The classic definition of terrorism as violence against civilians to make a political point may make sense but the term’s elastic use even applied to attacks on U.S. soldiers operating in foreign lands has transformed the word into an epithet that depends on one’s preferred bias, writes John V. Whitbeck.
By John V. Whitbeck
The Western world has reacted to the “terrorist” shooting spree in Paris with near-hysteria, immediately intensifying its own lethal violence in the Middle East. Israel is branding as a wave of “terrorism” the continuing suicidal attacks by hope-deprived Palestinian children armed only with knives and scissors.
In the new “peace process” for Syria, Jordan has accepted the thankless task of deciding which of the many armed groups in Syria are “terrorists” and, as such, are to be excluded from the process and bombed.
And Americans have been fiercely debating whether the latest in a long line of domestic gun rampages, carried out by a Muslim married couple in San Bernardino, California, deserves to be deemed an act of “terrorism,” as President Barack Obama termed it during his nationally televised speech on Sunday night.
In this context, it may be enlightening to recall the last international effort to define this indefinable word. At the UN’s 60th anniversary summit in September 2005, the 191 member states tried but failed to agree on a convention defining the word “terrorism.” Some commentators actually sounded surprised, even saying that there had been a failure “even” to agree on a definition. No one should have been surprised.
The definition being proposed by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would have defined “terrorism” as “any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organization to carry out or to abstain from any act.”
A fair and reasonable definition, surely. Read it again. Think about it. What are the odds that the United States would ever have permitted “terrorism” to be so defined?
For starters, if this proposed definition had been accepted and if George W. Bush and Tony Blair were correct in their repeated assertions that the motivations behind the 9/11 attacks and the 2005 London bombings were “because they hate our freedoms” or some other form of blind, mindless malevolence or sick desire to kill innocent people for the sake of it, then the term “terrorism” could not properly be applied to these events.
To make the label fit, Bush and Blair would have had to admit that the motivations were fundamentally political to intimidate their populations or governments into carrying out major changes in their Middle East policies.
Perhaps more significantly, this proposed definition was not limited to acts by “non-state actors.” It would have applied not only to the low-technology violence of the weak but also to the high-technology violence of the strong, which has always been vastly more destructive and deadly.
Further, if this proposed definition had been accepted, the attacks on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and Al-Khobar in 1983 and 1996 and on the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, as well as any and all attacks against American and Israeli military forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or elsewhere, would clearly not constitute acts of “terrorism.”
On the other hand, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would clearly have constituted “terrorism” on a massive scale. Indeed, in the Twenty-first Century, the American and Israeli governments would have been and would still be among the world’s leading practitioners of “terrorism.”
If this proposed definition had been accepted, even the United Nations itself would have spent the 12 years between the two wars against Iraq as a “terrorist” organization. How could it be characterized otherwise in light of the “genocidal” sanctions regime against Iraq (so called by two successive coordinators of the UN’s “humanitarian” program in Iraq), which, by UNICEF’s own calculation, had killed half a million Iraqi children under the age of five by 1996 yet which, on the insistence of the United States and Britain and in full knowledge of the deadly consequences in the relevant “context,” was maintained until their 2003 invasion?
The ostensible “purpose” of these deadly sanctions was clearly to “intimidate a population or compel a government … to carry out or abstain from [an] act” specifically, to give up the “weapons of mass destruction” which Iraq did not possess.
The word “terrorism” has always been the ultimate subjective epithet, and the popularity and utility of the word for all its users and abusers around the world has been based largely on this subjectivity. Until the world is of one mind as to what constitutes good and evil, right and wrong and justice and injustice, it is inconceivable that the world could agree on a precise and legally binding definition of what actions are always, in all circumstances, under all conditions, on any grounds and regardless of who is doing it to whom, unjustifiable, impermissible and criminal.
However, the lack of a definition for “terrorism” did not stop the expansion of the word’s use at the 2005 UN summit. In what the BBC then trumpeted as a major success, Tony Blair did get the Security Council to adopt unanimously a resolution urging all states to pass laws making “incitement to terrorism” a crime.
Since every state remained free to define “terrorism” as it pleased, so as to demonize whatever behavior or ideas its government disliked, while “incitement” is simply a pejorative synonym for “advocacy,” if this resolution proved to be of any relevance at all, it could only have been to provide a cover of international legitimacy for the worldwide trend (even in countries like Britain and America which once enjoyed high standards of civil liberties) toward restricting (indeed, toward criminalizing) freedom of speech and toward the totalitarianization of societies.
Actually, it cannot have been very difficult to achieve unanimous agreement on this resolution. People may not be able to agree on what “terrorism” is, but, whatever it may be, politicians readily recognize that it is risky to appear less than resolute in opposing this ultimate evil. It’s also not hard to get governments to agree that they should silence and quash their critics and opponents as they see fit.
Since the term has been so widely abused, the word “terrorism” does not enhance understanding. It stifles rational thought and discussion and, all too often, is used to excuse one’s own illegal and immoral behavior.
Perhaps, rather than seeking an international convention agreeing on what the overused word “terrorism” should mean, it would have been more constructive ten years ago and would be more constructive today to seek an international convention obligating governments, government officials and media to stop using the word entirely, to focus rationally on the nature and causes of violent behavior by both the strong and the weak, and to work toward reducing all forms of violent behavior and reversing the accelerating trend toward a more vicious, less free and increasingly fear-infested world.
John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Middle East.