Thursday, 26 February 2015

What is Terrorism? It depends on whose ox is gored

As we watch Stephen Harper's Conservative government push through new "anti-terrorism" legislation, a few dissenters like myself would like to ask:  "Who is a terrorist? What is terrorism?" The comment below is published as an appendix in my book, Creating a Failed State: The US and Canada in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan there are the locals who detonate bombs in public places resulting in the deaths of many innocent people. Most people would agree that these people are "terrorists." But it also seems to me that when the NATO forces bomb and shell villages in the rural areas, also killing many innocent people, these are also acts of terrorism. In more recent years, this would include the use of predator drones as well.


My Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1961) defines terror as a “State or instance of extreme fear.” Terrorism is defined as an “Act of terrorizing, or state of being terrorized; specifically, a mode of governing, or of opposing government, by intimidation.” It is common to identify this with the Reign of Terror in France (1793-4). This definition makes it clear that terror is used by both governments and those opposed to a particular government. Individual or group activities (like bombing a subway) are crimes and not acts of war. 

This definition was created before President Ronald Reagan declared his “war on international terrorism” while launching the Contra war of terrorism against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It was made before the U.S. government and its NATO allies were fighting wars in countries that we used to call `Third World.`

George Orwell argued that governments use the power of language as a weapon. He concluded in 1946 that “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.” In his novel 1984 Orwell argued that “war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is to keep the structure of society intact.”

This brings back memories of the Vietnam War. When the National Liberation Front killed local government officials appointed by the U.S.-backed military regime in Saigon, they were described as ``terrorists.`` But when B-52 bombers flew in the night and carpet bombed areas under the control of the NLF, this was called “pacification.”

The U.S. law on international terrorism includes activities which are designed to “(1) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (2) influence the policy of government by intimidation or coercion; or (3) affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”  Elsewhere it is defined as “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature through intimidation, coercion or instilling fear.” The post-9/11 Canadian law is similar.

The United Nations can`t define terrorism
The United Nations has not been able to agree on a definition of terrorism. In 1999 one UN resolution proposed that terrorism consisted of “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public.” Many questions were raised in the debate. Is it legitimate for individuals and groups to attack military forces which occupy their own country?  Is it not legitimate to use whatever force is available to resist colonial domination? Cannot individuals and groups use violence to try to remove a criminal dictatorship? The closest the debate came to consensus was the general agreement that the targets of terrorism are usually civilians.

Michael Stohl and George A. Lopez point out that there was no agreement at the United Nations because of ideological and regional differences of opinion. There were three basic positions on terrorism:

(1) Terrorism is defined by criminal acts by individuals and groups against existing governments. This was the general position taken by the advanced industrialized governments and some Latin American dictatorships.
(2) Terrorism should be defined by acts, so that actions by governments could be included. This was the position taken by the African governments.
(3) Terrorism should be identified by the motivation of the actor and the context in which it takes place. 

Under the narrow definition proposed by the advanced industrialized countries, actions by national liberation movements against imperialism and colonialism would be labeled terrorism. This argument was made by many governments from less developed countries.

Edward Peck has recalled his experience on the White House Task Force on Terrorism in 1985, under President Ronald Reagan. Asked to come up with a definition of terrorism “we produced about six, and in each and every case they were rejected because careful reading would indicate that our own country had been involved in some of those activities.” The Congress defined international terrorism as “activities that appear to be intended to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” Peck concluded that “you can think of a number of countries that have been involved in such activities. Ours in one of them. Israel is another. And so, the terrorist, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.”

State terrorism certainly did not start with the Reign of Terror in France. A few years ago I did some research on Irish history. In their attempt to pacify the Irish rebel movements demanding independence, the English Tudors regularly carried out a systematic “war of terror,” and they called it that. This included the routine burning of crops, homes and villages, killing of all the cattle, destroying food resources, and killing all men, women and children in certain cases. There was a bounty paid for Irish heads. Under orders from Queen Elizabeth, Francis Drake massacred the entire population of Rathlin Island to teach the Scots not to support their Celtic allies. Sir Humphrey Gilbert, head of the English forces, had the heads of the Irish killed during the day piled up near his camp for the Irish to see. He argued that this “policy of terror” would convince the Irish to give up their rebellion and shorten the war.

Stohl and Lopez try to distinguish between the different kinds of violence used by a state. They define oppression, where “social and economic privileges are denied to whole classes of people regardless of whether they oppose the authorities.” Repression is used by the state, “coercion or threat of coercion against opponents or potential opponents in order to prevent or weaken their capability to oppose the authorities and their policies.” Many examples are used from Latin America to illustrate these positions. They argue that in this differentiation of state power, terrorism is “the purposeful act or threat of violence to create fear and/or compliant behaviour in a victim and/or audience of the act or threat.” The goal of an act of state terror is the creation of fear in an audience, to change behaviour or potential behaviour. They cite a Chinese proverb to illustrate their point: “Kill one, frighten ten thousand.”

See Michael Stohl and George A. Lopez, eds. The State as Terrorist: The Dynamics of Governmental Violence and Repression. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, Congressional Information Service, 1984.

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