The Essence of Terrorism

Words: 844
Date: October, 2001

Several months into the "war on terrorism," the international community has yet to agree on what terrorism actually is.

Washington's private understanding of terrorism is quite clear. Our violence, and violence by regimes we support, is never terrorism. Violence by our designated enemies almost always is.

As appealing as the simplicity of this convention is, its moral emptiness is apparent.

Many commentators trying to define terrorism decide it's impossible and retreat behind an appropriate cliche. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Or "I know it when I see it."

But it's preposterous to fight a war on terrorism without articulating just what terrorism is. While this omission has the advantage, from the U.S. view, of freeing Washington to choose its targets without constraint, it amounts to little more than global blackmail, coercing other nations to sign on to Washington's war with the threat that holdouts will become U.S. targets themselves.

If the U.S. genuinely wants to lead by moral example, rather than through intimidation, we must join with the international community in reaching a common definition of terrorism. Two requirements for such a delineation appear manifest.

First, the definition must be objective, not subjective. Whether acts constitute terrorism must be determined by the nature and circumstances of the acts themselves, not by the identity of the person performing the evaluation. Neither the U.S. nor Iraq can be free to designate terrorism simply in accord with its national self-interest.

Second, the definition must be based on generally-held moral principles, rather than on any country's particular legal system or ideological priorities. The definition must transcend the multiplicity of legal and ideological systems in the world.

Why are these two limitations essential? Because a definition of terrorism needs to command the respect of the international community to be effective. Any country's private notion of terrorism is little more than a personal enemies' list.

And because opposition to terrorism, being founded on moral imperatives, must itself be morally above reproach.

The common-sense meaning of terrorism is clear: violence (and perhaps the imminent threat of violence) directed against civilians in order to achieve political goals, the latter construed broadly to include military, ideological and religious objectives.

Contrast this with the definition of terrorism found in the State Department's annual terrorism reports: "Premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."

This definition is criminally narrow in excluding governmental violence and overly broad in encompassing actions in which property or military personnel are targets.

Because countries have the ability to unleash violence on a scale of which individual terrorists could only dream--what American dissident Noam Chomsky has called "wholesale," as opposed to "retail," terror--it is morally unfathomable to exclude state violence against civilians from the condemnation accorded terrorism.

Recall that the word "terrorism" arose in 1795 as a reference to the Reign of Terror by the government that came to power during the French Revolution. The State Department's phraseology wholly detaches the word from its origins.

On the other hand, since the essence of terrorism is, well, terrorizing, crimes against property alone, if the intent is to cause economic damage rather than frighten people, don't qualify as terrorism. Ruptured oil pipelines don't quake in their fittings.

Nor can violence against military personnel reasonably be considered terrorism, since the very purpose of the military is to engage in armed conflict. If terrorism encompasses attacks against "military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed or not on duty," as in the State Department's definition, wars would have to be announced in advance, a lovely idea that, sadly, has not garnered much support from the international community.

Military personnel are also legitimate targets because people fighting wars against colonialist or other occupying forces--whether the American colonists against the British, the Angolans against the Portuguese colonial regime, or the French Resistance against the Nazis--have the right to fight for national liberation.

Let's test this proposed definition of terrorism by applying it to some real-world events.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Violence directed against civilians (several hundred thousand) in order to achieve the military objective of ending the second world war. A laudable goal, surely, but immoral means. Terrorism.

Latin American death squads? Violence directed against civilians (over 200,000) in order to achieve the political objective of quashing opposition to various dictatorial governments. Not even a laudable goal, and certainly immoral means. Terrorism.

Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation? Violence directed against military and quasi-military targets, such as Israeli settlements intended to consolidate the occupation, is not terrorism. Violence directed against civilian targets by suicide bombers is, and must stop.

It's certainly possible to arrive at an understanding of terrorism that is both objective and universal.

What's lacking is the political will--and courage--of many nations, including the U.S., to submit their own conduct to scrutiny, and to accept the restraints on acceptable political violence inevitably imposed by any definition of terrorism.

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