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The recurrence of September 11 has unleashed a flood of comments, some more understandable and cogent than others, but

Message Carlo Ungaro

The recurrence of September 11 has unleashed a  flood of comments,  some more understandable and cogent than others, but for the greater part predictable, pugnacious  and inconclusive.  This  could therefore be a favourable moment in which   to analyze the phenomenon, in a feeble attempt to stem the  flow of totally irrational anti-Islamic feeling  which has gained a firm foothold in much of the Western world -- particularly, of course, the United States.

The tragic events of Benghazi were  expertly timed, to give a further boost to the fully reasonable emotional aspect of the world's response to what is seen as the  enduring "terrorist threat". And yet, the greatest  threat consists precisely in an oversimplification of the problem, which  tends to ignore, or at least to gloss over, some cold, hard political facts which need to be taken into consideration.

The formal identification of yet another  "terrorist" group in Pakistan a few days ago has been accepted obediently  by the major NATO allies, and reported, with  little critical analysis by the mainstream international press.

There is a disturbing superficiality in the way terrorism is perceived and presented by the  media. The same applies to the  practically unanimous  consensus on the labelling of some groups or activities as "terrorist", with no attempt to understand their motivations.  

The inappropriately  coined  term "war on terror" (briefly labelled "crusade" before slightly wiser counsels prevailed) has always appeared as destined primarily to domestic audiences  with the secondary, but by no means unpredictable, or unwelcome, effect of creating the impression that some religious or ethnic groups are potential terrorists, and, hence potential enemies. The resulting wave of Islamophobia, particularly  in the United States and in the United Kingdom, appears to  be growing, and no steps are visibly taken to   bring it under control, or, at least, formally to distance governing circles from  an attitude which  at times encourages mass hysteria..

It may appear otiose or redundant to point out that the term "terrorism" has been in use for well over a century and that  people in occupied or oppressed areas  have, throughout history, used  tactics, against the oppressor, which today would be labelled "terrorist".

It is particularly important to remember that the misleading term "Islamic Terrorism" is unique to our time. The IRA, or ETA activists were never labelled "Catholic Terrorists", and yet many of them were devout Church-goers, and probably partook of the Holy Sacraments whenever possible.

It would appear that, as the strength of nations develops, so does their feeling of insecurity, and, as a result, the militarily  stronger Countries (The United States and the United Kingdom come to mind) deeply feel the need  of identifying an "enemy" who deserves no quarter and who is out to destroy the State's very foundations. Every Empire has its version of "Cartago Delenda Est", and the phenomenon was  acutely analysed in Orwell's "1984". During the Cold War, this "enemy"  was easy to identify, and anti-Communist or anti-Soviet posturing was  easy, effective,  risk-free and countered by  similar rhetoric from the other side. The rather sudden and unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dismembering  of the Soviet Union, however,  created great confusion as "the enemy" seemed to dissolve into thin air. The principal propounders of bellicose slogans and  indignantly righteous attitudes must have felt as if, walking in the dark, they had missed the last step.

The quest for a new face to label as "Public Enemy Number1" was made  easier by events  such as the Lockerbie tragedy: Here, presented, as it were, on a silver platter, was a reason to raise  hysterical reaction, as long as no mention was made of the events which, perhaps, at least partly inspired the perpetrators of this horrible crime, such as the unjustified, unexplained and, above all, unpunished   shooting down of a scheduled Iran Air civilian flight in the Persian Gulf some weeks prior to the Lockerbie event. So the attention was shifted, in the space of  very few months, from "Communists" to "Islamic Terrorists", and, finally, to "Islam". The necessary language adjustments were made, and the propaganda machine was in full efficiency well before  the  S.S. Cole incident, the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, and, of course, the immense tragedy of September 11 2001.

The subsequent disasters caused by a cynically incompetent conduct of the   "war on terror" need not be stressed,  and it can suffice to say that  not only was the main objective unfulfilled, but  terrorist bases were created where none had existed before.

It would be a specious exercise to  search for historic parallels, but even  a superficial glance at more recent events makes it  easy to notice how the  quality of being a terrorist resides very much in  the perception of others. Yesterday's terrorists often  become the heroes and inspirators of a new order, and at times end up  facing the earlier oppressors, on a footing of parity, in the course of  international negotiations.


To my knowledge,  a "war on terrorism" has never been won,  but, in the long run, wherever there have been waves of perceived "terrorism", the conflict has been more often than not decided in favour of the cause defended by the   "terrorists" -- Enough to  mention Partisan or Resistance movements in the Soviet Union, in Greece, in the Balkans, in France, in Italy,  in Libya, in Abyssinia and, in the course of time, in many other nations subject to colonial rule, domestic oppression or foreign occupation.

The words that precede are not an attempt to defend terrorism, but rather to explain the phenomenon in an historical context. In Afghanistan I was unfortunate enough to witness the birth of a "terrorist mentality" among people who, until then, had not indulged in terrorist activity, but who obviously felt that no other means  of reaction was left  to them. This very probably holds true for  many -- perhaps not all -- of the  allegedly "terrorist" organisations active today, just as it held true -- for example -- in South Africa when Nelson Mandela, now  a justly respected elder statesman, was vilified in most of the "free world" as a "Communist inspired terrorist leader".

These are points on which serious reflection is called for, rather than  emotional, pavlovian rhetorical responses,  or, worse, retaliatory attacks which  can only drive a growing number of young people  in the arms of the targeted organizations.


Carlo Ungaro


The author of this submission, Ambassador Carlo Ungaro is a senior Italian Diplomatic Officer, now retired. He has spent many years in Central Asia and especially Afghanistan, lastly as Political Adviser to the Italian led ISAF contingent in Herat (Afghanistan)

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I am a former, now retired, senior Italian diplomatic officer. I have spent many years (over 25) in Central Asia (sixteen in Afghanistan).
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