Terrorism Over Tripoli
by Howard Zinn, 1993
from The Zinn Reader
In April of 1986, a bomb exploded in a discotheque in West
Berlin, killing two people, one an American soldier. It was unquestionably
an act of terrorism. Libya's tyrannical leader, Muammar Khadafi,
had a record of involvement in terrorism, although in this case
there seemed to be no clear evidence of who was responsible. Nevertheless,
President Reagan ordered that bombers be sent over Libya's capital
of Tripoli, killing perhaps a hundred people, almost all civilians.
I wrote this piece, which could not find publication in the press,
to argue against the principle of retaliation. I am always furious
at the killing of innocent people for some political cause, but
I wanted to broaden the definition of terrorism to include governments,
which are guilty of terrorism far more often, and on an infinitely
larger scale, than bands of revolutionaries or nationalists. The
essay became part of a collection of my writings entitled Failure
to Quit, published in 1993 by Common Courage Press.
"Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that
God is just." Thomas Jefferson wrote that in Notes from Virginia.
Those words came to mind as I listened to the announcement
from our government that it had bombed the city of Tripoli.
We live in a world in which we are asked to make a moral choice
between one kind of terrorism and another. The government, the
press, the politicians, are trying to convince us that Ronald
Reagan's terrorism is morally superior to Muammar Khadafi's terrorism.
Of course, we don't call our actions that, but if terrorism is
the deliberate killing of innocent people to make a political
point, then our bombing a crowded city in Libya fits the definition
as well as the bombing-by whoever did it-of a crowded discotheque
Perhaps the word deliberate shows the difference: when you
plant a bomb in a discotheque, the death of bystanders is deliberate;
when you drop bombs on a city, it is accidental. We can ease our
conscience that way, but only by Iying to ourselves. Because,
when you bomb a city from the air, you know, absolutely know,
that innocent people will die.
That's why Defense Secretary Weinberger, reaching for morality
(his reach will never be long enough, given where he stands) talked
of the air raid being organized in such a way as to "minimize"
civilian casualties. That meant there would inevitably be civilian
casualties, and Weinberger, Schultz and Reagan were willing to
have that happen, to make their point, as the discotheque terrorists
were willing to have that happen, to make theirs.
In this case, the word "minimize" meant only about
a hundred dead (the estimate of foreign diplomats in Tripoli),
including infants and children, an eighteen-year old college girl
home for a visit, an unknown number of elderly people. None of
these were terrorists, just as none of the people in the discotheque
were responsible for whatever grievances are felt by Libyans or
Even if we assume that Khadafi was behind the discotheque
bombing (and there is no evidence for this), and Reagan behind
the Tripoli bombing (the evidence for this is absolute), then
both are terrorists, but Reagan is capable of killing far more
people than Khadafi. And he has.
Reagan, and Weinberger, and Secretary of State Schultz, and
their admirers in the press and in Congress are congratulating
themselves that the world's most heavily-armed nation can bomb
with impunity (only two U.S. fliers dead, a small price to pay
for psychic satisfaction) a fourth rate nation like Libya.
Modern technology has outdistanced the Bible. "An eye
for an eye" has become a hundred eyes for an eye, a hundred
babies for a baby. The tough-guy columnists and anonymous editorial
writers (there were a few courageous exceptions) who defended
this, tried to wrap their moral nakedness in the American flag.
But it dishonors the flag to wave it proudly over the killing
of a college student, or a child sleeping in a crib.
There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent
people for a purpose which is unattainable. If the purpose is
to stop terrorism, even the supporters of the bombing say it won't
work; if the purpose is to gain respect for the United States,
the result is the opposite: all over the world there is anger
and indignation at Reagan's mindless, pointless, soulless violence.
We have had presidents just as violent. We have rarely had one
so full of hypocritical pieties about "the right to life."
In this endless exchange of terrorist acts, each side claims
it is "retaliating." We bombed Tripoli to retaliate
for the discotheque. The discotheque may have been bombed to retaliate
for our killing 35 Libyan seamen who were on a patrol boat in
the Gulf of Sidra-in international waters, just as we were.
We were in the Gulf of Sidra supposedly to show Libya it must
not engage in terrorism. And Libya says-indeed it is telling the
truth in this instance-that the United States is an old hand at
terrorism, having subsidized terrorist governments in Chile, Guatemala,
and El Salvador, and right now subsidizing the terrorism of the
contras against farmers, their wives and children, in Nicaragua.
Does a Western democracy have a better right to kill innocent
people than a Middle Eastern dictatorship? Even if we were a perfect
democracy that would not give us such a license. But the most
cherished element of our democracy-the pluralism of dissenting
voices, the marketplace of contending ideas-seems to disappear
at a time like this, when the bombs fall, the flag waves, and
everyone scurries, as Ted Kennedy did, to fall meekly behind "our
commander-in-chief." We waited for moral leadership. But
Gary Hart, John Kerry, Michael Dukakis and Tip O'Neill all muttered
their support. No wonder the Democratic Party is in such pathetic
Where in national politics are the emulators of those two
courageous voices at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in
Vietnam- Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening-who alone in the Senate
refused to go along with "our commander-in-chief" in
that first big military strike that launched the ten-year shame
And where was our vaunted "free press"? After the
bombing, a beaming Schultz held a press conference for a group
of obsequious reporters in Washington who buttered him up, who
licked at his flanks, who didn't ask a single question about the
morality of our action, about the civilians killed by our bombs
in Tripoli. Where are the likes of I.F Stone, who did in his little
newsletter for so many years what no big American daily would
do-raise hard questions? Why did Anthony Lewis and Tom Wicker,
who sometimes raise such questions-melt away?
Terrorism now has two names, world-wide. One is Khadafi. One
is Reagan. In fact, that is a gross simplification. If Khadafi
were gone, if Reagan were gone, terrorism would continue-it is
a very old weapon of fanatics, whether they operate from secret
underground headquarters, or from ornate offices in the capitols
of the superpowers.
Too bad Khadafi's infant daughter died, one columnist wrote. Too
bad, he said, but that's the game of war. Well, if that's the
game, then let's get the hell out of it, because it is poisoning
us morally, and not solving any problem. It is only continuing
and escalating the endless cycle of retaliation which will one
day, if we don't kick our habits, kill us all.
Let us hope that, even if this generation, its politicians, its
reporters, its flag-wavers and fanatics, cannot change its ways,
the children of the next generation will know better, having observed
our stupidity. Perhaps they will understand that the violence
running wild in the world cannot be stopped by more violence,
that someone must say: we refuse to retaliate, the cycle of terrorism
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