The Iraq war has been contentious in the media for a number of reasons, not least of which is the opportunity for political polarization and controversy, which understandably enough is good for the old bottom line. Similarly, politicians have used the grist of controversy and doubt to further their own aims, temporarily forsaking the unity of purpose that existed for a brief moment after the terrorism of September 11th.
As young boomers, former hipsters, and want-to-be political activists across the political rainbow began to digest the highly enriched food for thought given in soundbites and news articles devoid of context and historical understanding, there began a significant expansion of tolerance for fringy explanations and analysis of history, warfare, decisions at the highest levels of government, and the overall temperment of our national leadership.
In hopes of establishing a more accurate definition of terrorism, I’d like to offer the following: terrorism refers to violent acts designed to increase the leverage of small non-state entities through notoriety, fear-spreading, and implicit threats of more destabilizing acts. States, on the other hand, that conduct violent, lawless acts against civilians or other armed players are committing military crimes, not terrorism. The difficulty in equating “terrifying acts” of terrorists and state actors (even when there is not that much discernable difference in the means) is partly due to the question of legitimacy and partly due to the infrastructure of the respective entities.
With respect to legitimacy, if a state conducts an act of war, the very nature of its internal support or international partnerships lends “legitimacy” to its acts; not that the military tactic is necessarily fair, or nice, or designed to engender a friendly response, but that it is designed to effectuate the ends of the will of the electorate, or, in the case of an unelected government, the will of a leadership that is driving the political and economic mechanisms that define that state in relation to other states.
Legitimacy is therefore conferred upon those entities that we do business with or conduct negotiations with or in some case even go to war with, not because their aims are seen as legitimate to us, but because we believe that there is a reasonable hope that they and we have some commonality of interests that may benefit both parties. Hence, the USA and Japan were negotiating right up to the time that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in the hope that our competitor might see an advantage in subscribing to our view and reduce its aggressive strategy in the Pacific. The Japanese government was not a democratically elected one, its aims were directly antagonistic to our own, yet it was legitimate to talk with them because this was the least costly way available to us (in terms of money and lives) to communicate our goals with an entity that had the capacity to alter its own in response.
Was the American military action in Vietnam terrorism, as some would claim, simply by virtue of its unpopularity and generaly perceived lack of obvious and urgent necessity? Were the military actions of Nazi Germany with all of its collateral cruelty terrorism? One should legimately answer “no” to both questions, despite the temptation to ascribe the strongest descriptor to the means applied by both state actors. To do otherwise is unwise, because it equates the totality of motivation of states and terrorists. The actions taken by both states (legitimate or illegitimate depending upon your brand of nationalism) were militaristic and terrifying, especially to those they targeted, but they were not terrorism.
Very small non-state entities, like Hamas, or the Jewish extremist groups in 1946, do/did engage in terrorism, on the other hand. Terrorist groups of the Arabs and Jews held no legitimate status among non-local actors and were not equipped for other, non-military engagement, as states generally are. States, due to the necessity of trade and regional and international relations have certain pressures that constrain them, even as Germany would have been, had Chamberlain not bent his body forward in sublime submission. Palestinian Hamas’ was recently getting closer to negotiating with their sworn Zionist enemy, Israel, which prompted Lebanese Hamas/Hezbollah to change the subject. Had Palestinian Hamas engaged itself as a state actor, it would have done so in response to the pressures of statehood (i.e., the necessity of paying government workers who have been starved of wages for too long, as well as the necessity of trade and international aid, ect.
Hamas, a terrorist group that recently ducked under the alien roof of democratc government, began to bend further under the requirements of legitimacy. The roof is presently shattered. Because Palestine Hamas is not free of the influence of the non-state Syrian Hamas/Hezbollah leadership, their actions remain terrorism.
Terrorist groups have no diplomatic and relational pressures reining them in. This is the huge distinction between terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah or al-Qaeda, and militarily active nation-states. Since 9/11, pacifist activists have made the argument that any state that engages in military action is a terrorist state. This is simplistic and it tends to dilute the gravity of terrorist actions by eliminating a properly distinctive category for its reprehensible acts.
War is hell. It is even worse when civilians are purposefully targeted, regardless of who does it, but terrorists are not mainstream representatives of their nation’s people. If they were, they would become the government itself, as was not quite the case in Taliban Afghanistan or with Arafat’s PLO in Palestine. Consider this: When state entities act, the local, regional, and international communities may react and force concessions– remember South Africa before Nelson Mandela? When terrorists act, who exactly does the international community join forces against? It is much more complicated to coordinate anti-terrorist military moves than anti-state actions.
By definition, terrorist organizations are a very slippery target. No land to lose, no armies to target. That puts terrorists at a distinct advantage, and helps explain why they must be fiercely and mercilessly hunted. Too, because of the decentralized, confederated nature of terrorist groups, negotiation becomes a very tenuous and unreliable option for state actors. Governments and legitimate entities may negotiate, but terrorists don’t. The PLO ceased to be an official terrorist organization once they began talking to Israel—this was explicitly stated in the Oslo accords. Of course, the PLO’s subsequent actions betrayed their shallow “commitment” to a negotiated settlement, but this just punctuates the point that terrorists can not conduct meaningful negotiations until they lose the veil of illegitimacy. Obviously, Arafat could not be the negotiating partner for the Palestinians, because his support for terrorist actions did not dissipate, even as his international standing grew.
For talks between Palestinians and Israelis to be successful, someone who represents a larger segment of the Palestinian Arab population, and someone for whom ultimate ends are not achieved by ultimate means, but rather by negotiated means, must be empowered to speak on their behalf.
With regard to the argument that this is all a game of semantics and that the definable boundaries are, after all, flexible, I would say that it is a mistake to believe that we in the West do not possess the capability (or empathy) to understand the underlying motivations of terrorists, as if all of the wrongs perpetrated by the powerful upon the oppressed middle classes in developing countries have given rise to a new strain of necessity among the latter that we cannot understand.
That the oppressed and disappointed choose terrorism as their vehicle through the iron ceiling imposed upon them by thuggish dictators and kings is certainly an indicator of their feeling of powerlessness, but this recognition should not be used by Western elites to legitimize the actions of terrorists, nor should the definitions of patriots and freedom fighters be rewritten to accommodate such cowardice. Such an abdication of one’s duty to empathize honestly with the weak is patronizing to other cultures and indicates a debauched sensibility among those who have inherited great power, i.e., the West. In truth, those who would give condonation to terrorists have extremely low expectations of the middle class populations of color who have suffered oppression at the hands of their leaders. In another context, George W. Bush called it the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
As it is, the media and university elites were until very recently treating Palestinian terrorism with a good deal of sympathy, while similar actions would be labeled as unforgivable if committed by Israelis. Ariel Sharon was excoriated as a brutal military leader who failed to stop the Lebanese massacre of Palestinians, as the man who brought the Intifada II to life by visiting the Temple Mount, and as the man who was bent on re-establishing permanent Israeli rule over the occupied territories. Arafat, on the other hand, was forgiven his role—indeed, it was rarely, if ever, mentioned—as the leader of the PLO that brought airline hi-jacking into being, that assasinated nine Israeli Olympians in Munich in 1972, and that hi-jacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro, tossing an elderly wheelchair bound Jew off the deck and into the sea. This forgiveness was extended by President Clinton, who welcomed Arafat, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, to the White House more than any other world figure during his 8 years in office.
We should substitute reasonable expectations of dignity and hope for the unlimited sympathy that is currently given by the scholarly and media elites. Case in point: Were Ghandi’s masses any less poor than the Palestinians? (In fact, they were much poorer!) Any less educated? Any less oppressed? Yet the burdened, oppressed masses of 20th century India were able to bring into being a revolutionary victory over a region many, many times larger against a foe infinitely stronger and more influential. Why are the Palestinians only “able” to respond with cowardly terrorism by “martyrs?” Well, for one, India had the great advantage that their spiritual and political inspiration was wielded by Ghandi, instead of the corrupt, dictatorial Arafat. It is a cruel irony that the most oppressive force that Palestinians face comes from within.
The terrorists of Al-Qaeda do not represent the interests of the Arab or Muslim populations—just their frustrations. Terrorism is not a legitimate form of action when it cannot lead to freedom and sustainability for the populations it claims to benefit. Therefore, it must not be tolerated or condoned. By the same token, brutal military actions of “legitimate” states that fail to meet the requirements and expectations of democratic and free populations are no more tolerable.
The emotion associated with issues of war and politics must be channeled properly in order to allow us to have intelligent discussions about issues of the day. The stakes are too high to continue placing our feet into the quick sand of true believership. The confusion of what constitutes terrorism is but one symptom of our slowly sinking reasoning power. It is time to reclaim our integrity, our realism, and our unlimited energy to light the world with the centuries old momentum toward a world of reason and hope.