JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia --
The greatest threat to world peace today is clearly "terrorism"--not the behavior to which the word is applied but the word itself.
For years, people have recited the truism that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." However, with the world's sole superpower declaring an open-ended, worldwide war on terrorism, the notorious subjectivity of this word is no longer a joke.
The word is dangerous because many people apply it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding and discouraging rational discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behavior. There is no shortage of precise language to describe the diverse acts to which the word "terrorism" is often applied. "Mass murder," "assassination," "arson" and "sabotage" are available. 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 abusers.
Most acts to which the word "terrorism" is applied are tactics of the weak, usually against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort. To cite one example, the Palestinians would certainly prefer to be able to fight for their freedom using F-16s, Apache attack helicopters and laser-guided missiles such as those the U.S. provides to Israel. If the U.S. gave such weapons to the Palestinians as well, the problem of suicide bombers would be solved.
Until the Palestinians can see some credible hope for a decent future, no one should be surprised that they use the weapons-delivery system available to them--their own bodies.
Since Sept. 11, virtually every recognized state confronting an insurgency or separatist movement has jumped on the war-on-terrorism bandwagon, branding its domestic opponents "terrorists" and taking the position that, since no one dares to criticize the U.S. for doing whatever it deems necessary in its war on terrorism, no one should criticize whatever they now do to suppress their own terrorists.
Even while accepting that many people labeled terrorists are genuinely reprehensible, it should be recognized that respect for human rights isn't likely to be enhanced by this apparent carte blanche seized by the strong to crush the weak as they see fit.
If everyone recognized that the word "terrorism" is fundamentally an epithet and a term of abuse with no intrinsic meaning, there would be no more reason to worry about the word now than prior to Sept. 11. However, with the U.S. relying on the word to assert an absolute right to attack any country it dislikes, many people around the world feel a sense of terror as to where the U.S. is taking the world.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration appears to be feeding the U.S. Constitution and America's traditions of civil liberties, due process and the rule of law into a shredder--mostly to domestic applause or acquiescence. Who would have imagined that 19 men armed only with knives could accomplish so much, provoking a response beyond their wildest dreams, which threatens to be vastly more damaging to their enemies even than their own appalling acts?
If the world is to avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule is "might makes right," every "retaliation" provokes a "counter-retaliation" and a genuine "war of civilizations" is ignited, the world--and particularly the U.S.--must recognize that "terrorism" is simply a subjective epithet, not an objective reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend all the rules of international law and domestic civil liberties that have, until now, made at least some parts of our planet decent places to live.
John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer. His "Two States, One Holy Land" framework for peace was the subject of a three-day conference of 24 Israelis and Palestinians held in Cairo in 1993.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times