What do Nelson Mandela, Michael Collins, Archbishop Makarios, Menachim Begin, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Shamir, Eamon DeValera and Jomo Kenyatta have in common?
As everybody knows, but few remember, they were all vilified as “terrorists,” by the British or American authorities.
Ronald Reagan branded Mandela’s African National Congress as a terrorist organization–and to be fair, they did commit some terrorist acts, while the ancestors of Israel’s Likud Party blew up the King David Hotel assassinated Lord Moyne, the highest British official in the Middle East, during the war against the Nazis and gunned down United Nations representative Count Folke Bernadotte for trying to negotiate a peace settlement.
I have appeared on several Fox and MSNBC shows recently where the hosts acknowledge that Israel is failing in Lebanon, and that the invasion was a mistake, not least because there is no exit strategy. But then I find myself under attack because I will not describe Hezbollah as “terrorist.” In fact, I use the same formula that British diplomats (in the better days of a more independent foreign policy) used: “a group that sometimes commits terrorist acts.” This answer does not satisfy pro-Israeli cable television anchors; in fact, it gives them an excuse to grandstand their fury.
The easy invocation of “terrorism”–whether by journalists or political leaders–is not merely sloppy use of language. It is precisely targeted phrasing and intended to terrorize dissent. Especially in the binary, Manichaean mindset of the United States and Likudnik Israel, once a group has been labeled “terrorist” it becomes the epitome of evil; to suggest that any of their arguments have any validity makes one a terrorist supporter. Using these words seems to shut down the higher cerebral functions of many of the listeners.
Of course, it is difficult to be dispassionate about blood and dismembered bodies, but in the interests of preventing more of the same, we should take a deeper look. According to Kofi Annan, who was trying to get governments to agree on a definition at the United Nations last year, an act is terrorism “if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”
It is concise and precise–and clearly excludes much of what Israel, the US and other governments have tried to brand as terrorism.
For years Israeli leaders have called Palestinian leaders terrorists, because they did not want to deal with them or indeed with any of the claims of the people they represented. In recent weeks, Israeli forces have kidnapped some thirty-eight elected Palestinian representatives, because they deemed them “terrorists.” Hamas and Hezbollah are “terrorists,” and in Israel’s view, no one should talk to them, no matter how many Palestinians or Lebanese vote for them and support them.