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Defining Terrorism, Reining in Vigilantism

The Editorial Board
May 1, 2004

An Editorial
“Iraq is a theater of the war on terror,” President Bush declared in his first press conference of the year on April 13th. Iraq’s roadside bombers and anti-occupation militias, he said, were “terrorists” just like the train bombers in Madrid, suicide bus bombers in Jerusalem, nightclub bombers in Bali, and other terrorists around the world. Such indiscriminate, good-versus-evil narishkayt (foolishness) demonstrates precisely why his “war on terrorism” requires ongoing, skeptical scrutiny — and why the very word, “terrorism,” requires definition.
No one but a flat-earther would deny that September 11th, 2001 was an historical turning point for the U.S. as it exposed our insulated country to the kind of suffering and dread already familiar in Angola, Egypt, India, Ireland, Israel, Nicaragua, Russia, Spain, and numerous other countries targeted by terrorists. The Bush administration, however, has exploited this suffering and dread to justify its heedless war in Iraq and its “preemptive” military policy of world domination — both of which were clearly part of the administration’s agenda before the September 11th terrorists struck. As former presidential advisor Richard Clarke argues in his bestselling book, Against All Enemies, the U.S. needed “thoughtful leadership to deal with the underlying problems September 11th reflected. Instead, America got [and continues to get] unthinking reactions, hamhanded responses, and a rejection of analysis” that “has left us less secure.”
In Israel, Ariel Sharon has similarly used the dread of terrorism as his excuse for implementing his long-standing policies of expanding and protecting Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory and postponing Palestinian statehood as long as possible. To protect these policies, he has used the same excuse to break off negotiations with Palestinian leaders at every opportunity and to pursue military occupation and targeted assassinations — all of which has left the Israeli population, let alone the Palestinians, in a state of vast insecurity, economic disrepair and hopelessness.
This is not to say that Yasser Arafat or the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Brigades that Israel is aggressively targeting should be called “peacemakers” by any stretch of the imagination. As David Horovitz, editor of The Jerusalem Report, makes clear in his recent book, Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism: “If Arafat had wanted an accord [with Barak and Clinton] . . . the way forward would have been to keep negotiating . . . to urge restraint, to plead for calm, to tell [his people] to hold firm because a solution was imminent.” Instead, Arafat seems to have been the prime mover of the current intifada. His own minister of communications, Imaj Falouji (as quoted in Horovitz’s book), said as much to a Palestinian refugee audience soon after the suicide bombings began: “Whoever thinks that the intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque is wrong . . . This intifada was planned in advance . . . ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations.” Arafat has thereby helped to scar hundreds of Israeli families and immobilized the Israeli left while destroying whatever bits of autonomy the Palestinian people had achieved through the Oslo negotiations.
Still, the ugly reality of Palestinian terrorism does not erase the human or national rights of the Palestinian people or Israel’s responsibility for 36 years of occupation and settlement-building. Sharon would have us believe otherwise and accept his tit-for-tat violence (sometimes responsive, sometimes preemptive, sometimes provocative) as part of the international “war on terrorism.” In truth, however, the cycle of Israeli-Palestinian killing has no valid structure of cause and effect any more. It is a marathon dance of death, led by men with vain visions of victory instead of merciful visions of compromise.
How, then, can critics of the war in Iraq, and advocates of compromise in the Middle East, begin to frame realistic, international solutions to the problem of terrorism that might help rein in the vigilantism of Bush and Sharon?
To begin, we need an international convention that defines “terrorism.” While U.N. Security Council Resolution 1269 (1999) condemned “all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustified, regardless of their motivation,” it failed to define what it was condemning.
One point of contention that blocks this definition from emerging is whether it should include “state-sponsored terrorism.” Many on the American left might support such inclusion as an expression of their horror at such historical American-sponsored atrocities as the contra war against the Nicaraguan people, fascist persecutions by the Pinochet government in Chile, the unrestrained terror of the Vietnam War, and numerous other actions that have cost millions of civilian lives. As Phillip Cryan has written in CounterPunch, the U.S. has been

directly responsible for acts of terrorism, and for the ‘harboring’ of terrorists, on an almost unimaginable scale in terms of human death and the creation of fear. . . . There is something truly chilling . . . in the apparent consensus within the U.S. that we stand for ‘Freedom’ . . . and that we are somehow entitled and equipped to mete out ‘infinite justice.’

However, terms such as “imperialism,” “mass murder,” “war crimes,” “assassination,” and “genocide” already exist to define such atrocities and provide a legitimate basis for international opposition. In light of this, people of the left should be wary of insisting on an equivalency between the terrorism of Al Qaeda and state-sponsored terrorism.
First, “bundling” other forms of immoral violence into a definition of terrorism lends credibility to the Bush administration’s ever-shifting justifications for invading and occupying Iraq. While Saddam Hussein may not have had weapons of mass destruction, our government now tells us, his terrifying dictatorship and his mass killings of the Kurds branded him a terrorist and made him a relevant target of the war on terrorism — and those who resist occupation forces are terrorists, too. “We don’t make a distinction [among] different types of terrorism,” Condoleezza Rice told the September 11th commission on April 8th. Such an assertion should give us all significant reason to want to see terrorism defined by international consensus. But bundling “state terrorism” into the definition of terrorism makes such a consensus impossible to achieve in today’s world, which leaves the capacity to define terrorism in the hands of nationalistic militarists like Bush and Sharon (and Putin and Blair and other heads of state engaged in “counter-terrorism”).
Dr. Boaz Ganor, director of Israel’s International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism argues that it is crucial for the international community to “establish a clear policy accompanied by adequate means of punishment on the basis of an accepted definition” of terrorism. The “definition of terrorism,” Ganor says, “will be the basis and the operational tool for expanding the international community’s ability to combat terrorism.” It will also “hamper the attempts of terrorist organizations to obtain public legitimacy” and “could motivate terrorist organizations, due to moral or utilitarian considerations, to shift from terrorist activities to alternative courses . . . in order to attain their aims . . .” We would add that such an international definition of terrorism might also help restrain Bush and his cohorts from targeting Syria, North Korea, or whichever country they want to bomb into democracy next.