The importance of conceptions/definitions of terrorism to the analysis of counter-terrorism

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Terrorism is the most discussed issue in early 21st century public discourse. Ever since the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, it has been a major pre-occupation of American diplomatic and military efforts. Since the United States is the leader of the prevailing uni-polar world, terrorism now has implications for all countries associated with it. In the context of the ongoing War on Terror, the concept of Islamist jihad is seen as the ideological springboard for the numerous suicide attacks witnessed recently. As a measure to retaliate to and prevent terror attacks, America and its allies have initiated several counter-terror operations in perceived geo-political hotspots. But differentiating between what comprises an act of terror and what can be classified as counter-terror is never straightforward – the official use of these labels is often purely a matter of rhetoric and self-serving bias. As renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky succinctly points out, “if it is done by our side, the act is counter-terror; if it is done by the enemy, it is terror”. (Chomsky, as quoted in Bowden, 2003, p.51)

A glance at the presentation of conflicts in mainstream media sources bears out this point. Depending on who the consumers of news information are, notations of terror and counter-terror are conveniently swapped. Hence, conceptions and definitions of these two opposing terms will have to begin by dispelling rhetorical exaggerations, intrinsic biases and other barriers to truth. In this context, it is not surprising that the word ‘terrorism’ has become so subjective as to be without any concrete meaning. Nevertheless, the word has a frightening resonance, because people “tend to believe that it does have meaning and to use and abuse the word by applying it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding rational thought and discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behaviour”. (Whitbeck, 2002, p.52) The vagueness of the term is evident from the range of verbal formulations (signifying diverse acts) to which it is applied –

“Mass murder,” “assassination,” “arson” and “sabotage” are available (to all of which the phrase “politically motivated” can be added if appropriate). Such crimes, moreover, are already on the statute books, rendering specific criminal legislation for “terrorism” unnecessary. Such precise formulations, however, 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 grievances which inspired such a crime, but no cause or grievance can justify (or even explain) “terrorism,” which, all right-thinking people agree, is the ultimate evil.” (Whitbeck, 2002, p.52)

The best indication of difficulties in defining terrorism is the fact that some of the most inspirational public figures of the twentieth century such as Nelson Mandela, Menachem Begin, Yasser Arafat and Gerry Adams were all regarded as terrorists at some point during their public life. This classification of them being terrorists co-existed or transformed into more respectable classifications such as statesmen and peacemakers – indeed, Mandela, Begin and Arafat, have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Mandela is viewed today by many as the leading moral authority of his time in the world. (Tsoukala, 2004, p.417) Such examples typify the hazard of defining terrorism and terrorists. It also shows that these terms are easier to talk about than to define. As noted political commentator, Nissan Horowitz, points out in the major Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, the meaning of the term terrorism is all in the eye of the beholder. To give a concrete example, he asks “Why is the attack on the Twin Towers called terrorism, while the bombing of a hospital in Kabul is not? Indeed, international lawyers have struggled to define terrorism for nearly a century, largely without success. In the words of the hoary cliche, ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ Or, in the context of Israel/Palestine, whom the Israelis call a terrorist the Palestinians call a martyr.” (Ha’aretz, as quoted in Weiss, 2002, p.11)

It is not difficult to understand why this paradox exists. The terrorist is motivated to act on the basis of a perceived injustice suffered by him, and is hence celebrated as a hero by the community he represents (which could be bound together by political ideology, religion, class, ethnicity, etc). In fact most instances of the struggle for independence from imperial rule relied on methods that would be deemed ‘terrorist’ by those were unsympathetic/antagonistic to the cause. The most obvious examples are witnessed in the freedom struggles in Africa and Asia as well as the anti-oligarchic struggle in Latin America. With the demise of imperialism (notwithstanding its morphed version neo-colonialism), acceptability for retaliatory terrorist acts have disappeared too. So, although terrorism has thus lost its lustre of old, a comprehensive definition still eludes the international community. (Weiss, 2002, p.12)

It is a reflection of the complexities involved in defining terrorism that diplomats and international legal personnel have so far overcome the problem by writing conventions that outlaw acts of terrorism without directly including the word ‘terrorism’. The UN Conventions on Terrorism bears this fact through the eight UN conventions and two protocols that were enacted between 1963 and 1991. These deal with a range of offences such as “hijacking, attacks on diplomatic agents and other internationally protected persons, hostage taking, theft of nuclear material and unlawful acts against maritime navigation and fixed platforms located on the continental shelf.” (Halwani, 2006, p.289) It is quite obvious that any of these forbidden acts can happen with or without the motive of terrorism. Perhaps taking into account this ambiguity, the two most recent UN Conventions (the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997) and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999)) do manage to address the term ‘terrorism’ directly. The earlier convention still has no definition, but the latter indirectly defines terrorism as “any act intended to cause death or serious bodily injury to a civilian, or to any other person not taking an active part in the hostilities in a situation of armed conflict, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.” (Halwani, 2006, p.289)

Coming to the analysis of counter-terrorism, one scholarly description of the goal of counter-terror is “to prevent it [terrorism] and combat it. From that general charge to ‘prevent and combat’, two specific purposes of counter-terror emerge, both derived by analyzing the goals of terrorism, that is, that which counter-terror attempts to prevent and combat…” (Leeman, 1991, p.10) That is, by definition counter-terrorism stands in opposition to terrorism. Its purpose, presumably, is to prevent terrorists from attaining ‘their’ goals. This is not to deny the possibility that supposed counter-terrorists might have multiple or even hidden goals and agendas. For example, a speaker might deliver a ‘counterterrorist’ address less for the purpose of opposing terrorism than for the purpose of, say, getting re-elected. In constructing such a message, however, such a speaker is attempting to answer a far different question than that the citizens are concerned. For example, “How can I best get re-elected? is not the same as How can I best respond to terrorism?. That rhetoric which most effectively accomplishes the objective or objectives of counterterrorism should be considered the ‘best of the available means.” (Leeman, 1991, p.10)

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