Edward S. Herman – 1925-2017
To mark the passing of leading media and political analyst Edward Herman, we republish our interview with him from our book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism. We were fortunate to have Ed’s thorough and enlightening contribution to our project. He will be missed.
Margaret Thatcher referred to publicity as the oxygen of terrorism, and this is quite a widely accepted idea; the implication being that terrorism requires mass media coverage to gain support, legitimacy and sympathy. What would you make of this point in regards to state terrorism?
Edward Herman: First, I should note that Mrs. Thatcher’s point is very misleading. For one thing it obscures the fact that terrorists often resort to violence, and seek publicity, in response to grievances of marginalized and weak people that cannot be addressed through the mainstream media or existing political or judicial processes. So they may need that publicity “oxygen” to gain desperately needed attention and to breathe at all. A second point that Mrs. Thatcher evades is that the state often uses the terrorism of the weak (which I have labeled “retail terrorism,” as opposed to “wholesale” – large-scale – terrorism, carried out by the state) in order to create fear, so as to divert the population from unpopular economic policies or to justify the abridgement of civil liberties and arms buildups and war. The George W. Bush administration in the United States was notorious for regularly using terrorist scares for electoral advantage or to justify some military or political action, scares that were in virtually every case based on trivial, out-of-date, or manufactured incidents. It is also not true that retail terrorist actions usually create support or legitimize those who engage in them – almost always the publicity given to the terrorists is negative and their cause is not advanced by these acts.[i]
State terrorism may be used either at home or to pacify people abroad, the latter often done indirectly through proxy forces. If a state is using terror to crush its own people, it needs to make the threat known to the populace to make them acquiesce through fear. So in this case a certain amount of publicity “oxygen” would serve state terror, although the state may deny and limit information on its terror in order to avoid damaging publicity abroad. At home not much publicity may be required, given that policy actions, such as people being shot or dragged out of houses and “disappeared,” and word-of-mouth information flows, may suffice to alert and terrorize the populace.
Where state terrorism is carried out abroad, directly or through foreign proxies, publicity in the home country is of course undesirable. Supporting state terrorism abroad, if described honestly, would be deemed immoral, so truthful publicity would be avoided by the state and discouraged for the media. The publicity itself would be deemed “unpatriotic,” and in the case of the Reagan administration’s support of the terrorizing Guatemala government in the 1980s, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were harshly condemned by administration officials for alleged exaggeration, but also for providing aid to the enemy insurgents and populace under terrorist siege.[ii] READ MORE