On Terrorism

The chest of this Mar­tyr was pierced by a real bul­let dur­ing the Lebanese War.

First, a dis­claimer: I’m against all forms of vio­lence regard­less of method, scale, pre­text, or con­text. How­ev­er, today out of the clear blue sky I had a thought which I for­mu­lat­ed into the fol­low­ing statement:

When the word “ter­ror­ism” is bran­dished about willy nil­ly as a tool of bla­tant pro­pa­gan­da, it demeans its vic­tims and glo­ri­fies its perpetrators.

Now to me that seems like an objec­tive and uni­ver­sal truth if there ever was one. The world seems to make a dis­tinc­tion between two cat­e­gories of mass violence:

1. Ter­ror­ism: acts of vio­lence per­pe­trat­ed by vil­lains on mar­tyrs (con­sid­ered a crim­i­nal act).

2. War: an act of vio­lence per­pe­trat­ed by heroes against vil­lains (con­sid­ered a legit­i­mate act).

My state­ment sug­gests that equat­ing both under the umbrel­la term of “ter­ror­ism” makes vil­lains out of the heroes and mar­tyrs out of the vil­lains. In sim­pler terms, it equates a crim­i­nal act with a legit­i­mate one.

How­ev­er to play the dev­il’s advo­cate I’d like to sub­ject the state­ment to clos­er scruti­ny. The most obvi­ous­ly con­tro­ver­sial term there is “ter­ror­ism,” how­ev­er all dic­tio­nary entries I’ve come across (of which the below is a sam­ple) fail to give any­thing but a rudi­men­ta­ry def­i­n­i­tion that, most cru­cial­ly, falls short of suf­fi­cient­ly dis­tin­guish­ing it from the con­cept of war.

ter­ror­ism (noun)
the cal­cu­lat­ed use of vio­lence (or the threat of vio­lence) against civil­ians in order to attain goals that are polit­i­cal or reli­gious or ide­o­log­i­cal in nature; this is done through intim­i­da­tion or coer­cion or instill­ing fear.

Here the oper­a­tive word is not “polit­i­cal, reli­gious, or ide­o­log­i­cal” (for these have also been used as pre­texts for war) but rather “civil­ian.” It seems that the con­sen­sus is that ter­ror­ism is an act of vio­lence against civil­ians. For the pur­pose of this argu­ment then, we can use the below as a more con­cise dis­til­la­tion of the con­tem­po­rary under­stand­ing of what con­sti­tutes an act of terrorism:

Ter­ror­ism is the cal­cu­lat­ed use of vio­lence (or the threat of vio­lence) against civil­ians.

Sure­ly that can’t be enough. First, the threat of vio­lence is used by polit­i­cal lead­ers all the time, even against their own peo­ple, for any num­ber of rea­sons includ­ing a call to arms. There­fore the par­en­thet­i­cal weak­ens the def­i­n­i­tion and must be stripped for it to make sense.

Sec­ond, wars are not waged (as they were his­tor­i­cal­ly) between oppos­ing mil­i­tary forces in open fields devoid of civil­ian pres­ence. In most wars, there are inevitable civil­ian casu­al­ties. So it seems that motive needs to be rein­sert­ed for our def­i­n­i­tion to make sense, and focus must be shift­ed to a new oper­a­tive word.

Ter­ror­ism is the cal­cu­lat­ed and unpro­voked use of vio­lence against civilians.

Now the corol­lary of the def­i­n­i­tion would sug­gest that a pro­voked act of vio­lence would not be con­demned as ter­ror­ism and could be incon­tro­vert­ibly filed under “war.” There­fore, to val­i­date the def­i­n­i­tion one would have to look into what might con­sti­tute a valid provocation.

Here I would like to ven­ture an answer: A valid provo­ca­tion is a pri­or act of unpro­voked vio­lence by the oth­er side equal to or greater than the act itself. Cru­cial­ly what that means is that polit­i­cal dis­agree­ment coun­tered by an act of vio­lence against civil­ians qual­i­fies that act as ter­ror­ism pure and simple.

In prac­ti­cal terms, what that means is that if you and I are com­pet­ing farm­ers and you cam­paign for what I con­sid­er an unfair embar­go on my live­stock and in response i kill your chick­en, that is an act of ter­ror­ism in which i am the vil­lain and you are the victim.

Sim­i­lar­ly, if your chick­en kills my chick­en and my chick­ens kill your cow in retal­i­a­tion, my response is not legit­i­mate and can there­fore be termed an act of ter­ror­ism — not because a cow is high­er up the food chain than a chick­en, but because the cow has no beef (pun not intend­ed) in the scuf­fle between the chick­ens and there­fore my response is unprovoked.

How­ev­er if in response I let loose my chick­ens on yours in an all-out con­fronta­tion, then all bets are off and that con­sti­tutes an act of war. Now if your cows get involved and are wiped out in the process, that does not change the nature of the con­fronta­tion to an act of ter­ror­ism. Oth­er­wise that would make heroes and mar­tyrs out of your unpro­voked chick­ens (the vil­lains) and vil­lains out of mine (the vic­tims and martyrs).

In an ide­al world, this entire post would right­ful­ly be dis­missed as abstract seman­tics. Unfor­tu­nate­ly in the world of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, the con­ve­nient rede­f­i­n­i­tion of “ter­ror­ism” is a very real tool of both local pol­i­cy and glob­al propaganda.

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