Friday, August 05, 2005

Terrorism and Terrorists

Today, in a thread over at one of my regular haunts, a fellow going by the handle redmarkYankee had some interesting things to say about how we define terrorists (see the whole post here, at post #97):

"Apart from what constitutes incitement (funding, support of 'aims',
justification of violence in the cause...), what constitutes terrorism exactly? I'm old enough to remember (and studied some of the semantics in a
Politics degree) the argument that the IRA, for instance, was not terrorist, in
the early days, when it attacked only military or political targets.

Is a Palestinian suicide bomber who attacks an Israeli military position in illegally occupied territories a terrorist, or an insurgent (using
'insurgent as the 'neutral' term - 'terrorist' or 'freedom fighter' having
opposite judgemental connotations)? What if a civilian is killed inadvertently
in such an attack ('collateral damage')? Is an Iraqi suicide bomber who attacks
US/UK occupying forces a terrorist, or an insurgent? Is it possible to be an
'illegal enemy combatant' in your own country against occupying forces? What
were the French Resistance in WW2?

A British MP (Jenny Tonge) said a
couple of years ago that she could understand how young Palestinians
could turn to violence, after a visit to Palestinian refugee camps. Is that
indirect incitement? Clearly Eck and others would be willing to use any means
to defend the 1st Amendment, from their own government - are
others not allowed to use any means necessary to fight for
self-determination or against occupation? If Iraqis had risen against Saddam 5
years ago and used violence, would that have been terrorism? Are supporters not
allowed to fund, or publicly defend them? Or does that depend on "our" judgement
on the validity of the cause? It's ok for the west to fund Bin Laden and friends
when fighting against Commies, but not for his co-religionists when he's
fighting against us?.

None of this is to support AQ, or funders of
AQ, or those who advocate the bombing of civilians. It is to point out that
there are enough laws to deal with 'terrorism' already - and that we don't have
any clear agreement on what terrorism actually is, except that 'our'
definition seems to vary depending on the colour/nationality/religion of the
terrorists/insurgents/freedom fighters (delete as suits your personal opinion in
any given situation)."

I really liked this post, not least because of some of the historical context he provided in his well-taken observation about how "terrorism" and "terrorists" are defined. And, given the "Global War on Terror" that we're engaged in (or, if you prefer, the "Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism"), it seems like a perfectly legitimate question: who are we fighting?

Obviously, one answer is "Al Qaeda" - but this isn't as simple as it looks, because a lot of smart, experienced people seem to think that whatever Al Qaeda was four years ago, today it's more of a loose affiliation of violent radical Islamists who share goals and maybe training, but don't have any specific hierarchical structure. And, given the way that the ongoing occupation of Iraq has drawn violent would-be martyrs from across the globe like a flame draws moths, it's by no means a sufficient explanation of who, exactly, we're fighting.

It's thorny. As redmarkYankee pointed out, depending on the definition we use for "terrorism" there doesn't seem to be much distinction between, say, the French Resistance and the Red Brigade, except that the Resistance were "good guys" (from our perspective, because they fought Nazis), and the Red Brigade were "bad guys" (from our perspective, because they were violent commies). But it's both unsatisfying and circular to say that we're fighting terrorists, and terrorists are guerillas who are fighting us.

We could try to draw a distinction between between terrorists and "insurgents" based on what and who they target: a terrorist deliberately targets innocent civilians while a 'legitimate' insurgent only targets soldiers and military installations. But as a practical matter, there's frequently only a blurry line separating the two - even 'legitimate' warfare of the sort practiced by, well, us involves collateral damage to civilians. We try to minimize this, and we've developed sophisticated tactics and rules of engagement to limit civilian casualties, but the fact remains that even in the best-planned attacks (especially against an enemy that's willing to hide behind and among civilians) some innocent life is going to be lost. So it looks more like a matter of degree - "The legitimate insurgent tries to kill fewer civilians than the terrorist" - rather than a hard-and-fast rule. This is not a very satisfactory distinction, at least not to me; and it may be that no satisfactory definition exists that does not make us complicit in some kinds of "terrorism" - which significantly undermines the moral component of the justification for fighting a "war on terror." Not the practical case; self-defense is justification is reason enough for taking on Al Qaeda and its allies in some fashion. But the idea that "terrorists" and "freedom fighters" can be readily distinguished is pretty much exploded.

This too ignores the important fact that in the "Global War on Terror" we have in fact targeted very particular terrorists. We have not gone after the ETA, or the IRA; we haven't opened up a front against FARC or the Shining Path. We've gone after radical Islamist militants.

All of which suggests to me that our labels for what we're doing against terrorism and in Iraq have been (at best) misleading; and we are only fooling ourselves if we think that our enemies and everyone in the Middle East don't see clearly that our "Global War on Terror" is in practice a fairly localized "war" on radical violent Islamists. And maybe a "war" wasn't the best way to go after them.


Bob K. said...

Cogent analysis as usual. Thanks for your insights, brother.


A. said...

I do what I can. Food for thought, anyhow.