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On Territory and Terrorism

A column by Steven Newcomb about the National Defense Authorization Act.

We have been told that a fight against “terrorism” is the reason why the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was passed by Congress, and signed by President Obama on December 31, 2011. The legislation authorizes the U.S. military, at the direction and discretion of the U.S. President, to indefinitely detain United States citizens and lawful residents, without charge or trial.

Before signing, President Obama stated he would not use indefinite detention powers against U.S. citizens, but his administration requested that the power to detain U.S. citizens be written into the bill. We have been told that the NDAA is part of U.S. “homeland security,” to protect the U.S. territory from terrorism. So, then, what is the relationship between territory and terrorism?

In his book The Administration of Dependencies: A Study of the Evolution of the Federal Empire with Special Reference to American Colonial Problems (1902), Alpheus H. Snow said that “territory” is derived from the Latin verb terreo, meaning “to hold in subjection by terror or excessive fear.” A “double suffix torium giving the whole word territorium in the Latin the literal meaning of ‘a place pertaining to a person who holds in subjection through terror or excessive fear,” or “through awe or dread, creating obedience, respect, and reverence.” (Think of the U.S. military’s slogan of “Shock and Awe” at the opening of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003).

The above etymology reveals the relationship between “territory” and “terrorism” as traced to the Roman Empire. Thus, terrorism can be thought of as a method employed by an empire, or what Snow terms “the dominant State,” for enlarging its territory and maintaining control over it. History shows that terrorism is used by an empire to take over and control the Indigenous nations and peoples of a given place by using the psychological technique of “terror” and “excessive fear.” (Think of the vicious armor wearing dogs used by the Spanish conquistadors to tear apart Indian people)

However, the national security perspective of “the state” directs the focus away from the use of terror by “the state” or “the government,” and places it on “the people.” Under the NDAA, one does not have to be found guilty of committing any crime to be hauled away and detained indefinitely for “terrorism.” There merely needs to be a suspicion on the part of the government that someone, anywhere on the planet, has provided “material support to the enemy,” unproven before any court of law. The NDAA seems to be part and parcel of a well-designed plan to quell or silence dissent against “the state.”

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In light of the NDAA, the subtitle of The Administration of Dependencies becomes instructional: “the Evolution of the Federal Empire with Special Reference to American Colonial Problems.” (Snow later tried to downplay his early focus on "the Federal Empire"). Snow’s book documents the imperial nature of the United States, as a successor to the British Empire in North America; but the above etymology shows that “terrorism” is rooted in U.S. imperialism and colonialism, which was been directed at American Indian nations and peoples, and against others elsewhere in the world.

In The Question of Aborigines (1919), written for the U.S. Department of State, Snow said that the “relations of aborigines with each other, and with the colonists, and with the colonizing State are necessarily subject to a special régime established by the colonizing State for the purpose of fitting the aborigines for civilization, and opening the resources of the land to the colonizing world.” (emphasis added). Patterns of empire and colonialism are all about grabbing “natural resources” to maintain the empire’s “territory,” while tamping down resistance from “the natives.” (Think of “opening up” American Indian lands and resources, Middle East oil, “Canadian” tar sands, uranium mining, oil extraction, water, genetic materials, traditional knowledge, and all other “resources,” including cheap labor termed “human resources”).

In one dire scenario, it is conceivable that any advocate for Indigenous nations and peoples could be detained indefinitely for “supporting the enemy” by merely advocating in favor of Indigenous peoples’ human rights. This is especially true if such Indigenous activism is deemed by “the state” to be advocating against the interests of “the state” by opposing “the state” being able to further “open” Indigenous lands, territories, and resources for purposes of “national security.”

Recently, on February 1, 2012, in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that it is lawful for the U.S. government to target U.S. citizens for assassination. Thus, it appears that, under the rubric of “terrorism,” the stage is being set to ratchet up the American empire’s domestic use of terror and excessive fear to maintain the territorial imperative of the United States. Undoubtedly, advocates for Indigenous nations and peoples will not be considered exempt from such odious measures.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.