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America: Terrorist?

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It has been oft-suggested that America is currently committing the same sort of terrorist act that we seem determined to punish others for committing. Sanford May asked the excellent question recently (comment #30), “What is terrorism?”

While “terrorism” should most literally describe any act that causes terror, I think we can all agree that we have moved beyond the original etymology of the word. Instead, I tend to think of terrorism as something that is done by individuals or non-governmental organizations (or possibly covertly by governments themselves). When it is done by a government, it’s war, not terrorism. I’m not dogmatic about this distinction, though when I actually read the dictionary definition I see that it seems to make the same distinction (“by a person or an organized group”) with the added condition of the intention of the terrorists. There may be historical examples that counter this suggestion, but I can’t really think of any, so I’m putting it out there for you to consider and discuss.

So according to my suggested guideline, individual suicide bombers are terrorists, while the kamikaze pilots of WWII were not. Political groups that hijack planes and fly them into buildings are terrorists, a military response by a government against those political groups is not. And so on.

One possible additional factor is whether or not civilians are the primary intended target. However, I think that is a common correlation, not a condition of the label. That is, terrorist groups happen to often target civilians for whatever reason, while governments tend to target military groups for whatever reason, but not always in either case. Some acts of war have been actually directed specifically at civilians, while many acts of terror are aimed primarily at military target. Both are sometimes aimed at property rather than people.

Here is why I think that the distinction is important: When a government will own up to sponsorship of war-like activities, a different set of options becomes available. The rules of war then apply (as does the concept of “war crimes”), and most importantly one can largely end the threat by striking decisively at that government or waging some sort of political compromise or even surrendering. When the Axis powers were at war with the Allied powers, each knew who the enemies were, and it was war. Both sides can fight both militarily and politically and they can win or lose according to a relatively predictable (though complex) pattern.

When one is engaged against a person or an NGO, whether they primarily target civilians or buildings or military personnel, things are far more difficult. There is generally no single point of negotiation or contact, so one can’t usually wage peace except by complete capitulation to all demands. That is not usually an option for what I hope are obvious reasons.

American’s first real target in this “War on Terror ™,” Afghanistan, was almost straightforward, because the NGO had taken up residence as a government. That much was clearly documented and undeniable. But the NGO, Al Queda, was also larger than just Afghanistan or the Taliban, which made their act against the U.S. a terrorist act, rather than simply an act of war by Afghanistan. Even more oddly, the government was there largely against the will of the Afghani people, and not just in the four-years-until-we-settle-a-statistical-tie sense of the phrase. Still, I believe that America’s actions in Afghanistan are a traditional war in almost every way, perhaps with slightly more consideration than normal given to the Afghani civilians.

Action against Iraq was slightly less clear. It was clearly documented and undeniable that the regime in Iraq was financially rewarding terrorist acts in Palestine. The acts were not themselves directed by a government (or at least not that any government would admit), so they were still terrorist acts. But it was a government regime providing the financial incentives, so it should have been a legitimate target of war. Except that (1) some people missed Bush’s point about the “War on Terror ™” encompassing terrorism on a mass scale, not just Al Queda specifically or terrorism directed against the U.S. itself and (2) as with Afghanistan, the regime was in place against the expressed will of the Iraqi people.

In both cases, America waged wars as close to “normal” as war can ever be (which is not very normal), and in both cases America did so in response to terrorism or links to terrorism. At the same time, other efforts are being pursued around the world, with mixed results. Suspected terrorists are arrested on a regular basis in countries around the world and tried under criminal laws. When terrorists are not even loosely associated with a government, as with Afghanistan and Iraq, war is not an option, and military strikes against NGO members smacks just a little bit of execution without judge or jury. Criminal cases are nearly the only options left.

Given all of the above, are the actions of those fighting against US troops in Iraq now terrorism, or guerrilla warfare? I’d be inclined to use the latter label, since at least some of those involved are members of the former regime, though they have probably been joined and/or financed by foreign nationals. While major combat operations have been over for quite a while, the war in Iraq is still ongoing on a small scale, and so any actions taken in defense against military aggression should be consider “war” as well. Of course, non-Iraqis who have gone into the country in order to fight U.S. troops live in a gray area in my mind, but I’d be inclined to think of them as guerrilla warriors as well.

According to my working definition (and subject to modification if someone can convince me to), the only way that America or any other national government can commit terrorism is secretly. That doesn’t mean war is good and terrorism is bad – they’re both very bad. I wish that there was no more of either one, ever. Wishing doesn’t always make things so, however, and most people do seem to consider war to be more easily defensible than terrorism. In most cases, anyway.

In summary: Two People fight. Groups of people commit terrorism. Governments wage war.

I’ll throw my theory open to comments now. Fire away!

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  • One thing I forgot to mention: According to this definition, ELF is a terrorist group. That “feels” about right.