Published on Wednesday, February 18, 2004 by the International Herald Tribune
'Terrorism': A World Ensnared by a Word
by John V. Whitbeck
In his televised "Meet the Press" interview Feb. 8, President George W. Bush was never asked a question about "terrorism." Yet he used the word (or a variant) 22 times. The word explained, and justified, everything - past, present and future.
Few American politicians or commentators dare to question the conventional wisdom that "terrorism" is the greatest threat facing America and the world. If so, the real threat lies not in the behavior to which this word is applied but in the word itself.
It is no accident that there is no agreed definition of terrorism, since the word is so subjective as to be devoid of any inherent meaning. At the same time, the word is extremely dangerous, because people tend to believe that it does have meaning, and they use and abuse it by applying it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding rational thought and discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behavior.
There is no shortage of precise verbal formulations for the diverse acts to which the word "terrorism" is often applied. "Mass murder," "assassination," "arson" and "sabotage" are available (to all of which "politically motivated" can be added if appropriate), and such crimes are already on the statute books, rendering specific criminal legislation for "terrorism" unnecessary and undesirable.
However, such precise formulations do not carry the overwhelming, demonizing and thought-deadening impact of the word "terrorism," which is, of course, precisely the charm of the word for its more cynical and unprincipled users and abusers. If someone commits "politically motivated mass murder," people might be curious as to the cause or grievance which inspired such a crime, but no cause or grievance can justify (or even explain) "terrorism," which, all right-thinking people must agree, is an ultimate evil.
Most acts to which the word "terrorism" is applied (at least in the West) are tactics of the weak, usually (although not always) against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort.
The poor, the weak and the oppressed rarely complain about "terrorism." The rich, the strong and the oppressors constantly do. While most of mankind has more reason to fear the high-technology violence of the strong than the low-technology violence of the weak, the fundamental mind-trick employed by the abusers of the word "terrorism" is essentially this: The low-technology violence of the weak is such an abomination that there are no limits on the high-technology violence of the strong that can be deployed against it.
Not surprisingly, since Sept. 11, 2001, virtually every recognized state confronting an insurgency or separatist movement has eagerly jumped on the "war on terrorism" bandwagon, branding its domestic opponents - if it had not already done so - "terrorists."
Even while accepting that many people labeled "terrorists" are genuinely reprehensible, it should be recognized that neither respect for human rights nor the human condition is likely to be enhanced by this apparent carte blanche seized by the strong to crush the weak as they see fit.
Perhaps the only honest and globally workable definition of "terrorism" is an explicitly subjective one - "violence that I don't support." Anyone who reads both the Western and Arab press cannot help noticing that the Western press routinely characterizes as "terrorism" virtually all Palestinian violence against Israelis (even against Israeli occupation forces within Palestine), while the Arab press routinely characterizes as "terrorism" virtually all Israeli violence against Palestinians. Only such a formulation would accommodate both characterizations, as well as most others.
If everyone recognized that "terrorism" is fundamentally a term of abuse, with no intrinsic meaning, there would be no more reason to worry about the word now than before Sept. 11. But with the United States relying on the word to assert, apparently, a right to attack any country it dislikes, many people around the world understandably feel a genuine sense of terror (dictionary definition: "a state of intense fear") as to where the United States is taking the rest of the world.
If the world is to avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule is "might makes right," the world - and particularly the United States - must recognize that "terrorism" is simply a word, a subjective epithet, not an objective reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend rules of international law and domestic civil liberties.
Every nation - and particularly the United States - must also recognize that in a world filled with injustice, violent outbursts by those hoping desperately for a better life - or simply seeking to strike a blow against injustice or their tormentors before they die - can never be eradicated.
At best, the frequency and gravity of such outbursts can be diminished by seeking to alleviate - rather than continuing to aggravate - the injustices and humiliations that give rise to them. A single-minded focus on increased military, "security" and "counter-terrorism" programs will almost certainly continue to prove counterproductive to its declared objective, diminishing both security and the quality of life for all mankind. Perfect security is, and will always be, an illusion, and "victory" in a "war on terrorism" is no more likely than in a "war on poverty," a "war on crime" or a "war on drugs."
It is long overdue, but not too late, for the American people to liberate themselves from the aggressive and self-destructive paranoia inflicted on them by unscrupulous abusers of an undefinable word.
Perhaps John Kerry will have the courage and genuine patriotism to question the wisdom of continuing to wage a perpetual "war" against a subjective epithet and, by doing so, to set us free, restoring some measure of sanity and more mature and constructive priorities both to American society and to America's relations with the world.
The writer is an international lawyer based in Saudi Arabia.
Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune