What Is Terrorism?

Wednesday, 26 July 2006

In a recent interview with a political blog, Jonathan Tasini, a Democratic challenger to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2006 Senate race, was asked whether he thought Israel was a terrorist state. After a few abortive attempts to answer the question in a politically sensitive manner, he finally said that although he would not call Israel a terrorist state, many of Israel's recent actions in Gaza and Lebanon did seem to qualify as terrorism. His comments were pounced upon by Clinton's campaign and by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and characterized as "offensive," "outrageous," and "stunning." Later, Tasini reiterated that he did not call Israel a terrorist state.

Criticism of Israel or Israeli policy is certainly contentious in many parts of the country, perhaps especially in New York, with its large Jewish population, and it is important to define words carefully and to avoid terms that carry excessive baggage. One such term is "terrorism." Dictionary.com defines terrorism as "the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons." Under this neutral definition, a country ("an organized group") that violates international law ("unlawful") in its use of violence "against people or property with the intention of intimidating" them may be said to be engaging in terrorism. Israel in clearly guilty of that terrorism, by that definition, but so are Hezbollah, Hamas, the United States, and many other countries and organizations around the globe.

Terrorism is a loaded word, so loaded, in fact, that it has ceased to be useful. The label "terrorist" is applied to people and groups in much the same way as "witch" was applied in Salem in the 17th century, or in Europe during earlier times. One indication that the word "terrorism" is completely useless in modern political rhetoric is that one side in a conflict applies it exclusively to the other side's actions, without acknowledging even the possibility that it might be applied to itself and its allies.

If we're going to use the word terrorism, let's apply it all around, to every individual and group it applies to. It applies to Hezbollah when it launches rockets at civilian targets inside Israel. It applies to Israel when it drops bombs on civilian neighborhoods, regardless of whether it thinks Hezbollah fighters might be in the area. It applies by extension to the United States, Syria, and Iran in this conflict, because these countries are all supporters of one side or the other, neither of which has any regard for civilian casualties, regardless of rhetoric to the contrary.

Better yet, let's just drop the words "terrorist" and "terrorism" from our vocabulary. They have become worthless words that mean nothing more than "my enemy" and "the actions of my enemy." Similarly, let's stop talking about terrorist states. There is no state whose raison d'être is to inflict harm on another country or group of people. On the other hand, there are plenty of countries which, whether from ideological motives or because of greed or lust for power, use means that fit the definition of terrorism given above to attain their objectives. Rather than talk about terrorism, let's talk about illegal acts. Bombing trains is a criminal act. So is dropping bombs on civilian targets. Rather than talk about terrorists, let's talk about soldiers (not militants, or guerillas, or combatants) who engage in unlawful (criminal) behavior. A person who drags unarmed civilians out of their house and shoots them is a criminal. So is a person who pushes the button to launch a missile against a civilian target, as is the person who gave the order, and the person who stands idly by rather than stopping it.

What is terrorism? It's a meaningless word used of one's enemies by people in all sides of violent conflicts all over the planet. It's used to demonize one's enemies and excuse one's own crimes. It's a worthless word, and the sooner we stop using it, the better. Then we can concentrate on the criminal activities of individuals and states on all sides of international conflicts, and we can call on the international community to enforce international laws that are designed to protect citizens of every country, not just our allies.

© Copyright 2006, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology