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Terrorism Less Deceptively Defined

Another gaping hole in the definition of terrorism

Quick test. Which of the following were acts of terrorism: a) Al-Qaida’s bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, which killed 17 American sailors; b) Hezbollah’s raid on an Israeli military patrol in July 2006, killing three soldiers and capturing two, and triggering a 34-day war; c) The Hamas ambush last week of an Israeli patrol on the Gaza border, killing one Israeli soldier d) Attacks on American troops in Iraq, which have killed about 3,500 soldiers (not including some 800 non-hostile deaths); e) None of the above.

The answer, of course, is (e) — none of the above. It may be impossible to agree on a single definition of terrorism. It’s easier to agree on what terrorism isn’t. Attacking military personnel or military installations isn’t terrorism. It’s an act of war. This definition would hold even according to the U.S. Code, which states: “The term ‘terrorism’ means an activity that involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, kidnapping, or hostage-taking.”

Civilians are the common denominator. But neither government nor the press follow that definition. They have no definition. They improvise according to prejudice and expediency. As Caleb Carr, author of “The Lessons of Terror” (2002) noted, “almost every agency of the U.S. government that deals with the threat of terrorism maintains its own definition of that phenomenon. More surprising still, among these definitions, no two are identical or even, in some cases, easy to reconcile with one another. The same phenomenon applies to America’s academic and intellectual communities.” The nonsensically named “war on terror” is supposedly the central conflict of our time. Yet as a nation we don’t agree or even discuss much what “terrorism” really is.

It’s ignorance by necessity. There is no way to have an honest discussion of terrorism without quickly discovering that “Islamists” are among its most recent and rather selective practitioners, while Westerners have been its more systematic enthusiasts and euphemists. Any reading of Richard Wright, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Carter G. Woodson, Frederick Douglass (among other black voices) and, obviously, innumerable slave narratives, clarifies why Cornel West derided the notion that the 9/11 attacks brought terror to “the homeland.” Terror — systematic, state-sponsored, genocidal — was the daily bane of black existence until a few decades ago.

Defining terrorism is contentious only for those who want to hide from the implications of definition, which to me is simple: Violent acts directed primarily at civilian targets, or that produce primarily civilian casualties, are terrorism. So are violent acts directed at any imprisoned individual, soldiers or guerillas included — especially those held illegally, without charge, which makes Guantanamo’s detainees hostages, not prisoners. The favored Israeli tactic of legitimizing mass civilian killings, as in Gaza last week, by saying that the attacks were directed primarily at “terrorists” is bogus. Whatever the rationale, civilians are deliberately targeted when the civilian casualties bloodily outnumber non-civilian casualties, making those attacks acts of terrorism no different than suicide bombers blowing up restaurants. The Marines’ massacre of civilians at Haditha in Iraq, the American military’s deliberate bombing of civilian targets in Vietnam, the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (neither of which had military value), the British and American razing of European cities in World War II — they all fit the classic definition of terrorism. State terror’s apologists, westerners especially, love to say that in “total war” there are no innocent civilians. That’s a rationalization to ease consciences.

It’s equally necessary to dispense with such bromides as “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” It’s never who the perpetrators are or even what their goals are. It’s what they do. There is no such thing as a Palestinian or Iraqi “freedom fighter” who shoots up Yeshivas, blows up malls and mosques, murders passers-by. Those, like the 9/11 attacks, are unquestionable, indefensible acts of terrorism. But if terror is also coercion and deliberate violence against those who can’t defend themselves, waterboarding, or what George Bush, our apologist-in-chief of torture, calls “specialized interrogation procedures,” is terrorism in its most distilled — because utterly controlled — form.

“But ‘terrorism’ no longer means terrorism,” to quote Robert Fisk, the longest-serving western journalist in the Middle East. “It is not a definition. It is a political contrivance. ‘Terrorists’ are those who use violence against the side that is using the word.” Until we get past the contrivance, using the word “terrorism” is itself an act of belligerence. Its false distinctions conceal our own terrorism. It absolves its perpetrators. And it makes us complicit in the duplicity, if not the terrorism, for standing united behind the contrivance.

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