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The Semantics of Terror | The Nation

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The Semantics of Terror

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What do Nelson Mandela, Michael Collins, Archbishop Makarios, Menachim Begin, Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Shamir, Eamon DeValera and Jomo Kenyatta have in common?

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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Although Kofi Annan's tenure was shadowed by political catfights, he leaves the United Nations as one of its most successful secretary generals.

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.

The abuse of the concept has reached its nadir in the amorphous "war on terror," which currently covers any military operations that the United States, Israel, Russia, and anyone else trying to jump on the bloody bandwagon should wish to undertake, not to mention any rolling back of civil liberties and international law that it entails. Dead dissidents, or even just passers-by from Chechnya to Xinjiang, from Uzbekistan to Gaza, Abu Ghraib to south Lebanon, become posthumous terrorists as soon as their killing is reported.

It was under the guise of the "war on terror" that Iraq was invaded. The alleged weapons of mass destruction were a legal distraction: For most Americans the real justification of the war was the fiction that Saddam Hussein was behind the September 11 attacks. Interestingly, under the fog of the "war on terror," the one place that the term was justifiable, American troops have now pretty much abandoned Afghanistan, the host country of uncaught Osama Bin Laden, and handed over operations to NATO.

Simply labeling groups as "terrorist," and demonizing those who stop to think more deeply about it, stops odious comparisons that may challenge prevailing prejudices.

For example, in 2001, I was interviewed on a radio show some weeks after the indisputably terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, which I had lived close to and watched in real time. The host asked about progress at the UN in adopting a definition of terrorism. I was explaining the difficulties and went out on a limb--"You know, there were hundreds of brave firemen and police who died in the Center--and how many of them do you think had attended NorAid dinners," raising funds for the Irish Republican Army bombings. Luckily the interviewer did not explode, but stopped in his tracks to think about it--"That means that they were supporting terrorism, too!" he exclaimed as revelation hit him. Of course, if they had been raising funds for Hamas, they would probably have been in prison instead of rescuing people in the towers.

But even here, there is room for clear thinking. Under the prospective UN definition, Irish Republican Army attacks against Security Forces may have been criminal--but they were not terrorist actions. A phoned-in warning usually preceded even the IRA bombs on civilian targets. Sadly, however, the IRA made such a mess of the warnings so often that their campaign carried an inevitability of deaths and injuries that certainly put its actions inside Annan's definition.

So, while it certainly was not the most clever action that Hezbollah has perpetrated, taking two Israeli soldiers prisoner was not terrorism, although raining Katyusha rockets indiscriminately down on civilians certainly is a form of it.

But how is that different from Israeli planes and artillery killing civilians in Lebanon--or, for that matter, in Gaza? Israel claims that the civilian deaths are collateral damage of attacks on Hezbollah, but apart from the morality and legality, the math defies these excuses. Current Israeli deaths run roughly one civilian dead for two military dead. The far higher Lebanese casualties are running at around ten civilian dead (including three children) for every claimed Hezbollah victim. The continuing nature of those casualties suggests, as Kofi Annan told the Security Council last week, that there is a "pattern of breaches of international law." His view was backed up even forcefully by NGOs like Human Rights Watch.

To put it in another and even more topical context, blowing up a random airliner is clearly terrorism--but could someone blow up an airliner to get Ehud Olmert and claim that the other casualties were just a regrettable necessity? That sounds callously unconvincing. But how is this different from bombing an apartment block full of civilians because there may be a Hamas or Hezbollah leader in there?

Committing terrorism requires a fanatical worldview: The casualties are either deemed guilty by association--as implied by Al Qaeda for those working in the WTC--or sadly necessary sacrifices on the altar of a better world. Insofar as they have any rationality, acts of terror are often predicated on the stupidity of the authorities who can be relied upon to create support for the perpetrators with widespread repression and retaliation.

From that perspective, Hezbollah's capture of the two Israeli soldiers has been spectacularly successful. Israel began the war on moral high ground, at least as the West saw it. After a month of concentrated viciousness and incompetence the tide of public opinion has turned.

Israel's retaliation with its recklessness for civilian life has won overwhelming Lebanese and Arab support for Hezbollah, and has in one short month reversed Israel's diplomatic gains across the world, while totally isolating the United States and Tony Blair.

One might add that Osama bin Laden's bloody assault on the WTC has had precisely the same effect on a global scale. From a position of overwhelming global public sympathy and support, the Bush Administration's reactions with the "war on terror" have alienated the rest of the world to the extent that China is now much more popular in many countries polled.

Mesmerized by the word "terrorism," as I said, it appears that the Bush Administration's higher mental faculties, never really in top gear, have been totally paralyzed. But that is no reason for the rest of us to succumb.

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