A Vague TerrorDifficulties in defining terrorism complicate debate
On April 12, a 29-year old citizen from Sudbury, Massachusetts named Tarek Mehanna was sentenced to seventeen and a half years in prison for translating a widely available document. The document was, “39 Ways to Serve and Participate in Jihad,” no doubt a primer for extremism and terrorism. After a two-month trial, he was sentenced to serve seventeen years for translating the pamphlet. The prosecutor did not accuse Mehanna of any violent act. Instead, the prosecutor successfully argued that Mehanna’s translation was intended to aid al-Qaeda and provide a lantern for those on the shadowy path of Jihad. By that fact, the act constituted “material support” to a “terrorist organi- zation.” The question of what constitutes a “terrorist organization” and who gets to decide is vexed and disconcerting. To get to the core of this problem one should ask a different, and far more entrenched ques- tion. What is a terrorist?
For a word so commonly used, there should surely be a cogent answer. Para- doxically, the only honest response I can give comes in form of a question that invites inconsistency: “Who wants to know”? This return may seem both insolent and evasive, however, examining the answers given by people who are so close on the political spectrum that they appear to be something more than bedfellows, it is the only sincere reply. In discussions about terrorism, commentators’ responses nearly always fall into one of four pitfalls: (1); tautology (2); cliché (3); a saturnine foe of the U.S. (4); whatever the government says a terrorist is.
The former presidential national security advisor Robert C. McFarlane duly provides a clear and present example of the first option: “The deliberate and systematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends.” We see this again in the US Vice- President's Task Force (1986) definition of terrorism as, “the unlawful use or threat of violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives.” It is generally intended to intimidate or coerce a government, individuals or groups to modify their behavior or policies.” That does not seem very helpful. It seems that, by that definition, every government and many groups (NGOs, IGOs etc) have en- gaged in terrorism. In fact, I cannot think of one decade that the U.S. government did not engage in “the deliberate and sys- tematic murder, maiming, and menacing of the innocent to inspire fear for political ends.” It seems that if we apply this defini- tion consistently, “terrorism” is a net from which no fish can escape.
The second problem one immedi- ately encounters is that of drool-inducing cliché. In the world of Academic Security Studies maybe there is, a definition that is not so capacious as to include everything and thus define nothing. The Rand Corporation, that ideal triumvirate of corporation-university-agency which has spun gold out of conflicts from Moscow to Mumbai, puts it thusly: “Terrorism is defined by the nature of the act, not by the identity of the perpetrators or the nature of the cause. Terrorism is violence, or the threat of violence, calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm. All terrorist acts are crimes.” If only it were. This definition has a formalist aplomb; it asserts the disinterestedness of the field, implicitly inserting the disinterestedness of its authors. However, like all cliché, this definition cannot provide anything useful. It acts as a stand in for rigorous thought, enabling the reader to insert whatever images and ideas to fit most soundly in their ideological frames. Maybe Scott Steward of STRATFOR defines it with a bit more lucidly: “... as politically motivated violence against noncombatants.” He goes on to say: “Terrorism is a tactic, one employed by a wide array of actors. There is no single creed, ethnicity, political persuasion or nationality with a monopoly on terrorism..."terrorist" tends to be a politically loaded term.” And for a term so loaded, the vacuity and wanton- ness of its common usage is nothing short of astonishing.
As said above, by any one of those definitions, nearly all states engage in and rely upon “terrorist” tactics. Our nation's black book, chronicling our side of this subject is so long and tawdry that the ink bleeds from line to line, in want of some unoccupied space. An easy, although sim- plistic way to define and divide military action is covert and overt operations. Un- der the definitions of terrorism provided above, the U.S. is both covertly and overtly a terrorist nation. Under the “covert” heading one may include the bombing of Hiroshima the massive and continuous flow of arms and capital to those biblical mandated forces of Israel, the arming of Saddam, as well as the majority of action taken under the Platt Amendment. On the covert side of the equation one may count the U.S. support and funding of the usurpation of the democratically elected Allende regime in Chile in the early 1970's as well as the illegal bombing runs that disemboweled and continue to maim much of Laotian and Cambodian geogra- phies.
This brings us to the third hazard in clarifying “terrorism.” The problem is that would be in poor taste, or rather, it would leave a poor taste, to consider our actions “terrorism.” In the U.S., none of the aforementioned policies could be mentioned. For when assessing actions that may be terroristic, there is but one steadfast rule: It is always a matter of kind, namely, never ours. Neither our, nor our allies actions are never “terrorist” ac- tions. We are, as the Navy commercial so tersely phrases it “a global force for good.” They may be policies or acts that are made to induce terror upon a population, we may try to inflict fear and disorder upon a region or people in order to reach political or economic ends. When actions like these are overt they are called “mis- sions” and one can find them displayed on CNN and ABC News. When they are “covert” operations, one can hope they are revealed by journalists and usually any form of rectification is, as a matter of policy, pursued by the victims of our policies (such as those sought justice, in international court for the crimes of U.S. installed and backed Augusto Pinochet). In the Western Hemisphere, under what can only be called continuation of the Monroe Doctrine through is various mani- festations (Platt Amendment, Operation Condor, Operation Mongoose), we have suborned murder, assassinated leaders, paid for, trained and marched boot to boot with fascists and killers from Chile to El Salvador to Argentina. One could also cite the most well publicized case, under the auspices of Monroe, regarding the direct organization and training of The Contras, a right-wing (i.e. fascist) Nicaraguan militia with the intention of attacking “soft targets.” A “Soft Target”, is one of those military euphemisms that is hard to swallow but easy to spit out. It basically means hospitals, civil centers, and farms – all civilian targets.
The fourth (and third) problems are made clear with the case of Tarek Me- hanna. It has been said that after 9/11, ev- erything changed. Regarding terrorism, at least in the U.S., the word has undergone not a change of kind of usage, but in its degree. It has become a term with nearly implacable clout. Nowadays, there is no question; anyone who is deemed a “terror- ist” a list, is filled with pure and unalter- able evil. And the other side is the ipso facto bearers of truth, justice, freedom, and all the rest. What is not meant here is to slickly reverse the application of the term “terrorist” and with that say “Aha! it is in fact George W. Bush who has been the true terrorist all along!” No, that is one of the more contemptible tricks to falls from the politician’s sleeve. One should take the stronger stance and still assert the essential vacuity of the term. Because, in short, terrorists are never you, it is always the other, always the one whom you have deemed an enemy with which negotiation is never an option.
Not only is the term a poor descrip- tor for the actions of state and non-state actors, it is a poor term for the individual who seeks to induce terror. The mind can easily conjure forth a list of words that are far more precise and thus useful: war criminal, thug, murderer, extortionist, fas- cist, bandit, saboteur, pirate, revolution- ary, guerilla fighter, etc. So, it is not only a word that proper use, but its particular use, as said before, is to refer to persons or actions that we do not like thus making its usefulness in direct contradiction with its truthfulness.
The final goal seems to be this. Create only one side of debate where there is no question of fundamental morals but only that of tactics. Not only should there be no substantive debate about out nation's actions among proclaimed “terrorism experts,” but there should be no debate about the term itself. What does that leave us with? A group of propagandists who, from the 1980's and into the foreseeable future, have had a hypnotic effect on our citizenry and an oppressively pacifying effect on our discourse. In the U.S., terror- ism is the continuation politics, by any means.