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“It goes without saying”: the Further Rhetoric of Terrorist Apologia

June 20, 2013 6:30 am 7 comments

When the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, then with Salon, interviewed Rene Brulin in 2010, the purpose of the conversation was to discuss Brulin’s research into the origins of the contemporary usage of the term “terrorism.” According to Brulin it has two origins. One is in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the late 70s, President Carter frequently used the word to apply to the Iranian hostage-taking of U.S. embassy employees. This, Brulin says, was a specific usage. It had not yet evolved into a discourse. By discourse Brulin means the organized consideration of a subject via use of an identifiable vocabulary particular to it. The discourse, then, becomes expressive of a point of view about the subject, a way of seeing it, a perspective on it, and, as such a lens, also then helps determine how users of the vocabulary will see and think about the subject, just through their determinative use of the language of that particular discourse.

Brulin says that U.S. terrorism discourse developed out of the Reagan-era application of the term to Central American insurgencies. He also claims – and Greenwald pointedly leads him in this direction – that this discourse was purposely merged at the time with an earlier developmental strain: Israel’s use of the term to characterize the violent activities of its Arab enemies. According to Brulin, this merger was the goal of conferences held by Israel’s Jonathan Institute.

The objective, the official objective is – I have the transcripts of the conference – it says that the objective is “to focus public attention on the real nature of international terrorism, on the threat that it poses to all democratic societies, and on the measures necessary for defeating the forces of terror.” And everything in [Brulin’s] book is about the fact that terrorism is not something that, is not a threat that Israel only is facing, but it’s a threat to all democracies, the whole Western world.

Then there’s this idea that terrorism and totalitarianism, meaning the Soviet Union and its allies, are linked, that the terrorists are also the totalitarians. And then there is the focus on state support or state sponsoring of international terrorism, which are issues that were absolutely not in the American discourse on terrorism until then….


…so you have a clear link between the American discourse, suddenly, and the Israeli discourse, and from that moment on, in America, people are going to be starting to talk about terrorism in ways similar to how Israel had been talking about it for 10 or 15 years.

This account provides the Rosetta stone to understanding the rhetoric of terrorist apologia. In his final column for Salon, Greenwald wrote of this history by Brulin,

From the start, the central challenge was how to define the term so as to include the violence used by the enemies of the U.S. and Israel, while excluding the violence the U.S., Israel and their allies used, both historically and presently. That still has not been figured out, which is why there is no fixed, accepted definition of the term, and certainly no consistent application.

I addressed last time the crucial claim, arising out of this argument, that there is no effectively applicable meaning to the term “terrorism.” Here also, though, Greenwald performs the reflexive mirroring that is the key to understanding terrorist apologia rhetoric. Greenwald expressly means to join the United States and Israel as politico-cultural allies and international forces and to claim an intent on their part to frame their enemies as terrorists and to excuse their own acts in contrast.

The mirror claim to be made on behalf of the U.S. and Israel – and derived from a more complex historical analysis than that in which Greenwald engages – is that totalitarian states and forces similarly oppose the U.S. and Israel and came to act against them out of the same kinds of ideological tendencies, if not for the same geo-historical reasons. Thus emerged, for this and other reasons, a natural circumstantial alliance between the two in combatting terrorist activities and sources.

The real challenge, then – in contrast to the conspiratorial challenge Greenwald asserts – is how to look at the mirror and not see only mirrorings. How can we observe circumstances and not find in them only inverted, contesting mirror images, but identify instead the substance of an actual object outside the mirror, distinguished from its inverted mirror image? For the rhetoric of terrorist apologia is purposely constructed of just these indistinguishable reflections – as in “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” It is just a matter, you see, according to the rhetoric, of which side of the mirror you stand on.

The fundamental rhetorical tools used to create these mirror illusions, deceptions, and confusions (like the hall of mirrors shoot out at the end of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, with every form an illusion until a bullet finds its mark) are what are called, in sentence stylistics, parataxis and hypotaxis. Parataxis offers semantic units that are, as the prefix tells us, apparently equal to each other in import and relation. Hypotaxis constructs subordinate relationships, as in the basic complex sentence, of an independent, main clause and a dependent, subordinate clause.

Apologia rhetoric begins with the relativizing structures of parataxis, as in the parallelism of one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But as in the attempt to first neutralize the word terrorism by rendering it meaningless, yet also contradictorily then attach it to different objects, in the U.S. and Israel, terrorist apologia frequently grounds its arguments in the pretense of hypotaxis, explored under the guise of balanced parataxis, but only effectively to reverse which ideas are subordinate to which. Argumentatively, we may begin with this emphasis, for example.

While insulting a man to his face is wrong, beating a man to the ground in response is completely unacceptable.

Effectively, however, we may end with this.

While beating a man  to the ground is completely unacceptable, it is wrong to insult a man to his face.

We alter the subordination, thus which idea we express more emphatically, here by transferring the subordinating conjunction to the opposing clause and even by reversing the order of the clauses: climatic ordering tends to place emphasis on a concluding thought. We could further the change in balance by removing the “completely” in the subordinate clause and adding an intensifier like “simply” before “wrong” in the main clause.

A disingenuous interlocutor can clam in either case that he has expressed disapproval of both acts, yet it is obvious that in each instance, one behavior has received the greater disapproving attention. What terror apologists regularly do, on both the sentence and broader level, is claim to condemn (and thus, supposedly, reject) terror, while proceeding to argue for a more balanced view of interests, and of cause and effect, that functionally, like the complex sentences above, excuses Islamist and Arab terrorism by explaining their roots in American and Israeli acts. The United States and Israel are effectively assigned the responsibility for the terror against them and even, as the word is criticized as meaningless, covertly and overtly charged with terrorism themselves.

Terror apologists pretend that the argument is conceptual. It is an ongoing disagreement over and search for clarity about the meaning of words: terrorism, democracy, justice, freedom. What can gay rights really mean in an “apartheid” state? They must not be rights or an expression of liberty at all; they must be covertly something else, for which the apologists make up new words: pinkwashing, homonationalism. Faced with these common human and political contradictions, pretending that the contest is rhetorical rather than ideological, the apologists, rather than critically examine their principles, thus expand the vocabulary of their own formative discourse, from which they cannot escape.

Rather than directly state, in many cases, that at this point in the moral millhouse of human history terror apologists judge the West to be the world’s foremost malevolent and politically destructive agent, they pretend that clearer moral insight can be produced if we just rhetorically re-envision it. One rhetorical device the apologists use to mask this avoidance is

It goes without saying.

This is a common place figure. It is used to introduce a long defense of the grievances behind a violent terrorist attack, as, when writing about the brutal murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in “Was the London killing of a British soldier ‘terrorism’?” Glenn Greenwald offered,

That this was a barbaric and horrendous act goes without saying, but given the legal, military, cultural and political significance of the term “terrorism”, it is vital to ask: is that term really applicable to this act of violence? [Emphasis added]

Sometimes terror apologists do literally believe that “it goes without saying” blah, blah, blah, and do not say it at all. Most of the time, however, they do, as a sop to humane sensibilities and as a cover for the true balance of their antipathies and sympathies, make this offering of what, in rhetoric is called a performative: a statement that performs the very act, just in the speaking, that it articulates. To say that it goes “without saying” is, in fact, nonetheless actually to say it – and in this figure, since it purports not to be saying it (“goes without saying that“), we might call it an anti-peformative performative. (I’m just sayin’.)

It goes without saying can take different forms, in different words. For instance, on October 18, 2001, Noam Chomsky gave a talk at MIT in the aftermath of 9/11. Titled “The New War Against Terror,” it provided, even in those circumstances, the usual anti-American presentation from Chomsky, during the course of which he accused the United States of perpetrating in Afghanistan, and so quickly, “some sort of silent genocide.” Before all that, though, Chomsky said,

I’m going to assume 2 conditions for this talk. The first one is just what I assume to be recognition of fact. That is that the events of September 11 were a horrendous atrocity probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war.

That was Chomsky’s “it goes without saying” saying figure, after which it did, as is always so, further go without ever saying again.

The “it goes without saying” formulation has an additional purpose. We might call it the foundation for  plausible refutation. Greenwald’s piece on Rigby’s murder earned him a spat with Andrew Sullivan, who was enraged by Greenwald’s – I think the term would be apologia. This enabled Greenwald to respond with the a follow up figure of speech.

I expressly stated

Greenwald replied to Sullivan thus:

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. [Emphasis added]

It is a wonder so many people keep getting Greenwald so wrong when he so expressly states his positions so clearly: “the exact opposite of what Sullivan and others falsely attribute to me.”

How can this be? Would not those who until now, according to Greenwald, grievously mistake him, happily accept a commonality in condemnation of this awful violence, whatever continuing disagreements there may be? What can possibly be the source of such misunderstanding?

Here is Noam Chomsky, again, in the Monthly Review of November 2001.

We should not forget that the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.

Here is Chomsky being questioned by Deborah Solomon of The New York Times on November 2, 2003.

Have you considered leaving the United States permanently?

No. This is the best country in the world.

Why would anyone be confused?

There is on the basis of these two sentences, actually, greater legitimate cause for confusion than there is in Greenwald. Juxtaposed as I have offered them, the sentences are paratactic. Neither one primary or subordinate to the other, they are unmistakably contradictory. In broader contexts, however, both Chomsky and Greenwald, and many like them, are quite clearly hypotactic in their rhetorical structures. They may offer expressions critical of violent political acts against the U.S. Israel, the United Kingdom, and other Western nations, but those judgments are unmistakably subordinate to the analysis that follows and which is intended to clarify a basis for understanding the violence, for rooting it in acts by the West that are original and, at the very least, worse, because originating in greater power.

Whether this understanding rises to the status of justification for terrorist violence – apologia – is yet another area of dispute and rhetorical dissimulation.

(Next time: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner.)


  • my direct, living experience is in Sderot that town in the south of Israel. No I do not live there, but i have many friends since i worekd as a nurse there.
    when the palestinians (let us call them like that for now) makle what they call “resistance” to the israeli army, they attack this town which is absolutely not a military aeria, they destroy infrastructures, kill and wound people, children. THIS IS TERROR. when they managed to infiltrate themselves in a village at night, they killed an entire family, parents and three children.THIS IS TERROR it has nothing to do with legal resistance

  • research into the origins of the contemporary usage of the term “terrorist”?

    NO, this is the article…..

    research into the origins of the contemporary usage of the term “palistinian”

    as far as I have found, palistinian refers to JEWS..
    as any roman warrior
    better yet, ask any BRITISH SOLDIER 1947/48
    palistinian are JEWS
    arabs are arabs.. oh yes,,look at some legal of the documents signed from 1920 – 1948.

    IF ‘JEWISH MEDIA’ would remember that,
    instead of HELPING the arabs convince the world of their ancient ‘rights’ to ISRAEL lie…
    it would have saved lives and troubles,

  • This is fairly typical: the commenter doesn’t verse herself, doesn’t engage the present argument, and simply spouts discourse jargon.

    The first paragraph explicitly stated that this consideration addresses “contemporary” usage of the term “terrorism.” The first installment of this series, linked and obviously unread, references the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette’s apocryphal statement.

    As for the “settler-colonial” (the settling comes first) stop-gap for thinking and engaging, I direct the commenter to the following, if she feels more like reading this time:

    • You can deny the roots but it is the same plant. Your retort would be more forceful if the Israeli contingency did not mock back – “USA did the same thing.” The pronouncements in this article are ludicrous, if you want to stop the accusation of being colonizers you have to stop committing the atrocities, promoting historical fallacies (no, you are not talking to a novice here). Perhaps you will get will get more then a few votes at the next UN assembly for Israel, if not you can always fall back on the common pattern of saying they are antisemitic.

      • While David Herz offers one of the possible reasonable responses to Vered and the “settler-colonial” construct and canard, I simply point out that it is here a red herring. Vered seems to like to drag them, but that is not what I wrote about. In response to that, we get a lot of snorting and only one direct if empty response to what I did write – that its “pronouncements” are “ludicrous.”

        Of course, what Vered fails to respond to are not pronouncements, but an analytical line of argument. If Vered thinks any of its claims mistaken (we can reserve “ludicrous” for later), let her only identify which and try to account for why. All she need do, rather than blow hard, is attempt to focus.

  • Actually the phrase “terrorism” in European use was coined during the French Revolution. It was used by royalty and their interests to describe the revolt of the people who were starving to death while Antoinette pronounced – “let them eat cake.”

    In the US usage it is common to the colonial settler state paradigm, which is what Israel practices. There has never been a settler state which did not say at first the land was empty or not properly used – that the indigenous people are always “savages-terrorists,” in order to swallow the stolen land for their own use. Another theme is that “God” gave the colonialist the land. Look at any settler state – Israel, USA, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc., and you will always find the same the same mix and the same attended atrocities.

    • @Vered, it’s amazing that people must create new paradigms to cast aspersions on the State of Israel. It appears the only purpose of the modern use of the term “colonial settler state” is equating the State of Israel with other states that had much more violent and repressive colonial pasts.

      Plenty of populations have shifted or been displaced as a result of wars and the treaties settling them thereafter. Plenty of people have lost lands and had to start over again, many Jews among them.

      Let’s stick with the facts. There are many states. Let us measure them against our modern values and see how they come up now. There is simply no other state in the Middle East, or any Arab or Islam dominated state that affords the rights that Israel does.

      I would suggest that most of the world has been subject to some kind of colonial past. Perhaps we should be asking what values drove the states that emerged from this?

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