When We Do It, It Isn't Terrorism

This week's New York Times Sunday magazine features a story about Lori Berenson, an American citizen who was arrested in Peru in 1995 on terrorism charges. It rambles on for some 8300 words describing in great detail her personal life and how she has been living since her release from prison last year. While evoking sympathy for Berenson, the article misses an opportunity to encourage some much-needed national introspection. The country would have been far better served by a serious discussion of terrorism rather than a puff piece that barely mentions why Berenson wound up in a Peruvian prison.

For instance, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has maintained for years that Berenson was completely innocent, is quoted as saying she remained in jail so long because the U.S. government did not do enough on her behalf. While the article notes that, when arguing for her parole, Berenson "apologized if her presence in Peru contributed to violence", it does not mention that Berenson twice last year, in writing, appealed for the commutation of her sentence by apologizing for the "crime of terrorist collaboration." Instead, after almost 6000 words, it quotes her as saying "It might not have been intentional, but the bottom line is: I did collaborate with them (the MRTA)."

The members of the MRTA, the terrorists with whom Berenson knowingly, willingly and enthusiastically associated, are described as militants, not terrorists. Much is made of how Peruvian politicians exploited the case for political purposes as if that were proof of innocence. Berenson is said to have been convicted of "abetting a terrorist plot that never took place" again as if conspiracy to commit a crime was not a crime. Ironically, the article much later admits that the terrorist plot in question, one designed to take a large number of hostages, did in fact take place. It happened not at the Peruvian congress, which Berenson visited while posing as a journalist, but a year after her arrest at the Japanese ambassador's residence.

One would think the writer of the article would be sensitive to people using journalism as a cover story for criminal activity. And yet the article simply states Berenson had "journalist's credentials and assignments from two American publications." Try finding "Third World Viewpoint" or "Modern Times" or any article written by Berenson.

Since she has at last admitted to at least being an accidental terrorist, one would think that there might have been some focus on how Peru was affected by terrorism. But the article barely mentions the 70,000 Peruvians who died and then only in the context of implying that the overwhelmingly negative public opinion about her release was an overreaction.

When terrorist acts were committed against the United States on 9/11, the constitution and supposed American values were quickly thrown overboard as the Bush administration was given carte blanche. Just this week the Supreme Court heard a case in which the Justice Department argued, in effect, that former Attorney General Ashcroft was above the law, and therefore not in any way liable for the gross violation of the rights of a man held under the pretext of being a material witness, because it was necessary to combat terrorism.

The article makes much of the fact that the former Peruvian president, Alberto Fujimori, is in jail because of excesses committed in his war on terrorism, again seeming to offer that as a way of exculpating Berenson. Meanwhile people like Ashcroft, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld collect seven-figure advances for their books and six-figure fees for their speeches and the hundreds of thousands of civilians that died as a result of the invasion of Iraq never get a moment's thought.

The article's writer is a novelist, not a reporter, so perhaps it was inevitable that it would pay more attention to Berenson's earrings and the color of her slacks than to what she did and her responsibility for it. And forget about having any wider discussion about how societies react to terrorist threats and the excesses committed by their leaders when given the opportunity to exploit their people's fear. Since we live in a democracy, that would implicate all of us, and that is something we would rather not think about.