainstream political culture, as ridiculous as suggesting that Tony Blair should be indicted for war crimes. Yet state-sponsored terrorism is by far the most serious category of terrorism in the world today, responsible for far more deaths in many more countries than the “private” terrorism of groups like Al Qaida. Many of the worst offenders are key British allies. Indeed, by any rational consideration, Britain is one of the leading supporters of terrorism in the world today. But this simple fact is never mentioned in the mainstream political culture.’ (Web of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p. 94)

In Unpeople, Curtis estimates the number of deaths in the post-WW2 period for which Britain bears significant responsibility, whether directly or indirectly. He tabulates mortality estimates for all the wars and conflicts in which Britain participated or otherwise played a significant role, for example in covert operations or diplomatic support for other governments’ violence. The examples include: war in Malaya (1948-1960), war in Kenya (1952-1960), the Shah’s regime in Iran (1953-1979), Indonesian army slaughters (1965-1966), the Indonesian invasion of East Timor (1975), US aggression in Latin America (1980s), the Falklands War (1982), the bombing of Yugoslavia (1999), the bombing of Afghanistan (2001) and the invasion of Iraq (2003).

As Curtis acknowledges, estimates of deaths in any conflict often vary widely and he does not pretend to be offering a ‘fully scientific analysis’. But erring on the side of caution, he arrives at a figure of around ten million deaths in the post-war period for which Britain bears ‘significant responsibility.’ Of these, Britain has ‘direct responsibility’ for between four and six million deaths. These are shocking figures, and essentially unmentionable in corporate news and debate.



The Doublespeak Of Terror/Counterterror

One of the golden rules propping up the required self-deception of the West’s fundamental goodness is that whenever violence is inflicted by the state it is only in retaliation for violence perpetrated by our enemies. This is straight out of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Edward Herman explains:

‘[An] important doublespeak device for rationalizing one’s own and friendly terrorism is to describe it as “retaliation” and “counter-terror.” The trick here is arbitrary word assignment: that is, any violence engaged in by ourselves or our friends is ipso facto retaliation and counter-terrorism; whatever the enemy does is terrorism, irrespective of facts.’ (Beyond Hypocrisy: Decoding the News in an Age of Propaganda, South End Press, 1992, p. 44)

The notion is so pervasive in news reporting that it is virtually invisible, like the oxygen breathed by the journalist; it is simply taken for granted. Even raising the topic for discussion in mainstream circles is beyond the pale.

Consider a recent report on the BBC News at Ten. On September 7, 2011, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner reported from outside the Houses of Parliament:

‘When these anti-terrorist crash barriers went up outside Parliament back in 2003, a lot of people were shocked at the time. But we’ve got used to them. They’re a part of the world we live in.’

Gardner continued:

‘There is no clear answer as to whether we’re safer now in Britain from terrorism than we were ten years ago. We know more about the threat we’re facing but those threats have multiplied and diversified.

‘The mass hostage-taking and murder in Mumbai three years ago has led to joint police-SAS training and a major boost in police firepower.’

Gardner granted that ‘counterterrorism is also about foreign policy’, pointing out the obvious fact that ‘Britain’s part in the Iraq invasion helped recruit countless young men to al-Qaeda’s cause, increasing the danger to Britain.’ Indeed, this was a known risk before the invasion: Blair was warned by the Joint Intelligence Committee that al-Qaeda and associated groups were ‘by far the greatest terrorist threat’ to this country and that the risk would be ‘heightened by military action against Iraq’. Gardner’s report neglected to mention this.

His news item, and an accompanying article the next day at BBC News online, was framed in the necessary traditional convention: that terrorism is what they do, while ‘we’ undertake counterterrorism.

On September 8, 2011, we wrote to the BBC’s security correspondent:

Dear Frank Gardner,

I hope you’re doing well. Thank you for your report on last night’s BBC News at Ten. You rightly referred to the attacks on Bali, Madrid, London, Mumbai and Oslo as examples of terrorism. But you neglected to mention any examples involving US killings of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Here is but one example from 2006 in the Iraqi town of Ishaqi. At least ten civilians – including four women and five children – were bound and executed with shots to the head:

Nor did you mention the Israeli offensive against Gaza in Operation Cast Lead, with the deaths of around 1,400 civilians (including 300 children), or the attack on a peaceful convoy led by the Mavi Marmara.

Why do you follow a script that says that violence conducted by officially-decreed enemies is ‘terrorism’, while violence inflicted by Western states or our allies is ‘counter-terrorism’?

I hope to hear from you, please.


David Cromwell

Not hearing anything back, we nudged Frank Gardner gently on September 12 via email and again two days later.  We then received an email from someone at the BBC called Paul Rasmussen:

Hello David

I understand you have been in touch about some BBC News reporting.  If you wish to make a complaint – you will need use the BBC complaints procedure – if you are not familiar with how to do this please let me know.  Yours,  Paul Rasmussen

(Email, September 14, 2011)

We responded the same day:

Hello Paul,

Many thanks for your email. Has Frank Gardner been in touch with you?

I asked Mr Gardner to respond to a perfectly fair challenge about a report he made on last Wednesday’s BBC News at Ten, and I hope he’ll feel able to do so.

Best wishes,


We received no reply. The following day, still not having heard from Gardner, we emailed the BBC correspondent again:

Dear Frank Gardner,

I know how busy you must be. But it’s now one week on, and it’s disappointing that you are seemingly reluctant to reply to a serious, polite and reasonable email from a member of the public. I’m not seeking to make an official BBC complaint about your report; I’m simply asking you to respond to a straightforward query.

If you would rather remain silent, it lends credence to the point that your reporting does have an ideological stance: namely, that the UK state and its allies cannot be charged with terrorism, only counter-terrorism.

I’d be grateful if you would at least try to respond to this charge directly, rather than meet it with silence or any attempt to divert it into the BBC complaints system [see here and here].


David Cromwell (Email, September 15, 2011)

This was clearly too much for any self-respecting journalist to resist. A reply duly arrived that day from ‘Frank Gardner OBE’:

Dear Mr Cromwell

You rightly guess that I am too busy to answer the many people who write in with interesting and often excellent questions. The online version of my 9/11 report is attached [i.e. linked below]. I believe it is fair, accurate and balanced but if you disagree then do please feel free to file a complaint to the BBC, backing it up with evidence. Im afraid that as with other members of the public I am not in a position to enter into a correspondence.

Yours sincerely

Frank Gardner OBE
BBC Security Correspondent

Gardner’s dismissive response, seemingly squeezed out of him, is poor fare indeed. There is no meaningful attempt to debate the serious point we put before him. If we were to respond in the same offhand way to polite challengers, and tried to shepherd them towards a Media Lens complaints department, we would be justly ridiculed.

Recall that the BBC – which is state-funded, managed by state-approved appointees, and overseen by a cosy club of establishment worthies – is always declaring itself to be scrupulously ‘impartial’. Fundamental criticism of the state is protected by this shield of  ‘impartiality’. How?  By taking for granted that ‘we’ in the West are, by definition, the ‘good guys’.

As we said at the start of this alert, the prevailing ideology holds that the West may be guilty of occasional ‘lapses’, but that it endeavours with a good heart to export democracy, uphold human rights and keep the global peace. This false and poisonous propaganda image – carefully cultivated and assiduously pushed by powerful interests – can never be seriously challenged by the state broadcaster and the corporate media generally. And certainly not when the state broadcaster’s ‘security correspondent’ has had an honour bestowed upon him by the same state.

If this was the old Soviet Union, or perhaps present-day Iran, there would be howls of mirth and outrage from respectable commentators in Britain. That it is happening right here, in this ‘beacon of democracy and free speech’, is apparently no cause for concern or even comment in ‘mainstream’ circles.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Please write to:

John Mullin, editor of the Independent on Sunday

Email: [email protected] 

Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent

Email: [email protected]

James Stephenson, BBC News at Ten editor

Email: [email protected]

Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at:

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