Two men yesterday engaged in a horrific act of violence on the streets of London by using what appeared to be a meat cleaver to hack to death a British soldier. In the wake of claims that the assailants shouted "Allahu Akbar" during the killing, and a video showing one of the assailants citing Islam as well as a desire to avenge and stop continuous UK violence against Muslims, media outlets (including the Guardian) and British politicians instantly characterized the attack as "terrorism".
That this was a barbaric and horrendous act goes without saying, but given the legal, military, cultural and political significance of the term "terrorism", it is vital to ask: is that term really applicable to this act of violence? To begin with, in order for an act of violence to be "terrorism", many argue that it must deliberately target civilians. That's the most common means used by those who try to distinguish the violence engaged in by western nations from that used by the "terrorists": sure, we kill civilians sometimes, but we don't deliberately target them the way the "terrorists" do.
How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners? Can that be done?
But here, just as was true for Nidal Hasan's attack on a Fort Hood military base, the victim of the violence was a soldier of a nation at war, not a civilian. He was stationed at an army barracks quite close to the attack. The killer made clear that he knew he had attacked a soldier when he said afterward: "this British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
The US, the UK and its allies have repeatedly killed Muslim civilians over the past decade (and before that), but defenders of those governments insist that this cannot be "terrorism" because it is combatants, not civilians, who are the targets. Can it really be the case that when western nations continuously kill Muslim civilians, that's not "terrorism", but when Muslims kill western soldiers, that is terrorism? Amazingly, the US has even imprisoned people at Guantanamo and elsewhere on accusations of "terrorism" who are accused of nothing more than engaging in violence against US soldiers who invaded their country.
It's true that the soldier who was killed yesterday was out of uniform and not engaged in combat at the time he was attacked. But the same is true for the vast bulk of killings carried out by the US and its allies over the last decade, where people are killed in their homes, in their cars, at work, while asleep (in fact, the US has re-defined "militant" to mean "any military-aged male in a strike zone"). Indeed, at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on drone killings, Gen. James Cartwright and Sen. Lindsey Graham both agreed that the US has the right to kill its enemies even while they are "asleep", that you don't "have to wake them up before you shoot them" and "make it a fair fight". Once you declare that the "entire globe is a battlefield" (which includes London) and that any "combatant" (defined as broadly as possible) is fair game to be killed - as the US has done - then how can the killing of a solider of a nation engaged in that war, horrific though it is, possibly be "terrorism"?
When I asked on Twitter this morning what specific attributes of this attack make it "terrorism" given that it was a soldier who was killed, the most frequent answer I received was that "terrorism" means any act of violence designed to achieve political change, or more specifically, to induce a civilian population to change their government or its policies of out fear of violence. Because, this line of reasoning went, one of the attackers here said that "the only reasons we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily" and warned that "you people will never be safe. Remove your government", the intent of the violence was to induce political change, thus making it "terrorism".
That is at least a coherent definition. But doesn't that then encompass the vast majority of violent acts undertaken by the US and its allies over the last decade? What was the US/UK "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad if not a campaign to intimidate the population with a massive show of violence into submitting to the invading armies and ceasing their support for Saddam's regime? That was clearly its functional intent and even its stated intent. That definition would also immediately include the massive air bombings of German cities during World War II. It would include the Central American civilian-slaughtering militias supported, funded and armed by the Reagan administration throughout the 1980s, the Bangledeshi death squads trained and funded by the UK, and countless other groups supported by the west that used violence against civilians to achieve political ends.
The ongoing US drone attacks unquestionably have the effect, and one could reasonably argue the intent, of terrorizing the local populations so that they cease harboring or supporting those the west deems to be enemies. The brutal sanctions regime imposed by the west on Iraq and Iran, which kills large numbers of people, clearly has the intent of terrorizing the population into changing its governments' policies and even the government itself. How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners? Can that be done?
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I know this vital caveat will fall on deaf ears for some, but nothing about this discussion has anything to do with justifiability. An act can be vile, evil, and devoid of justification without being "terrorism": indeed, most of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, from the Holocaust to the wanton slaughter of Stalin and Pol Pot and the massive destruction of human life in Vietnam, are not typically described as "terrorism". To question whether something qualifies as "terrorism" is not remotely to justify or even mitigate it. That should go without saying, though I know it doesn't.
The reason it's so crucial to ask this question is that there are few terms - if there are any - that pack the political, cultural and emotional punch that "terrorism" provides. When it comes to the actions of western governments, it is a conversation-stopper, justifying virtually anything those governments want to do. It's a term that is used to start wars, engage in sustained military action, send people to prison for decades or life, to target suspects for due-process-free execution, shield government actions behind a wall of secrecy, and instantly shape public perceptions around the world. It matters what the definition of the term is, or whether there is a consistent and coherent definition. It matters a great deal.
There is ample scholarship proving that the term has no such clear or consistently applied meaning (see the penultimate section here, and my interview with Remi Brulin here). It is very hard to escape the conclusion that, operationally, the term has no real definition at this point beyond "violence engaged in by Muslims in retaliation against western violence toward Muslims". When media reports yesterday began saying that "there are indications that this may be act of terror", it seems clear that what was really meant was: "there are indications that the perpetrators were Muslims driven by political grievances against the west" (earlier this month, an elderly British Muslim was stabbed to death in an apparent anti-Muslim hate crime and nobody called that "terrorism"). Put another way, the term at this point seems to have no function other than propagandistically and legally legitimizing the violence of western states against Muslims while delegitimizing any and all violence done in return to those states.
One last point: in the wake of the Boston Marathon attacks, I documented that the perpetrators of virtually every recent attempted and successful "terrorist" attack against the west cited as their motive the continuous violence by western states against Muslim civilians. It's certainly true that Islam plays an important role in making these individuals willing to fight and die for this perceived just cause (just as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and nationalism lead some people to be willing to fight and die for their cause). But the proximate cause of these attacks are plainly political grievances: namely, the belief that engaging in violence against aggressive western nations is the only way to deter and/or avenge western violence that kills Muslim civilians.
Add the London knife attack on this soldier to that growing list. One of the perpetrators said on camera that "the only reason we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily" and "we apologize that women had to see this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same." As I've endlessly pointed out, highlighting this causation doesn't remotely justify the acts. But it should make it anything other than surprising. On Twitter last night, Michael Moore sardonically summarized western reaction to the London killing this way:
I am outraged that we can't kill people in other counties without them trying to kill us!"
Basic human nature simply does not allow you to cheer on your government as it carries out massive violence in multiple countries around the world and then have you be completely immune from having that violence returned.
In not unrelated news, the US government yesterday admitted for the first time what everyone has long known: that it killed four Muslim American citizens with drones during the Obama presidency, including a US-born teenager whom everyone acknowledges was guilty of nothing. As Jeremy Scahill - whose soon-to-be-released film "Dirty Wars" examines US covert killings aimed at Muslims - noted yesterday about this admission, it "leaves totally unexplained why the United States has killed so many innocent non-American citizens in its strikes in Pakistan and Yemen". Related to all of these issues, please watch this two-minute trailer for "Dirty Wars", which I reviewed a few weeks ago here: