TERROR IS A term that rightly arouses strong emotions and deep concerns. The primary concern should, naturally, be to take measures to alleviate the threat. To proceed in a serious way, we have to establish some guidelines. Here are a few simple ones:

1. Facts matter, even if we do not like them.

2. Elementary moral principles matter, even if they have consequences that we would prefer not to face.

3. Relative clarity matters. We should seek enough clarity at least to distinguish ‘terror’ from two notions that lie uneasily at its borders: aggression and legitimate resistance.

If we accept these guidelines, there are quite constructive ways to deal with the problems of terrorism. Let’s turn to the “War on Terror”. Since facts matter, it matters that the war was not declared by George W. Bush on 9/11, but by the Reagan administration twenty years earlier. The administration came into office declaring that their foreign policy would confront what Reagan called “the evil scourge of terrorism”, a plague spread by “depraved opponents of civilisation itself”. The campaign was directed to a particularly virulent form of the plague: state-directed international terrorism. The main focus was Central America and the Middle East, but it reached to southern Africa and South-East Asia and beyond.

A second fact is that the war was declared and implemented by pretty much the same people who are conducting the re-declared war on terrorism. During the first phase of the War on Terror, Donald Rumsfeld was Reagan’s special representative to the Middle East. There, his main task was to establish close relations with Saddam Hussein so that the US could provide him with large-scale aid, including means to develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD), continuing long after the huge atrocities against the Kurds and the end of the war with Iran. The official purpose, not concealed, was the view of Washington and its allies Britain and Saudi Arabia that “whatever the sins of the Iraqi leader, he offered the West and the region a better hope for his country’s stability than did those who have suffered his repression” – as discussed by New York Times Middle East correspondent Alan Cowell, describing Washington’s judgement as George Bush senior, authorised Saddam Hussein to crush the Shi’ite rebellion in 1991, which probably would have overthrown the tyrant.

LET’S TURN TO the second of the guidelines: elementary moral principles matter. One example, of critical importance today, is the Nuremberg Tribunal. In sentencing Nazi war criminals, Justice Robert Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States, spoke eloquently, and memorably, on the principle of universality. “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes,” he said, “they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us ... We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

That is a clear and honourable statement of the principle of universality. But the judgment at Nuremberg itself crucially violated this principle. The Tribunal had to define ‘war crime’ and ‘crimes against humanity’. It crafted these definitions very carefully so that crimes were criminal only if they were not committed by the Allies. Urban bombing of civilian concentrations was excluded, because the Allies carried it out more barbarically than the Nazis. The self-exemption of the powerful from international law and elementary moral principle goes far beyond this illustration, and reaches to just about every aspect of the two phases of the War on Terror.

We might want to bear this in mind when we read George W. Bush’s impassioned pronouncement that “the United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support them, because they’re equally as guilty of murder,” and that “the civilised world must hold those regimes to account.” Bush’s remarks pose a dilemma. Either the US is part of the civilised world, and must therefore send the US air force to bomb Washington; or it declares itself to be outside the civilised world. The logic is impeccable, but fortunately, logic has been dispatched as deeply into the memory hole as moral truisms.

But let us now adopt prevailing Western hypocrisy and cynicism, and keep to the operative definition of ‘terror’. It is the same as the official definitions, but with the Nuremberg exception: admissible terror is your terror; ours is exempt.

THE INVASION OF Iraq is perhaps the most glaring example of the low priority assigned by US/UK leaders to the threat of terror. Washington planners had been advised, even by their own intelligence agencies, that the invasion was likely to increase the risk of terror. And it did. The National Intelligence Council reported a year ago that “Iraq and other possible conflicts in the future could provide recruitment, training grounds, technical skills and language proficiency for a new class of terrorists who are ‘professionalised’ and for whom political violence becomes an end in itself.” A high-level government review of the War on Terror two years after the invasion focused on how to deal with the rise of a new generation of terrorists, schooled in Iraq. Top government officials are increasingly turning their attention to anticipate what one called “the bleed out” of hundreds or thousands of Iraq-trained jihadists back to their home countries throughout the Middle East and Western Europe. “It’s a new piece of a new equation,” a former senior Bush administration official said. “If you don’t know who they are in Iraq, how are you going to locate them in Istanbul or London?”

Once again we find very easily a way to reduce the threat of terror: stop acting in ways that enhance the threat. Though enhancement of the threat of terror and proliferation was anticipated, the invasion did so even in unanticipated ways. It is common to say that no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were found in Iraq after an exhaustive search. That is not quite accurate, however. There were stores of WMD in Iraq: namely, those produced in the 1980s, thanks to aid provided by the US and Britain, along with others. These sites had been secured by UN inspectors, who were dismantling the weapons. But the inspectors were dismissed by the invaders and the sites were left unguarded. The inspectors nevertheless continued to carry out their work using satellite imagery. They discovered sophisticated massive looting of these installations in over 100 sites, including equipment for producing solid and liquid propellant missiles, biotoxins and other materials usable for chemical and biological weapons, and high-precision equipment capable of making parts for nuclear and chemical weapons and missiles. A Jordanian journalist was informed by officials in charge of the Jordan-Iraq border that after US-UK forces took over, radioactive materials were detected in one in every eight trucks crossing to Jordan, destination unknown.

If reducing the threat of terror were a high priority for Washington or London, as it certainly should be, there would be ways to proceed – even apart from the unmentionable idea of withdrawing participation. The first step, plainly, is to try to understand its roots. With regard to Islamic terror, there is a broad consensus among intelligence agencies and researchers. They identify two categories: the jihadis, who regard themselves as a vanguard, and their audience, who may reject terror but nevertheless regard their cause as just. A serious counter-terror campaign would therefore begin by considering the grievances and, where appropriate, addressing them, without the threat of terror. There is broad agreement among specialists that al-Qaeda-style terror is today less a product of Islamic fundamentalism than of a simple strategic goal: to compel the United States and its Western allies to withdraw combat forces from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries.

In the most extensive scholarly inquiry into the jihadi phenomenon, Fawaz Gerges concludes that after 9/11, “the dominant response to Al Qaeda in the Muslim world was very hostile,” specifically among the jihadis, who regarded it as a dangerous extremist fringe. Instead of recognising that opposition to al-Qaeda offered Washington “the most effective way to drive a nail into its coffin” by finding “intelligent means to nourish and support the internal forces that were opposed to militant ideologies like the bin Laden network”, Gerges writes, the Bush administration did exactly what bin Laden hoped it would do: resort to violence, particularly in the invasion of Iraq. The achievements of Bush administration planners in inspiring Islamic radicalism and terror, and joining Osama bin Laden in creating a “clash of civilisations”, are quite impressive.

A PENTAGON ADVISORY Panel concluded a year ago that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom’, but rather they hate our policies,” adding that “when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.”

There are ways to deal constructively with the threat of terror, though not those preferred by “bin Laden’s indispensable ally”, or those who try to avoid the real world by striking heroic poses about Islamo-fascism, or who simply claim that no proposals are made when there are quite straightforward proposals that they do not like. The constructive ways have to begin with an honest look in the mirror: never an easy task; always a necessary one.

Extracts from the Amnesty International Annual Lecture hosted by Trinity College Dublin, delivered by Noam Chomsky at Shelbourne Hall, the Royal Dublin Society, Dublin, on 18th January 2006.