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Andrew Sullivan, Terrorism, and the Art of Distortion

Challenging the conventional western narrative on terrorism produces unique amounts of rage and bile. It's worth examining why

By Glenn Greenwald

May 25, 2013 "Information Clearing House" -"The Guardian" -  Everyone who participates in political debates sometimes has their arguments publicly misrepresented. Like many writers, if I noted and refuted every case where that happened to me, I would have time for nothing else. But sometimes the distortions are so fundamental and obvious - as well as pernicious - that they are worth examining. I had intended to write today about the reaction to this week's War on Terror speech by President Obama, but will postpone that until tomorrow so that I can instead discuss what Andrew Sullivan (and others) did yesterday. Beyond my wanting to correct their glaring distortions, the episode raises some interesting broader points that drive debates on these issues.

On Thursday, I wrote about the London killing of a British soldier by two men using a meat cleaver. The sub-headline, which I wrote, called it a "horrific act of violence", a phrase I repeated in the very first sentence. I described that event as one where the solider had been "hacked to death". In the second paragraph, I wrote:

That this was a barbaric and horrendous act goes without saying."

I then proceeded to raise two main points about the attack. First, given that the person killed was not a civilian but a soldier of a nation at war (using US standards), it is difficult to devise a definition of "terrorism" that encompasses this attack while excluding large numbers of recent acts by the US, the UK and many of their allies and partners.

Second, despite the self-serving bewilderment that is typically expressed whenever western nations are the targets rather than perpetrators of violence - why would anyone possibly be so monstrous and savage as to want to attack us this way? - the answer is actually well-known and well-documented. As explained by the CIA ("blowback"), the Pentagon (they "do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather, they hate our policies"), former CIA agents ("we could try invading, occupying and droning Muslim countries a little less, and see if that helps. Maybe prop up fewer corrupt and tyrannical Muslim regimes"), and British combat veterans ("it should by now be self-evident that by attacking Muslims overseas, you will occasionally spawn twisted and, as we saw yesterday, even murderous hatred at home"), spending decades bombing, invading, occupying, droning, interfering in, imposing tyranny on, and creating lawless prisons in other countries generates intense anti-American and anti-western rage (for obvious reasons) and ensures that those western nations will be attacked as well. In the London case, the attacker cited precisely such anger at US/UK aggression as his motive ("this British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. . . . the only reason we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily"). Those are just facts.

Having written about these matters many times before, I know exactly how some people reflexively try to radically distort the argument beyond recognition in order to smear you as a Terror apologist, a Terrorist-lover or worse, all for the thought crime of raising these issues. To do so, they deceitfully conflate claims of causation (A is one of the causes of B) with justification (B is justified). Anyone operating with the most basic levels of rationality understands that these concepts are distinct. To discuss what motivates a person to engage in Action B is not remotely to justify Action B.

To use the example recently provided by former CIA agent Barry Eisler in his brilliant explanation of "blowback", if Person X walks up to Person Y on the street and spits in his face, and Person Y then pulls out a gun and shoots Person X in the head and kills him in retaliation, one can observe that Person X's spitting was a causal factor in Person Y's behavior without remotely justifying Person Y's lethal violence. One can point out that a potential cost of walking up to people on the street and spitting in their face is that they are likely to respond with similar or worse aggression - and that this is one reason not to engage in such behavior - without justifying or legitimizing the response that is provoked and without denying (or even minimizing) the agency or blame of the person who responds.

This is all so basic and self-evident that it should be unnecessary to point it out. But I know from prior experience in having my arguments on this issue wildly distorted and smeared that it's quite necessary. So I did point it out: by several times making clear exactly what I was - and was not - arguing, and did so as explicitly as the English language permits:

As I've endlessly pointed out, highlighting this causation doesn't remotely justify the acts."

Concerning whether this attack should be categorized as "terrorism", I explained precisely why it's vital to ask that question: because the term bears such great significance legally, politically, culturally, and emotionally and yet has no clear or consistently applied definition, and is thus used as a propaganda tool to glorify violence and other conduct by western states while rendering inherently illegitimate all violence directed at those states. In doing so, I was equally explicit about what I was and was not arguing [emphasis added]:

"I know this vital caveat will fall on deaf ears for some, but nothing about this discussion has anything to do with justifiability. An act can be vile, evil, and devoid of justification without being 'terrorism': indeed, most of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, from the Holocaust to the wanton slaughter of Stalin and Pol Pot and the massive destruction of human life in Vietnam, are not typically described as 'terrorism'. To question whether something qualifies as 'terrorism' is not remotely to justify or even mitigate it. That should go without saying, though I know it doesn't."

If anyone knows of a way to make that any clearer, do let me know.

So now we come to what Andrew Sullivan and others told their readers that I argued. Announcing at the start that "I really have to try restrain my anger here", Sullivan quickly accused me of spreading "Islamist propaganda". Arguing that US intervention in the Muslim world both before and after the 9/11 attack was noble and often beneficent - yes, he actually argued that with a straight face - he demands to know of me: "How can that legitimize a British citizen's brutal beheading of a fellow British citizen on the streets of London?" He then added: "The idea that this foul, religious bigotry . . . is some kind of legitimate protest against a fast-ending war is just perverse." He concludes with a real flourish: my "blindness to the savagery at the heart of Salafism", he decrees, "is very hard to understand, let alone forgive".

That I "legitimated" the London attack or argued it was a "legitimate protest" is as obvious a fabrication as it gets. Not only did I argue no such thing, and not only did I say the exact opposite of what Sullivan and others falsely attribute to me, but I expressly repudiated - in advance - the very claims they try to impose on me. Even vociferous critics of what I wrote, writing in neocon venues, understood this point ("I do find myself wanting to agree with Greenwald in arguing that this is an atrocious murder rather than an act of terror"). Does Sullivan actually think that people who argued that the London attack should not be called "terrorism" (like Chris Hayes), or who pointed out the role played by western aggression in motivating them (like former British soldier Joe Glenton), or who have long warned of "blowback" in the form of such attacks (like the CIA and Pentagon), are remotely arguing that the attack was justified? Sullivan's behavior evinces a blatant inability or refusal to critique what I wrote without distorting it beyond all recognition.

So self-evident was Sullivan's Friday night bad conduct here that, within hours, numerous people had harshly condemned it. Law professor Kevin Jon Heller wrote: "Sullivan distorts Greenwald's argument beyond all recognition; I can only assume deliberately." University of Chicago Professor Harold Pollack complained that he "shouldn't have to click past Sullivan's angry post to see that Greenwald labelled [the] beheading 'barbaric and horrendous'". One of Sullivan's readers wrote him a lengthy and very astute email, published in full here, explaining to him that "your fundamental misreading of Greenwald's column is succinctly stated in your sentence: 'How can that [U.S. history in the Mideast] legitimize a British citizen's brutal beheading of a fellow British citizen on the streets of London?' Greenwald never remotely said that."

Now we arrive at the broader points that I think are raised by all of this. Contrary to Professor Heller's suggestion, I actually don't think that Sullivan's flagrant misrepresentations of what I wrote were deliberate. I definitely do think that about Jeffrey Goldberg and other various neocon smear artists who spent the last couple of days endlessly and loudly accusing me of being a pro-Terror, US-blaming Terrorist-lover, Jew-hating Terror-apologist and all the other tired neocon clichés that have been hurled at anyone and everyone over the last decade who questions the Mandated Narratives about "Islamic Terror", the US and Israel. Willfully smearing people as pro-Terrorists in order to deter free and rational discussions of US and Israeli aggression is what they do. It's their function, their chosen tactic. One expects that from them. It's just part of the landscape. Had it been confined to that crowd, I barely would have noticed, let alone responded. They and their deceitful smear tactics ceased being effective eight or nine years ago. Nobody cares anymore.

But Sullivan's behavior here is more interesting and revealing. He's certainly smart enough to comprehend the points being made, so that's not the problem. Amazingly, as his reader pointed out, Sullivan - a mere ten days ago - himself sought to defend President Obama (his life's mission) in the Benghazi controversy by posting an article in the American Prospect arguing as follows:

Benghazi was not a terrorist act. Or an act of terror. Or an act of terrorism . . . . So why wasn't Benghazi terrorism? Because the people targeted weren't civilians."

That's exactly the argument I raised about the London attack that sent Sullivan into spasms of moral denunciation. Does denying that the Benghazi attack was "an act of terror" mean that one is justifying it? Sullivan answered that very question when he quoted that same Benghazi article as explaining: "That doesn't make their deaths any less tragic or painful for their families, but it's the truth. Nor is a CIA outpost a civilian target." Indeed, as I documented, the only standards that could be used to support the choice of an off-duty solider in London as a target to kill are the standards promulgated by the US (which I vehemently reject) that holds that we are "at war", that "the entire globe is a battlefield", and that it's legitimate to kill anyone suspected of being a combatant in that "war" no matter where they are located or what they are doing at the time they are targeted for killing.

So Sullivan not only understands my point here, but grants himself license to make it himself when doing so advances his cause of praising and defending Obama. What, then, accounts for the distortions and sustained rage that ensues every time I make these arguments - not just from Sullivan but generally?

I think the answer lies in the very first sentence Sullivan wrote when responding to my column: "I really have to try restrain my anger here." It's an intensely emotional reaction, not a rational one. He, and so many others, are deeply invested on a psychological and personal level in protecting the narrative that Islam is a uniquely violent force in the world, that Muslim extremists pose a threat that nobody else poses, and that the US, the West and its allies (including Israel) are morally superior and more civilized than their adversaries, and their violence is more noble and elevated.

Labeling the violent acts of those Muslim Others as "terrorism" - but never our own - is a key weapon used to propagate this worldview. The same is true of the tactic that depicts their violence against us as senseless, primitive, savage and without rational cause, while glorifying our own violence against them as noble, high-minded, benevolent and civilized (we slaughter them with shiny, high-tech drones, cluster bombs, jet fighters and cruise missiles, while they use meat cleavers and razor blades). These are the core propagandistic premises used to sustain the central narrative on which the War on Terror has depended from the start (and, by the way, have been the core premises of imperialism for centuries). That is why those most invested in defending and glorifying this War on Terror become so enraged when those premises are challenged, and it's why they feel a need to use any smears and distortions (he's justifying terrorism!) to discredit those who do. As Sullivan's reader perfectly put it in his email:

"The emotional intensity with which you demand that the London attack be described as 'terrorism' (as opposed to 'horrific act of violence,' 'killing,' 'hack to death,' 'barbaric and horrendous act,' etc., as Greenwald writes) only confirms Greenwald's point that it is important to define what 'terrorism' means, particularly because certain folks have an emotional, political and/or legal reason for insisting on its usage. What free thinker would want to shout down that discussion? Respectfully, that is 'very hard to understand, let alone forgive.'"

But as was clear from the furor that erupted after the debate over the anti-Muslim views of Sam Harris and company, and as is demonstrated again by Sullivan's unhinged reaction here to what I wrote, the need to maintain the belief that Islam is a uniquely grave danger in the word - and that western violence against them is superior to their violence against the west - is one that is incredibly deep-seated and visceral. That seems to be true for several independent reasons.

First, it's a by-product of base tribalism. Americans and westerners have been relentlessly bombarded with the message that We are the Noble and Innocent Victims and those Muslims are the Evil, Primitive, Savage Aggressors, so that's what many people are trained to believe, and view any challenge to that as an assault on their core tribalistic convictions. The defining tribalistic belief that Our Side is Superior (and our violence thus inherently more noble than theirs) has been stoked by political leaders since politics began to sustain support for their aggression and entrench their own power. It's a potent drive - something humans instinctively want to believe - and is therefore one that is easily manipulated by skillful propagandists.

Second, all sorts of agendas are advanced by maintaining these premises in place. As the scholar Remi Brulin has documented, "terrorism" in its recent incarnation was designed by the US to justify all of the violence it wanted to do in the world from Central America to the Middle East, and by Israel to universalize the vicious and intractable conflicts it has with its Arab neighbors (our wars aren't just our fights with them over land; it's a global struggle to stop a plague that is also your fight: against Terrorism). A great new book by Harvard's Lisa Stampnitzky makes the argument indicated by its title: "Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented 'Terrorism'". The functional meaninglessness of the term "terrorism" and its highly manipulative exploitation are vital to several political agendas. That fact renders the guardians of those agendas furious when the conventional and highly emotional understanding of the term is questioned, and especially when it's suggested that anti-western violence isn't best understood as the by-product of unique pathologies in Islam but rather in the context of decades of western aggression toward that region.

Indeed, most of the responses to my argument ignored the questions I posed about the definition of "terrorism" and instead rested on pure irrational rage: this was a Muslim who used a knife to kill a westerner; of course it was terrorism (or, as Sullivan put it, "If we cannot call a man who does that in the name of God and finishes by warning his fellow citizens 'You will never be safe' a terrorist, who would fit that description, apart, of course, in Glenn's view, Barack Obama?"). Or, alternatively, critics of what I wrote simply fabricated what I argued (he blames the west and thinks the Terrorists have no agency!), or spewed outrage at the mere suggestion that anything the west does is comparable to the violence we saw on the London street. As his emailer put it about the rational discussion Sullivan allowed himself about whether the Benghazi attack was terrorism: "Imagine if someone then responded to you pointing out that fact (like Greenwald did) with the type of sanctimonious outburst that you showed here. Would you have even taken it seriously?"

Third, and I think most significantly, there is a very potent human need to deny responsibility for our own actions and avoid being shown the worst attributes of our own behavior, and a corresponding "kill-the-messenger" impulse aimed at those who want to focus on (rather than hide) all of that. It's not irrelevant that Sullivan (along with Jeffrey Goldberg, Tom Friedman and Christopher Hitchens) was one of the world's most vocal, most passionate, and most effective media cheerleaders for the attack on Iraq (which he yesterday acknowledged was "a criminal enterprise and strategic catastrophe" even while justifying it on the ground that it "removed one of the most vicious mass murderers of Muslims on the planet"). But Sullivan was not only that: he also led the way (along with Hitchens) in implanting in the public mind the idea that the US and the UK were leading a Grand Civilization War, and he spouted some of the most repellent rhetoric of demonization against anyone who uttered any protest.

Sullivan, to his credit, has since apologized for his leading public role in all of that. But as his response to me (and other recent posts) make clear, the Civilization Warrior who accuses people of being sympathetic to The Terrorists is still always lurking close to the surface ("Islam's fanatical side – from the Taliban to the Tsarnaevs – is more murderous than most", he wrote last month). I don't think it's hard to see why he, along with so many others, clings so fervently, even instinctively, to these precepts.

No matter how many evil things your government does, no matter how many innocent people are killed by the political leader you deliriously adore, no matter how much blood you have on your own hands for exploiting your media platform to publicly cheer for mass violence and slaughter, all of that can be redeemed, or at least mitigated, only if there is Someone Else Over There who you can point to as The Supreme and Unique Evil. Sure, we make mistakes and do some bad things. But we're not like them: the Ultimate Savages. The Primitive Islamic Hordes. The Terrorists. That's why it's urgent that these designations of special evil (Terrorist) be reserved exclusively for Them: only then can we elevate ourselves.

Once that framework is implanted, then our violence is understandable, noble, well-intentioned, necessitated by their pure evil. By stark contrast, their violence is sub-human, senseless, and utterly unrelated to anything we do. Just marvel at the visceral and psychologically revealing language that Sullivan, after ennobling western violence, uses for the London attack [his emphasis]: "terrorism in its most animal-like form, created and sustained entirely by religious fanaticism which would find any excuse to murder, destroy and oppress Muslims and non-Muslims in the name of God." This is the very personal need that bolsters this worldview and prompts such rage when it is challenged: the need to view oneself in a better light, to avoid the reality of what one supports and enables.

I used to wonder how people like Sullivan and other Americans and westerners, who continuously justify any manner of violence and militarism by their own side, could possibly spend so much time pointing to others and depicting them - those people over there - as the embodiment of violence and savage aggression. But at some point I realized that it's precisely because they continuously justify so much violence and aggression from their side that they have such a boundless compulsion to depict others as the Uniquely Primitive and Violent Evil. That's how they absolve themselves. It's how they distract themselves from the reality of what they support and what their governments do in the world. And it's why few things produce quite as much personal resentment and anger than demanding that they first gaze into a mirror before issuing these absolutist denunciations about others.


For reasons I'll let the Guardian explain, all of the comments to all of the columns and articles posted on the London attack were deleted, and the comment sections then closed. I hope that won't happen to today's column here, as the topics discussed here are not really about the attack but the broader debate about terrorism. But it's possible that it will happen again. Those wanting to post comments should be aware of this possibility before spending your time and energy to write one.

See also

French soldier stabbed in neck outside Paris: Soldier loses considerable amount of blood after being stabbed, but his condition is reportedly not life threatening.

Soldier's death fuels far right march in UK: EDL supporters decry 'Islamification' of Britain after soldier was killed by two attackers reportedly of Muslim faith.

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