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"Terrorism": The Word Itself Is Dangerous
John V. Whitbeck

The greatest threat to world peace and civil society today is clearly "terrorism" - not the behavior to which the word is applied but the word itself. Since the word "terrorism" (like the behavior to which the word is applied) can never be eradicated, it is imperative to expose it for what it is - a word.

For years, people have recited (often with a wry smile) the truisms that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" and that "Terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder". However, with the world's sole superpower declaring an open-ended, worldwide "war on terrorism", proclaiming that this "war" has only just begun and promising to persevere until "victory", the notorious subjectivity of this word is no longer a joke.

It is no accident that there is no agreed definition of "terrorism", since the word is so subjective as to be devoid of any inherent meaning. At the same time, however, the word is extremely dangerous, because many people tend to believe that it does have meaning and many others use and abuse the word by applying it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding and discouraging rational thought and discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behavior.

There is no shortage of precise verbal formulations for the diverse acts to which the word "terrorism" is often applied. "Mass murder", "assassination", "arson" and "sabotage" are available (to all of which the phrase "politically motivated" can be added if appropriate). However, such precise formulations do not carry the overwhelming, demonizing and thought-deadening impact of the word "terrorism", which is, of course, precisely the charm of the word for its more cynical and unprincipled users and abusers. If someone commits "politically motivated mass murder", people might be curious as to the cause or grievances which inspired such a crime, but no cause or grievance can justify (or even explain) "terrorism", which, all right-thinking people must agree, is the ultimate evil.

Crimes such as "murder", "arson" and "sabotage", as well as assorted gradations of them, are already on the statute books, rendering specific criminal legislation for "terrorism" as such both unnecessary and undesirable. Creating distinct crimes and punishments for "terrorist" offenses injects a wholly subjective element into criminal law, which, to be fair and to be seen to be fair, should be based rigorously on what a person has done, not why he did it (let alone who he is or to whom he did it). A crime labeled "terrorism" is almost always punished more severely than the same act to which the label "terrorism" is not attached. Thus, killing to advance a cause in which one deeply believes is deemed more reprehensible than killing because one dislikes the victim or wants to steal his property. One can understand why those in power might consider the former motivation more dangerous. The moral and ethical balance between the two motivations is less clear.

Any dispassionate analysis of the use of the word "terrorism" also reveals that the choice to use or not to use the word is frequently based not on the act itself but on who is doing it to whom. Prior to Israel's withdrawal of its occupation forces from southern Lebanon, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, on a visit to the region, used a press conference to publicly denounce as "terrorist acts" attacks by Hezbollah fighters against Israeli occupation forces within Lebanon. Mr. Jospin seemed genuinely surprised when, the next day, Palestinians showered him with stones as he left a meeting with President Yasser Arafat in Ramallah. He should not have been surprised.

Mr. Jospin would never have dreamed of characterizing as "terrorist acts" attacks by French resistance fighters against German occupation forces in France during the Second World War. Such fighters are France's greatest heroes. Yet, objectively, there is no distinction between the two resistance struggles. The only distinction is who is resisting whom - a distinction blindingly clear to an Arab or Muslim audience. Mr. Jospin, a fundamentally decent man, surely did not intend to give a demonstration of racism and bigotry at his press conference. For someone raised in the West, where anti-Arab racism is the only socially acceptable form of racism (indeed, where it is almost obligatory at the highest levels of society), where Islamophobia is a deeply entrenched historical and social phenomenon and where anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda is relentless and rarely questioned, it just came naturally.

Arabs and Muslims are acutely aware of the widespread Western (and particularly American) tendency to view them as less than fully human - or at least not as human beings entitled to basic human rights. Enthusiastic Western (and particularly American) approval of the transformation of the Arab land of Palestine into the Jewish state of Israel (necessarily requiring the dispossession and dispersal of the indigenous Palestinian population) and Western (and particularly American) indifference to the sanctions-induced premature deaths of over half a million Iraqi children under the age of five (characterized by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, without eliciting any discernible outrage in the United States, as a "price worth paying" for America's Iraq policy) cannot otherwise be explained. No one who believes that Arabs are human beings could approve of the former or be indifferent to the latter. Holding both views simultaneously is logically and intellectually impossible.

Arab and Muslim awareness of their dehumanization in Western eyes, an obvious factor in enflaming the deep sense of humiliation and the white-hot hatred which produced both the September 11 attacks and the discreet but pervasive sense of satisfaction among Arabs and Muslims that someone had finally hit back, can only be further enflamed by the West's almost exclusive use of the demonizing term "terrorism", particularly since September 11, to refer to causes deemed just by most Arabs and Muslims. Even when the adjective "Islamic" is omitted, it seems to be implied and understood.

Americans in particular should not fool themselves about the true Arab and Muslim reaction to the September 11 attacks and the reason for that reaction. On January 30, 2002, the Arab News, Saudi Arabia's leading English-language newspaper, published the following report on an interview given to the New York Times by Saudi Arabia's Director of Intelligence, Prince Nawaf bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud: "Prince Nawaf acknowledged that the vast majority of Saudi young adults felt sympathy for the cause of Osama bin Laden after September 11. A classified U.S. report taken from a survey of educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41 in mid-October concluded that 95 percent of them supported bin Laden's cause.. He attributed the support to people's feelings against the U.S., largely because of its unflinching support of Israel."

Wars are waged against countries and people, not against religions or subjective epithets, but a "war on terrorism" whose targets are almost exclusively Muslim can readily be perceived by those so targeted and demonized, with potentially catastrophic results, as not simply a war against Muslims but a "war against Islam". A "war on terrorism" which brands virtually all efforts by Arabs and Muslims to right deeply felt wrongs as not just illegitimate but criminal, and which treats Arabs and Muslims generally as inherently suspect of "terrorist" intent and as unworthy of basic human rights, is virtually guaranteed to produce more and worse instances of precisely what this "war" is ostensibly intended to eradicate.

Most acts to which the word "terrorism" is applied (at least in the West) are tactics of the weak, usually (although not always) against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort. To cite one prominent example, the Palestinians would certainly prefer to be able to fight for their freedom from a never-ending occupation by "respectable" means, using F-16's, Apache attack helicopters and laser-guided missiles such as those the United States provides to Israel. If the United States provided such weapons to Palestine as well, the problem of suicide bombers would be solved. Until it does, or at least until the Palestinians can see some genuine and credible hope for a decent future, no one should be surprised or shocked that Palestinians use the "delivery systems" available to them - their own bodies. Genuine hope for something better than a life worse than death is the only cure for the despair which inspires such gruesome violence.

In this regard, it is worth noting that the poor, the weak and the oppressed rarely complain about "terrorism". The rich, the strong and the oppressors constantly do. While most of mankind has more reason to fear the high-technology violence of the strong than the low-technology violence of the weak, the fundamental mind-trick employed by the abusers of the epithet "terrorism" (no doubt, in some cases, unconsciously) is essentially this: The low-technology violence of the weak is such an abomination that there are no limits on the high-technology violence of the strong which can be deployed against it.

Not surprisingly, since September 11, virtually every recognized state confronting an insurgency or separatist movement has eagerly jumped on the "war on terrorism" bandwagon, branding its domestic opponents (if it had not already done so) "terrorists" and, at least implicitly, taking the position that, since no one dares to criticize the United States for doing whatever it deems necessary in its "war on terrorism", no one should criticize whatever they now do to suppress their own "terrorists". Even while accepting that many people labeled "terrorists" are genuinely reprehensible, it should be recognized that many others are idealists motivated by thoroughly legitimate grievances not susceptible to remedy by non-violent means and that neither respect for human rights nor the human condition is likely to be enhanced by this apparent carte blanche seized by the strong, in a sort of "unholy alliance" of all established regimes, to crush the weak as they see fit.

Writing in the Washington Post on October 15, 2001, Post Deputy Editor Jackson Diehl cited two prominent examples of the abuse of the epithet "terrorism": "With their handshake in the Kremlin, Sharon and Putin exchanged a common falsehood about the wars their armies are fighting against rebels in Chechnya and the West Bank and Gaza. In both cases, the underlying conflict is about national self-determination: statehood for the Palestinians, self-rule for Chechnya. The world is inclined to believe that both causes are just.... Sharon and Putin both have tried to convince the world that all their opponents are terrorists, which implies that the solution need not involve political concessions but merely a vigorous counter-terrorism campaign."

Perhaps the only intellectually honest and globally workable definition of "terrorism" is an explicitly subjective one - "violence which I don't support". This definition would explain the universal condemnation of "terrorism" in a world which, apparently, is full of it. By definition, you cannot support what you don't support, while, as a matter of usage, if you support it, it cannot be "terrorism". Indeed, anyone exposed to both Western and Arab media and public discourse cannot help noticing that Western media and public discourse routinely characterize as "terrorism" virtually all Palestinian violence against Israelis (even against Israeli occupation forces within Palestine), while Arab media and public discourse routinely characterize as "terrorism" virtually all Israeli violence against Palestinians. Only such an explicitly subjective formulation would accommodate both characterizations, as well as most others.

However, the word has been so devalued that even violence is no longer an essential prerequisite for its use. In December 2001, a Saudi Arabian lawyer told the press while announcing a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against ten international tobacco companies: "We will demand that tobacco firms be included on the lists of terrorists and those financing and sponsoring terrorism because of the large number of victims that smoking has claimed the world over." (On the level of relative moral culpability, this is not an absurd concept. More Americans are killed by cigarettes in an average three-day period than were killed in the September 11 attacks. Moreover, the tobacco industry kills for financial gain, not, like more traditional "terrorists", in the hope of making the world, at least by their own subjective standards, a better place.)

If everyone recognized that the word "terrorism" is fundamentally an epithet and a term of abuse, with no intrinsic meaning, there would be no more reason to worry about the word now than prior to September 11. However, with the United States relying on the word to assert, apparently, an absolute right to attack any country it dislikes (for the most part, countries Israel dislikes) and with President Bush repeatedly menacing that "either you're with us or you're with the terrorists" (which effectively means, "either you make our enemies your enemies or you'll be our enemy - and you know what we do to our enemies"), many people around the world must feel a genuine sense of terror (dictionary definition: "a state of intense fear") as to where the United States is taking the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, in America itself, the Bush Administration appears to be feeding the U.S. Constitution and America's traditions of civil liberties, due process, the rule of law and fundamental fairness (the finest aspects of American life and the principal reasons why the country used to be respected out of admiration and not simply out of fear) into a shredder - mostly to domestic applause or acquiescence. Centuries-old civil liberties have suffered a similar fate in the United Kingdom, for no apparent reason other than an irresistible inclination to follow the United States blindly in everything it does. Who would have imagined that 19 angry men armed only with knives could accomplish so much, provoking a response, beyond their wildest dreams, which threatens to be vastly more damaging to their enemies even than their own appalling acts?

The transformation of the Taliban, in American terminology and consciousness, from a particularly backward and repressive government (so regarded by most Muslims as well) to a regime "harboring terrorists" and, finally, to "terrorists" of the worst sort is a dramatic example of the threats to international law, common sense and enlightened national self-interest inherent in the casual, even sloppy, use of the word "terrorist".

It should be recalled that, soon after September 11, the United States demanded that Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden. This ultimatum came not only with a stick (the promise of attack and overthrow in the absence of compliance) but also, at least implicitly, with a carrot (the promise of not being attacked in the event of compliance). Had bin Laden been handed over, one must assume that the Taliban would still be going about their business of governing Afghanistan rather loosely and badly.

Afghanistan asked for evidence, none was forthcoming and the United States attacked. Prior to the attack, although the United States has long had very inclusive lists of "terrorist organizations" and "states supporting terrorism", neither the Taliban nor Afghanistan had figured on those lists. Yet, imperceptibly but rapidly, and without it even being alleged that a single Afghan citizen had prior knowledge of the September 11 attacks, anyone associated in any way with the Taliban - politically, administratively, as a simple soldier and even as Ambassador to Pakistan - became a "terrorist", to be "smoked out", "run to ground" and killed if possible and "brought to justice" if, unfortunately, he surrendered before he could be killed. The United States stated publicly that it was not interested in taking prisoners or in having its hastily recruited Afghan allies do so, a stance which itself constitutes a war crime.

On December 5, 2001, the Arab News published a letter to the editor from this writer which read: "U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is reported to be demanding 'physical custody' of all Taliban leaders and as saying 'his legal staff was studying the question of how to try the Taliban chief, Mulla Muhammad Omar . and other senior figures' from the Taliban. Perhaps 'What for?' would be a more relevant question than 'How?' It is not difficult to imagine criminal charges being leveled against Al-Qaeda leaders, although there seems to be no confidence in the Bush administration that such charges would hold up in an open court with normal due process protections for defendants. But what is the 'crime' of the Taliban leaders? Refusing to extradite a resident to a country with which their country had no extradition treaty? Resisting (ineffectively) an American attack against their country? Conspiracy to murder the CIA agent caught up in the Qalai Janghi prison massacre? Is this the sort of 'justice' for which the whole world is supposed to rally unquestioningly behind the United States?"

Well into 2002, the question "How?" was still being asked, though principally about simple soldiers, since few Taliban leaders had been captured. Are they to be tried by a secret American military tribunal? By a conventional American court martial? By an American civilian court? By a court in Afghanistan or the Taliban soldier's country of origin? The question "What for?" was still not being asked. Presumably, were it to be asked, the answer would be obvious: "Terrorism". Since these miserable soldiers are now deemed "terrorists", it is apparently irrelevant that the United States attacked Afghanistan, not the other way around, and that they never even had a chance to fight back, simply being subjected to massive aerial bombardments until they either were killed or surrendered. As "terrorists", they must surely be guilty of some heinous crime and surely have no claim to any rights whatsoever.

In this context, there is something almost psychedelic about the case of John Walker Lindh, the 20-year-old "American Taliban" whose conversion to Islam and search for some greater meaning in life than that offered by the self-centered consumerism of the "American dream" led him to the wrong place at the wrong time, to being bombed by American military forces, barely surviving the Qalai Janghi prison massacre after surrendering, being returned to the United States in chains and being indicted (potentially subject to life imprisonment although not, despite considerable public support for it, to the death penalty) for (believe it or not) "conspiracy to kill Americans". ("Conspiracy" is, of course, the charge traditionally leveled in the United States against people who didn't actually do anything but whom prosecutors are determined, for whatever reason, to convict.)

On January 23, 2002, the International Herald Tribune published a letter to the editor from this writer which read: "The United States contends that the Taliban fighters it is holding in open-air cages at its Cuban naval enclave are not 'prisoners of war' entitled to the rights and protections of the Geneva Conventions, but merely 'unlawful combatants' entitled to no rights at all in a place specifically selected because no law applies there. If the United States is justified in this contention, it follows logically that the world's only superpower has attacked a country which was one of the poorest on earth and whose regime possessed no military forces, making the U.S. 'victory' in Afghanistan more worthy of ethical embarrassment than patriotic pride."

Seemingly intoxicated by the concept of waging a worldwide war against "terrorists" and culturally programmed to view Arabs and Muslims as less than fully human, the United States, by its treatment of those captured in Afghanistan, had managed to restoke the fires of resentment and hatred in Arab and Muslim countries to levels even higher than prior to September 11, to sacrifice the moral high ground in countries neither natural allies nor natural enemies and to cause public opinion even in countries as fervently pro-American as the United Kingdom to publicly question what sort of country the United States has become. As Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent (London) in late January 2002: "Congratulations, America. You have made Osama bin Laden a happy man.. We are turning ourselves into the kind of deceitful, ruthless people whom bin Laden imagines us to be. We are now the very model of the enemies bin Laden wants to fight. He must be a happy man." Such assistance as other countries may continue to offer to the United States in its "war on terrorism" will increasingly be offered out of fear or cynical self-interest rather than out of any genuine conviction.

If the world is to avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule is "might makes right", every "retaliation" provokes a "counter-retaliation" and a genuine "war of civilizations" is ignited, the world - and particularly the United States - must recognize that "terrorism" is simply a word, a subjective epithet, not an objective reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend all the rules of international law, domestic civil liberties and fundamental fairness which have, until now, made at least some parts of our planet decent places to live.

The world - and particularly the United States - must also recognize that, in a world filled with injustice, violent outbursts by those hoping desperately for a better life or simply seeking to strike a blow against injustice or their tormentors before they die can never be eradicated. At best, the frequency and gravity of such outbursts can be diminished by seeking to alleviate (rather than to aggravate) the injustices and humiliations that give rise to them, by more consistent and universal application of the fundamental religious principle to "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" and of the fundamental principle of the founding fathers of American democracy that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, by treating all people (even one's enemies) as human beings entitled to basic human rights and by striving to offer hope and human dignity to the miserable millions who have neither. A single-minded focus on increased military, "security" and "counter-terrorism" programs and spending will almost certainly prove counter-productive to its declared objective, diminishing both security and the quality of life not only for the poor, the weak and the oppressed but also for the rich, the strong and the oppressors.

The trend since September 11 has been to aggravate, rather than to alleviate, the very problems which fueled the sense of humiliation and hatred behind that day's attacks. However, it is not inevitable that this trend must continue - unless, of course, men and women of good will, compassion and ethical values, who share a well-founded fear as to where the world is heading and can see clearly that there must be, and is, a better way, permit themselves to be terrorized into silence.

John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer.

This article is a greatly expanded version of my op-ed article on the word "terrorism" which was commissioned by the quarterly journal GLOBAL DIALOGUE (Nicosia) for its Spring 2002 issue focused on the repercussions of September 11. It has also been published in Spanish in the March/April 2002 issue of POLITICA EXTERIOR (Madrid), in German in the Spring 2002 issue of INTERNATIONAL (Vienna) and, in booklet form, by the SOCIETY FOR AUSTRO-ARAB RELATIONS and in English in the June 2002 issue of the PUGWASH NEWSLETTER, the semiannual magazine of the Council of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995).