Friday, August 6, 2010

Terrorists and Freedom Fighters: A Quick Murk-Reduction

There are few phrases that irritate me more than "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Last Tuesday on NPR we got the unusual reversed form, when Michele Norris said, "But as you know, one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist."

My point is neither the rhetorical difference nor the logical equivalence between these two versions of the phrase. My point is the idea that animates both: that some people are terrorists (bad) and others are freedom fighters (good), and it's essentially subjective whom you assign to which group. This has given many in the news media the cover to refuse to describe anyone as a terrorist ("militant" is a popular, if almost meaningless, alternative).

The result has been less informative news. In particular, while it may be questionable to describe organizations as terrorist (just as it's questionable to describe individuals as "evil," implying some fixed nature), there are clearly actions that can be called terrorist.

So let's start with a definition of terrorism. Let's say that terrorism is the deliberate targeting for violence of noncombatants in a conflict, in order to induce fear. This practice is generally regarded today as barbaric, and indeed criminal. Note that under this definition, not only were Guernica and the London blitz acts of terrorism, but some of the Allied bombing in World War II was as well. I think the definition is still worth using for the sake of having a clear line: deliberate targeting of civilians is terrorism.

So where does that leave freedom fighters? An analogy is useful. In the Bosnian war, and many others, we saw the systematic and large-scale use of rape as a weapon of war. Did the Serbian soldiers consider themselves freedom fighters? Probably. Yet I have never heard a single person say, "One man's rapist is another man's freedom fighter." The absurdity of such a statement is too obvious: one can be a freedom fighter, at least in one's own mind, and still be a rapist. Being a freedom fighter does not excuse rape; rather, rape demeans the fight for freedom. And similarly for terrorism.

The mistaken idea that terrorism and freedom-fighting are mutually exclusive, then, leads to the mistaken idea that terrorism is a purely subjective matter. And that leads to the current tendency to use "terrorism" to mean "anything I don't like." I recently heard a British academic say that he would accept calling certain actions of Hamas terrorism, if he could call the building of West Bank settlements terrorism. Now, there are many things you could call the building of West Bank settlements. You could make a case, at least, that they are destructive, unjust, even illegal. But you can't call them marzipan, and you can't call them terrorism, because they're not. Baruch Goldstein was a terrorist because he opened fire in a mosque full of civilians, not because he lived in a settlement. And, contrary to an assertion I heard recently on TV, the Somali pirates are not terrorists. They're pirates.

In fairness to Norris, she was the less confused one in the interview. The subject was the woman who organized the shooting attack by Puerto Rican nationalists in the U.S. Capitol in 1954. Norris asked the president of the National Institute for Latino Policy:

NORRIS: Did she consider what she did terrorism?
Mr. FALCON: No, no, she was basically - saw herself as a freedom fighter for the freedom of Puerto Rico.
NORRIS: But as you know, one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist. I'm wondering about the people who were injured that day on Capitol Hill or the others who were probably trying to flee to safety, hearing this hail of bullet fire coming down from the gallery. And I can't imagine that they would use that word to describe her.
Mr. FALCON: Oh, I wasn't referring to them. I mean, freedom fighters against the United States. They walked into the central, one of the central institutions of the United States and fired upon that institution.

I wasn't referring to them? No, apologists for terrorism rarely refer to the victims. Consider them freedom fighters if you want, Mr. Falcon, but they're also terrorists.

This is an important issue. It takes humanity a long time to come to a new moral consensus. We appear to be coming to one about deliberate killing of civilians. Let's not lose our focus.


  1. I think you left out an important and increasingly relevant definition of terrorism: The use of powerful weapons in a grossly indiscriminate manner that all but guarantees civilian deaths.

    Not to pick a fight, but by that standard I think Israel was clearly guilty of terrorism in Gaza in 2008 with its use of white phosphorus (and in Lebanon in 2006, a campaign during which one IDF commander took a page from Hamas' playbook and declared all people who refused to evacuate their homes in the south to be terrorists). And, based on what I've read, I suspect that a similar case can be made concerning NATO's resort to cluster bombs from high altitude in Serbia in 1999. And there is no shortage of other examples around the world in recent years.

    I'm all for hounding terrorists to the ends of the Earth. But governments need to be held accountable when they engage in analogous carnage, too. Otherwise, there concept is meaningless and no one will be safe.

  2. No, no, no. That goes to the crux of what I'm saying. There are many bad things in the world that are not terrorism. Child molestation is not terrorism, and use of excessive force is not terrorism. When we say they are, we lose the ability to focus on the issue of deliberate targeting of civilian populations to cause fear. I think by that definition the V1 and V2 attacks on London were terrorism, and probably the bombing of Dresden as well, but not Israel's actions in Gaza.

    As to how much Israel's actions there were beyond the pale, I don't know. In (reflexive) defense of Israel, I'd point out that they recently convicted a soldier of war crimes for using a human shield, so they do seem to have some capacity for self-policing. (I don't think a Lt. Calley would have gone free in Israel. I think he would've gotten life.) I'd also point out that Palestinian officials tend to lie about these things (see the Jenin "massacre"). And also that Israel has many times taken actions that have cost soldiers' lives to reduce civilian casualties (as in going house to house in Jenin instead of bombing). And also that I've never heard of terrorists sending text messages to tell people to get out of the way.

    As to use of excessive force, you won't get people to focus on that by lumping it in with something different.