Before the war began, a debate was under way about the meaning of the word terrorism. Among other things, this was important in crafting an antiterrorism statement that could get through the United Nations. Various nations feared their own actions within their borders might be construed to be terrorist.
Now that our offensive is happening, the debate is, if anything, even emptier - yet all the more urgent. We must not, in responding to terrorism, become terrorists ourselves.
Michael Kinsley, writing last week in the Washington Post, tried to show that terrorism could not be defined by the "scope of the harm": "Most terrorist actions are fairly small-scale compared with the death and destruction committed by nation-states acting in their official capacities. Even Sept. 11 killed fewer people than, say, the bomb on Hiroshima - an act that many Americans find easy to defend."
I propose to define terrorism as follows: military action aimed primarily at noncombatants. By that standard, the bombing that ended the war with Japan ranks among the greatest terrorist acts of all time. At Hiroshima, 130,000 people died; at Nagasaki, 75,000. These bombings were utterly unconscionable and utterly unforgivable, two of the worst atrocities in a nightmare century of the Holocaust, the Killing Fields, Rwanda.
There are, of course, important differences between the American use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Sept. 11 attacks. The nuclear detonations took place in the context of a grueling war started by the Japanese. As Kinsley points out, there is another difference. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs took many, many more civilian lives. The bombs killed tens of thousands of children.
It may be thought that what distinguishes 1945 and Sept. 11 is that one is an act of a government, the other the act of a paramilitary organization. But such a distinction does not save the former from being terrorism.
But let's get something straight: That Hiroshima and Sept. 11 are morally equivalent cannot justify either one. When I compare the two, I am not doing it to provide any moral cover whatever to Osama bin Laden. Nothing, nothing can justify flying airliners into office buildings. It doesn't matter, finally, whether we call it terrorism or war or love or charity. The words, in the mouths of the various parties, are nothing, literally nothing. But the lives destroyed are real, are true, are precious beyond speaking.
The insane equation of death in which person a kills b and c because person d kills e and f, has got to stop. When Palestinian terrorists car-bomb a shopping district, Israel replies by lobbing a rocket into a refugee camp. Then the Palestinians detonate another bomb, etc. It's all terrorism because no one is even pretending to kill killers. Everyone is a mere murderer, whether he's called the general or the Jackal.
In my view, we must respond with force. But we had better try as hard as we know how to kill the people responsible and not cities full of noncombatants. Otherwise, you can call what we're doing infinite justice or shoo-fly pie, but it's still murder.
Crispin Sartwell (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.