Thursday, August 11, 2005

Defining the T-word

Perhaps the single stupidest thing said in these dog days of stupidity surrounding the A-bomb anniversaries was in a comment on this thread. Hold on to your tin-foil hats, folks.

Our country started out with terrorists, does anyone remeber [sic] the “Boston Tea Party".

That takes the cake for "defining something down." Politically motivated vandalism now = terrorism. Casks of tea dumped in the drink = beheading and mass murder.

And, as an aside, if anyone reading this has been alive long enough to reme[m]ber the Boston Tea Party, please contact the Guinness Book of Records people.

The thread is criticizing the headline the Toronto Globe & Mail put on The AP's Nagasaki story. They titled it: "The greatest terror weapon."

[The headline that moved on the story on the AP wire was "Nagasaki marks 60th anniversary of A-bombing, mayor offers angry words to U.S." No one is bound to use the AP's suggested heads; most newspapers rewrite them to fit the space they have. But I include this here in case anyone jumps to the conclusion that this newspaper simply used the same wording that was on the story when it arrived. They didn't. They went out and deliberately chose that word.]

It's a cheap shot, but it's technically defensible. The U.S. Department of Defense, for instance, defines "terrorism" as "The calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological."

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs fit that, at least up to "goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological." You could argue that that "ending the war" is a political goal, though. Hell, you even could argue that "we should win the war and you should not" is an ideological statement.

That's why defining "terrorism" today is impossible. The word has been used in many contexts over the years. It began in reference to the French Revolution, and the government's treatment of its own people. It was not, at that time, regarded as an insult by its chief perpetrator, Robespierre. Later it was reversed and applied to revolutionaries attacking their own government (Russia, 1866).

In 2001 the word rocketed up to the number one position on the "political insult" chart. The problem with defining it now is that everyone wants to use it against his enemies. And if your definition takes that away from him, he'll howl.

If we can't define terrorism exactly, can we at least set boundaries around it? Such as, for instance, "any definition of 'terrorism' that encompasses the Boston Tea Party is drawn too broadly."

Here's a list of online definitions of terrorism.

The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence against people or property to coerce or intimidate governments or societies, often to achieve political, religious, or ideological objectives.

That one hinges on "unlawful." Your decision on whether the A-bombs fit under "terrorism" depends on whether their use in that instance could be justified under international law at the time. Hiroshima, for instance, is considered by many to have been a "lawful" military target:

At the time of its bombing, Hiroshima was a city of considerable industrial and military significance. Some military camps were located nearby such as the headquarters of the Fifth Division and Field Marshal Hata's 2nd General Army Headquarters, which commanded the defense of all of southern Japan. Hiroshima was a major supply and logistics base for the Japanese military. The city was a communications center, a storage point, and an assembly area for troops.

On the other hand, under this definition, the Boston Tea Party definitely was an act of terrorism (unlawful use of force against property to coerce or intimidate governments).

Here's another:

The use of extreme violence or the threat of violence by states, groups or individuals to generate fear in individuals and thus manipulate their behavior.

That would definitely cover the Japan bombs, as well as the Sept. 11 hijackings. It's a good definition, though the "extreme" is a difficult line to draw.

A criminal act that is undertaken with the purpose of achieving political gain. It may or may not be directed against a particular government, and it may or may not be state-sponsored.

Again, "criminal" is the key word. But criminal by whose standards? If a devout Muslim commits a mass killing that is allowed by Sharia Law, but not by international law, is it criminal?

The systematic use of violence to achieve political ends.

That's not "terrorism." That's "war."

Acts of murder and destruction deliberately directed against civilians or military in non-military situations.

Better, but again, this one seems too broad. It excludes battlefields, but blankets almost every other kind of physical violence. It takes no cognizance of the intended result of the violence. A bar-room brawl could be terrorism.

Any act including, but not limited to, the use of force or violence and/or threat thereof of any person or group(s) of persons whether acting alone or on behalf of, or in connection with, any organisation(s) or government(s) committed for political, religions, ideological or similar purposes, including the intention to influence any government and/or to put the public or any section of the public in fear.

That clearly includes the two A bombs. But overall this one looks too deliberately vague ("including, but not limited to ... similar purposes").

Moving on to the next soup bowl:

The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. The term international terrorism means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country. The term terrorist group means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international use of terror, especially the systematic use of terror by the government or other authority against particular persons or groups; a method of opposing a government internally or externally through the use of terror[.]

This one is confusing me. The first sentence seems to exclude the ideas that states can commit terrorism. That would be a hotly debated notion, but perhaps it is worth debating. That is, perhaps we need two words to describe two ideas here, rather than lumping them together under "terrorism."

When an individual kills an individual, it's homicide. When a state kills an individual, it's execution. The distinction is useful. Part of its utility is that you still can accuse a state of murder, if it does not follow its own or the world's accepted ground rules for executions, and that accusation carries some heft.

But the back nine of this definition, the part about "terrorist group," seems to "especially" include government actions.

The use of violence for political purpose.

Way too broad.

"Systematic use of terror, manifesting itself in violence and intimidation. Terrorism has been used by groups wishing to coerce a govt in order to achieve political or other objectives, and also by dictatorships or other autocratic governments in order to overcome opposition to their policies."

So terrorism is anyone using violence or threats to scare people. That seems to set the bar too low. Bullies are not terrorists.

a violent act in violation of the criminal laws of the United States, which is intended to intimidate or influence the policy of a government.

No, no, no. You can't base it on "the criminal laws of the United States," as though justice and civilization are coterminous with the U.S. legal code.

[T]he unlawful use of or threat of, violence against persons or property to further political or social objectives.

Fails the "Boston Tea Party Test."

[E]mploying acts or threats of violence. Terrorism is often used today as a political weapon to bring attention to a group’s goals or to gain those goals.

BUZZZ. Terrorism is not identical to violence or threats of violence. Otherwise, we'd call it "violence." Thanks for playing; as a consolation prize you win the home version of our game.

[T]he use of violence against noncombatants for the purpose of achieving a political goal, on a scale smaller than full-scale warfare. Acts of terrorism can be perpetrated by individuals, groups, or states, as an alternative to an open declaration of war, and are often carried out by those who otherwise feel powerless.

Interesting definition. It distinguished "terrorism" entirely from "full-scale warfare," yet it allows that states can be terrorists. The key notion here seems to be declaration of war. Depending how you read this, however, it could be drawing the definition too narrowly. Osama bin Laden, after all, did issue a "declaration of war" against the United States before the Sept. 11 attacks. It depends if you read the phrase "as an alternative to an open declaration of war" as modifying only "states" or the whole group "individuals, groups, or states."

[T]he calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimindation [sic] or coercion or instilling fear.

This seems to me almost as good as the Department of Defense definition. Not too broad, not too narrow. It allows for states, as well as groups and individuals, to commit acts of terror. It includes the key word "calculated" (accidental killing is not terrorism). But by limiting the victims to civilians, it would allow attacks like the destruction of the Beirut Marine barracks, the Khobar Towers bombing, and even the Pentagon hit on Sept. 11.

Wikipedia has a similar definition, though inexplicably it drops the "threats" aspect, while adding military personnel:

Terrorism refers to the use of violence for the purpose of achieving a political, religious, or ideological goal. The targets of terrorist acts can be government officials, military personnel, people serving the interests of governments, or civilians. Acts of terror against military targets tend to blend into a strategy of guerrilla warfare.

In fact, the Wikipedia list of potential targets really is "everybody." It's hard to imagine someone who isn't included in one or more of those terms.

One of the worst definitions I've seen is this one, supposedly that of the FBI:

Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Good lord, it fails the "Boston Tea Party Test." If that's right, the FBI is holding warrants for Sam Adams and John Hancock.