Opinion » Lead

Updated: May 3, 2013 01:23 IST

America’s politics of convenience

  • Narayan Lakshman
Comment (27)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

The country’s past unwillingness to call out Chechen extremism and its continuing reluctance to bring in gun control laws expose its double standards on terrorism

After the Boston Marathon bombers struck on April 15, killing four in their wake and injuring 264, the initial caution about ethno-religious stereotyping of “Islamic extremists” appears to have given way to a freewheeling discourse that seeks to firmly tie Muslims to global terror plots.

Before this rather crude logic acquires a national echo and, similar to the post-9/11 scenario, fuels hate crimes against ethnic minorities such as Muslims and Sikhs, it is important to give context to America’s cynical application of the notion of “terrorism.”

Particularly we may ask: who qualifies as a terrorist in American eyes, and how does the political leadership of this nation shape that perception?

In the immediate aftermath of the Boston bombing, ugly evidence emerged of how ethnic stereotyping tears apart civilisational fabric. Misdirected racist vitriol saw Indian-American Sunil Tripathi falsely named as a suspect by hordes of Reddit and Twitter users. One can only imagine the wretched situation of the Tripathi family as one of their own faced a social media lynching, only to be told a week later that a body found in Rhode Island’s Providence Harbour was Sunil’s.

Then the Federal Bureau of Investigation aided the steady, trickling flow of background details on the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlan (26, killed in a gunfight with police) and Dzhokhar (19, in custody but hospitalised with severe injuries), suspects in the bombing. Within days, the media unearthed the Tsarnaev link with Chechnya, Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan and a cascade of public commentary proclaimed the Islamist connection established. President Barack Obama kept the rhetoric moving along smoothly when he tacitly approved labelling what happened in Boston an “act ... of terror.”

Historic irony

But was it really? There are two problems with America’s eagerness to call the admittedly despicable attack on civilians “terrorism.” The first is replete with historic irony.

What happened on 9/11 on the U.S.’ eastern seaboard is often seen as the culmination of Washington’s engagement in Afghanistan during the 1980s, particularly the CIA’s shadowy Operation Cyclone, through which hundreds of millions of dollars were pumped into the coffers of Afghan fighters battling the forces of Mohammad Najibullah.

While some insist the CIA’s funding did not cross the red lines between the Afghan Mujahideen and foreign or Arab fighters, questions were raised about whether the same weapons and training that flooded Afghanistan during that era came back to haunt the U.S. in the form of an invigorated al Qaeda and Taliban in the late 1990s and 2000s.

Freeze frame and switch to another reel, this time the Russian republic of Chechnya in the early 21st century, a land in which the U.S.’ infamous “War on Terror” was inexplicably suspended.

Hypocrisy in Chechnya

Despite the grisly episodes of the 2002 Moscow theatre hostage crisis, the 2004 Beslan school siege and several other “terror” attacks associated with Chechen separatists, the U.S., led by the neocon-staffed American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), chose to turn a blind eye to events in the region.

Back in 2004, John Laughland of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group explained that ACPC members represented “the backbone of the U.S. foreign policy establishment,” and included Richard Perle, a former Pentagon advisor, and James Woolsey, former CIA director who backed George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

The influential group heavily promoted the idea that “the Chechen rebellion shows the undemocratic nature of Putin’s Russia, and cultivates support for the Chechen cause by emphasising the seriousness of human rights violations in the tiny Caucasian republic.”

The ACPC then upped the pressure against the Putin regime even more in August 2004, when it “welcomed the award of political asylum in the U.S., and a U.S.-government funded grant, to Ilyas Akhmadov, Foreign Minister in the opposition Chechen government, and a man Moscow describes as a terrorist.”

Was Washington happy to countenance violent groups so long as rival Russia and its intractable President Putin faced the heat? In insisting Moscow achieve a political, rather than military, solution wasn’t the U.S. administration actually calling on Mr. Putin to negotiate with terrorists, a policy the U.S. “resolutely rejects” elsewhere?

Moussaoui overlooked

The ACPC’s soft-pedalling on terror apart, evidence of the U.S.’ unwillingness to crack down on Chechen extremism came in the form of one of the most high-profile U.S. law enforcement successes in the days leading up to 9/11: the capture of Zacarias Moussaoui in Minnesota on August 16, 2001.

Whistleblower Coleen Rowley wrote recently that not only did her former employers at the FBI, CIA Director George Tenet, and other counterterrorism experts balk at allowing a search of Moussaoui’s laptop and other property but, more disturbingly, they brushed aside a critical April 2001 memo by erstwhile FBI Assistant Director Dale Watson.

That memo, entitled “Bin Laden/Ibn Khattab Threat Reporting,” warned about “significant and urgent” intelligence to suggest “serious operational planning” for terrorism attacks by “Sunni extremists with links to Ibn al Khattab, an extremist leader in Chechnya, and to Usama Bin Laden,” reported the New York Times’ Philip Shenon in his insightful 2011 story of “The Terrible Missed Chance.”

Even after the FBI’s attaché in Paris reported that French spy agencies had evidence suggesting Moussaoui was a recruiter for Khattab and despite senior intelligence officials admitting that “the system was blinking red” with the prospect of an imminent terror attack, no one seemed to want to acknowledge that Moussaoui, Khattab and bin Laden were brothers in bloodshed.

In the Boston investigation, Dzhokhar is now said to have indicated that he and Tamerlan were disenchanted with U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — their Chechen background cannot be discounted here — and this may have driven their ghastly actions.

If this is established as the true motive then history would have come full circle. That will — or at least it ought to — provoke more questions about the cynical manipulation of facts and an ever-morphing concept of “terrorism” that sustain the U.S.’ wars and its economy.

Gun violence paradox

A second sophisticated obfuscation of “terrorism” in the U.S. is that it is liberally applied when a person or group perceived as alien in terms of race, religion or citizenship is held responsible for an act of lethal violence, but much less so in other contexts. In this case, the discovery that the Tsarnaevs were Muslim led to an almost triumphalist cheer in some conservative corners of the country.

To give this odd overzealousness some context, consider the case of gun crime which, some such as Michael Cohen of The Guardian have argued, gets a relatively muted reaction from Americans compared to the random act of terror that hits the mainland from time to time, despite the latter’s far greater toll on human life.

Approximately 30,000 Americans die of gun violence every year compared to the 17 who died last year in terrorist attacks. On the very same day of the Boston Marathon bombing, 11 Americans were murdered by guns. In the last four months alone 3,531 Americans were killed by guns — even more than the number killed on 9/11.

Bizarrely, recent mass killings — including the Sikh Temple of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and the school shootings at Newtown, Connecticut — by mostly white, gun-toting young men, did nothing to prevent conservatives in the U.S. Congress from defeating a bill proposing rudimentary checks on gun buyers’ backgrounds before arming them.

In none of these cases did Second Amendment-warriors attach the “terrorist” label to the perpetrators. Why are James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Wade Page, and numerous others merely alluded to as “disturbed individuals?” The Tsarnaevs may be no different from these mass killers, some such as Glen Greenwald have argued, and all of these men are likely to have been driven by a combination of mental illness, societal alienation and mostly apolitical rage.

While a robust debate on the application of “terrorism” would help the American media and public avoid the frequent retreat to racist stereotyping that we have seen in recent weeks, a failure to do so would only feed the U.S.’ fatal politics of convenience and extinguish the prospect of change that could make a real difference.


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Let every country, every leader learn lessons from social history, not
of dates and names. Brushing aside all details, the U S was in a hurry
to invade Iraq 'the same night' not because there was an imminent
threat to humanity from the WMD in Iraq's possession. The U N Security
Council was scheduled to meet the next day with a draft stressing
negotiations and further 'search' in view of the fact that no clear
evidences were available on the existence of WMD by then. The Americans
were bent upon circumventing the security council resolution ready on
Coming to future, only the U S, as trigger happy sole super power, is
placed in a position to coordinate and marshal support for policies
aimed at world peace; even if not initiate them, let not U S put
spokes. The U S has to mentally accept a new multi-polar world order as
a preferred goal. In the interest of everyone. But difficult since a
private member bill can thwart any positive move.

from:  kaliappan
Posted on: May 4, 2013 at 01:13 IST

If time and again member from one community found involved in planting
bomb,then reaction is quite obvious however but there is no doubt that
cold war has rooted the terrorism in the soil of the Afghanistan now if
America is getting thorns of that plant which they had nursed for the
soviet union demolition then Its not fair to blame Muslim community by
them, as sole originator of the terrorism....

from:  anoop kumar bhardwaj
Posted on: May 4, 2013 at 01:08 IST

SAME OLD SAME OLD, nothing new in this report. Interesting read of history but nothing else. Look at any country at any period in history – there is always contradictions. UK was against discrimination, but supported South Africa during Apartheid. US complain of CHINA internet censorship, but you cannot access Wikileaks from the US. India was against Kalisthan but support LTTE during the same period – and against it later.
Know that when you point one finger at someone, three fingers are pointed at you.

from:  thiru ramanathan
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 23:37 IST

The dictionary definition of terrorism - The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

The Sikh temple shooting was classified as hate crime. crime as result of hate of race/gender/orientation.The other shootings don't have any political aim just mentally disturbed abiet white folks having easy access to guns killing others. The 9-11 incident and boston marathon bombing were expression of political and religious view through violence. BTW - The Oklahoma and Atlanta bombings (by white bombers) where declared acts of terror.

while I am all for gun control legislation - I am totally taken aback at the lack of understanding of such a simple differentiation and total lack of empathy in this article. This happens when political ideology colors reality and we express our condemnation of a horrible act through a qualification that betrays truer feeling of the act.

from:  Hemant
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 20:40 IST

We should criticize. Sure India has a law you cannot buy or keep a gun without a
special permit and the average person has no access to guns. But does it stop indian
men from raping five year old babies and killing them? Does it stop the killing of
hundreds of girl babies just because they are girls? Did it stop the Godhra incident or
the cruel burning of muslims in Gujerat? And Hindus all over the country are anxious
to vote in as Prime Minister the man in charge of that State when the atrocities
occurred.! Doesn't it prove that in every country people look forward to bloodshed
and violence and kill with impunity? So please spare us this self righteousness and
downgrading of the way Americans do things. There is one thing about American
men, Indian men won't understand. They would rather drive a truck, have a shot gun,
build their homes with their bare hands and protect their family and women by being
prepared. A far cry from fat indian men sitting in plush vinyl padded cars

from:  angela alvares
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 19:49 IST

While most of the emotions displayed both by the author as well as
those commenting here are understandable, one has to realize the
heavy anti-US bias here. Most countries , including our own, are
hypocritical in dealing with terrorism and in one way or the other
follow a politics of convenience.

And the authors points regarding Chechnya and the role Russia plays
in it seems ill-researched. Russia's approach to the scourge of
'islamic' terrorism in chechnya is far more deplorable compared to
the US and Putin's lies regarding chechen extremism have long been

from:  Sadhir Hussain
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 19:03 IST

There is only one single question "if you are feeling embarassed or insulted based on your color/race/ethnicity, then why you still stay back there? havent you got a country?". People should understand one thing, not every country will over respect foreigners as we do, and I strongly support america in this, they always keep their nation at front when it comes between nation and foreigners. Only because of that it took 11 years again for terrorists to strike US.

from:  Raju
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 18:30 IST

One of the best articles on the Boston incident and US' policial views
in its wake. History eventually comes to to take a piece ooff your
backside. Afghanistan redux.

from:  Agni
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 18:28 IST

Politics of convenience..!! Who else can do it better than our neighbour pakistan? They move closer and closer to Chinese in order to spite India. They do not realise that Chinese wont be loyal or faithful to Pakistanis. They pretend to be friends with Pakistan only to spite India. For Pakistan there can bo no better friend than India, inspite of all differences. Similarities are more in number like, food, language, way of life, transportation, civic amenities (and their shortcomings), sports, etc.

from:  N. Nageswaran
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 15:59 IST

Typical American double standards! When it is a country whose political
views differ from them, a person creating terror is a freedom
fighter!When it happens in their country,the person is a terrorist!
For those who state that there was no backlash against Muslims after
9/11,all Asians were subject to harassment by the US authorities.
The US has much to answer for!

from:  Hari Duraiswami
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 15:11 IST

Political correctness & the war against terror do not go hand in hand. In modern times, till one country's terrorist IS NOT the others "freedom fighter" , the scourge of terror cannot be eliminated. President Putin was right to have exclaimed "...imagine my pain when the people whom we called terrorists (the Chechans), the West simply called them "rebels"." The Boston bombings have showh how these so called "rebels" have rewarded America's duplicity & sham political correctness.

The poem by the former Prime Minister of India was almost prophetic "...chingari ka khel bura hota hai.."...if you lend a spark in your neighbours tinder house today,be assured that same spark will come to haunt yours tomorrow....

from:  Ashish
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 14:10 IST

It is commonly said US administration will do right things after trying every thing else

from:  Pn
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 14:09 IST

I completely agree with the author. The US of A is at the height of
hypocrisy. The policymakers there just look for Two things- Profits for
their corporates and World wide American Hegemony.
Can any of the commentators here deny the facts- that it was America
who funded and bred Al Qaida and Osama bin laden? Can anyone deny the
fact that USA deliberately attacked Iraq misleading the whole world in
the name of weapons of mass destruction? Can anyone deny the fact that
America is supporting Israel in their illegal occupation of Palestinian
territory? Can anyone deny the fact that America is supporting
Pakistani ISI for their ulterior motives and creating disability in the
There are many such facts and it is easy to add 2 and 2.

from:  Gaurav
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 13:55 IST

With respect to Chechen extremism, the author is right in saying that it is a politics of convenience. This is a matter of realpolitik. Given the competitive nature of US-Russia bilateral relations, US is perfectly happy to let Russian establishment bleed. One hopes that the Boston bombing's investigation's results forces US to rethink and call 'a spade a spade'. This might improve the bilateral relations too.
But, the issue of Gun control is different. The common men, even the President, wants to act against gun culture. But, such is the powerful presence of Gun lobby that their efforts are being thwarted. The designations of the accused are unimportant. US needs a rational dialogue among government, society, gun lobby activists to come up with a solution

from:  Mukut Ray
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 13:50 IST

Obviously we all live in glass houses! This article is also a testimony
to that fact. America also executed the Oklahoma bomber in record time,
without keeping him on death row for decades. As someone else pointed
out, domestic terrorism is a reality - in America, as in India and
elsewhere. Demonizing America is a fashion in the Indian media and its
writers. Tell us we do it better than them!

from:  lrao
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 12:51 IST

The hypocritic nature of America's policy in case of defining attacks as a terror attack or an 'American-proclaimed', attack by a mentally unstable person(in this case an American), is to say the least, pernicious.
This prejudice against the ethnic minorities must be thwarted or else it will destroy the cultural fabrication of the society. Any attacks on a large scale must be treated as an act of terrorism, barring the perpetrator is an American or not.
The arguments presented that these 'American' mass killers were suffering from social alienation,is vague, because action by other mass killers is also the culmination of some aroused sentiments against certain acts.

from:  Sahil Bhatia
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 11:17 IST

Everyone knows American hypocrisy on 'war on terrorism' and the author has nicely put out cream of incidents which were well connected with old US polices spill over effects in current context... This really helps new generation of news readers to understand the whole context with much more clarity.

from:  Srinivas
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 11:15 IST

Mr.Obama. Please preach what you practice. Do not take things for

from:  Ramakrishna Ogirala
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 11:05 IST

The Tsarenves are not mentally ill people. The US government was issued written warning by the Saudi government. They were denied Visa to attend the annual Mecca gathering. They are Muslim extremists. We don't blame the car when a drunk person is caught. A law abiding citizen should be given the same courtesy. It is people who kills people. Not guns. I wish Indian government allowed women to carry guns. I am sure that will bring down the rape crimes. It offers them protection. At least in Delhi the women should be allowed to carry guns. California state, where the gun laws are the strictest also as the highest gun crimes. Take a look at the neighboring Canada, they possess guns too, but they don't kill people. The US government should take care of the mental health of it's citizens than push for a background check. Gun Control is a hypocrisy in a nation where it is legal to abort kids.

from:  Robin Francis
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 11:03 IST

Before being critical of American double standard on terrorism, I
suggest the author to pause and think of any one country in the world
which does not practice political duplicity dealing with internal and
external issues. It looks like that human morality is hard wired in to
accepting Realpolitik, which refers to politics or diplomacy based
primarily on power and on practical and material factors and
considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic or
ethical premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its
philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism. The term
realpolitik is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are
coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian. To search for morality in policies
among countries remind us of the story of Kisa Gotami who lost her
only child. Buddha told that before he could bring the child back to
life, she should find white mustard seeds from a family where no one
had died. She desperately went from house to house, but to her
disappointment, she could not find a house that had not suffered the
death of a family member. Finally the realization struck her that
there is no house free from mortality.

from:  N.G. Krishnan
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 10:19 IST

The commentary is timely and on target! Congratulation to the columnist.

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 07:58 IST

The author is mixing many different things here: "Terrorism" "Foreign
Policy" "Ethinic/religious Stereotypes" "Second Amendment Rights" etc.

It is a fact that President Obama was hesitant to call the Boston
Bombings as "Terrorism" at first. Later, after some details emerged he
rightly called it as an act of terror. If the twin bombings at the
Marathon is not terrorism, what else is? America's foreign policy
with regard to former Soviet Union and the present day Russia is
extremely complicated. The author reads it superficially. Of the
30,000 gun related deaths occurring in the US every year, a full
20,000 are suicides and about 1500 are murder-suicides. Most Americans
(about 55%) believe that "Guns don't kill people, but people kill
people". Mental illness is the root cause of this problem. US Supreme
Court has confirmed that possessing firm arms is a Fundamental Right
of all citizens, not just a privilege. Racial/religious stereotype is
deplorable whether it occurs in US or India.

from:  Yamaka
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 07:51 IST

Let us not miscalculate in estimating the nuisance power of USA, which has created the Frankenstein Al Queida.In India the selfish middle class feels that USA is the heaven and the socialism is at the root cause of problem.But the issues with Pakistan are being aggravated by USA and their allies in order to protect their market of defence deals in present times, so that a section of officials make money at the cost of nation!

from:  atis
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 07:14 IST

The author does not know what he is talking about. First, there was
very little "backlash" against Muslims in America after 9/11. Any
Muslim who lives here will tell you that. There was 1 incident in
which a Sikh was murdered. Compare that to the 3,000 Sikhs killed
after Indira Gandhi's murder. Second, the US government has never
supported Chechen terrorists. What it did support was freedom and
autonomy for Chechens, who were being brutally suppressed by the
Russians. These are two totally different things. Third, America
labels the home-grown mass-murders as "domestic terrorists". This is
done quite regularly in the media. So the author's claim of misleading
terminology is also false.

This is a hit piece - false, misleading and prejudiced, and it exposes
the author's agenda. The Hindu's readers deserve better.

from:  dragusnki
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 06:36 IST

Although I agree with the general premise of this article, there is a distinct difference
between the gun shootings mentioned here and the boston marathon bombing. The
gun shootings are random acts carried out by individuals with no coherent theme.
The boston bombing seems (as the investigation is still pending) to be a jihadi attack
against US.

from:  Raj
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 05:15 IST

A very insightful, apt, and timely article. America's self-serving
narrative of its righteousness is costing it dearly.

from:  Uday K
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 04:59 IST

Though this article has facts, it is laced with prejudice and a typical
old-India anti-US bias. As a result it over-simplifies the facts. A
pro-Muslim lobby has not gotten India anywhere.

from:  Ram S
Posted on: May 3, 2013 at 02:00 IST
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