Friday, February 29, 2008

On Terrorism

An important issue in politics today is the nature of the War on Terror; how it should be waged, if it should be waged, what rhetoric we should use, what means we should use, are all topics that are debated. This post will deal with whether or not we should call those who are the antagonists to the West in this conflict 'terrorists.'

It is an important thing to remember that although 9/11 brought the subject of these kinds of movements and their activities to the forefront of American popular thinking, they are not a new phenomenon. For many years previous to this date the problem of militant organizations carrying out attacks against civilian populations has been one of the issues of foreign policy for most nations. The nation of Israel has dealt with this problem for many years, as has Lebanon, Russia, and the Philippines. Moreover, there have been many movements that do not specifically target civilians, yet are called 'terrorists' by their foes; witness the African National Congress in South Africa during its militant days, the ETA among the Basques, and many others (during the occupation of France during the Second World War, the Germans called the Resistance 'terrorists'). So clearly the term 'terrorist' has been used to describe a wide variety of militant organizations, some of which had good aims, and others which had evil aims (in our eyes).

So the argument runs, 'those who carried out the attacks of 9/11 and who are targets of the War on Terror are merely like the French Resistance, who resisted oppression.' After all, hasn't the West done terrible things in the past against the ethnicities from which the militant organizations spring? It must be admitted that the grievances that Al-Qaeda and others like them claim against the West are not completely illegitimate; after all, if they were all untrue there would be no resentment against the West that would spur new recruits to join. Yet even if these arguments are true, and they are almost always grossly exaggerated and decontextualized, it would still not give Al-Qaeda and their ilk an excuse to take the actions that they have taken.

There is a fundamental difference between proper resistance to oppression and improper resistance, or terrorism. Proper resistance does not specifically target civilian populations. As an example of this, the ANC in South Africa always targeted military and government installations when they rebelled. Now, even this in the situation was inexcusable (which is why Nelson Mandela is a lesser man than Mohandas Gandhi in terms of resistance movements) but nevertheless could not be classified as terrorism. Terrorism specifically targets civilian populations to make a political point, and to cause political change. It is useful to apply the measures of just war to the actions of Al-Qaeda: Proper cause--perhaps; but very open to debate; proper authority--no, as no government has authorized them; no targeting of civilians--no, indeed the whole point of their attacks is to target civilians and so to spur fear in them; proportionality--more difficult, but in general the attacks of terrorists are indiscriminate and so show no care for proportion at all. In all these things terrorism fails to meet the justification of just war.

The words 'terror' and its variants are useful words that should be used very precisely to refer to certain organizations and actions that meet the following criteria:
1) Not a government body, and in the case of actions not authorized by a government body (when governments use these tactics in a war, it is called something different)
2) Commit acts of violence against specifically civilian targets; namely, the using of civilians as pawns to force their governments to do things (once again, when governments use these tactics it is called something different)
Nationalist movements are sometimes terrorist movements and sometimes not; yet the people who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks are not specifically nationalist but rather global. Al-Qaeda has as its aim the intimidation of Western governments so that an Islamic empire may re-emerge. This is not a strictly nationalist aim, but rather a religious/utopian one, one which makes them and those like them all the more odious and so deserving of the epithet 'terrorist.'

Governments doing the acts that terrorists do are committing war crimes or oppression; but by definition terrorists cannot commit war crimes as they are not engaging in war, which must be authorized by a government, and they cannot oppress anyone as they do not rule anywhere. So the term 'War on Terror' is a useful one and should be kept, so long as it is clearly understood who is targeted: organizations like Al-Qaeda that target civilians for political ends.

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