Monday, January 30, 2006

Defining 'Terrorist'

I often write here about the angry and odd political persuasions of many of my co-workers in the media. But it's not just on the job that I sometimes have to bite my tongue.

Members of my family flatly declare half the statesmen in American history to be terrorists. I suppose the other half escape censure only because my family can't remember their names. But this part of my family always is fuzzy on the details. It was asserted this weekend with the utmost certainty that Eisenhower ordered his CIA to topple the democratically elected government of Zimbabwe -- a country that never bore that name until a decade after Ike was dead, and which during his presidency was a self-governing colony under the British Crown known as Southern Rhodesia.

I generally say nothing during these interminable afternoons of agitprop. Just like at work -- what would be the point? In order to discuss or debate, you have to have a shaving of common ground to stand on -- like living on the same planet, where Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1979, not 1949 -- or having reasonably proximate definitions of "terrorist."

I have no idea what my family's definition of "terrorist" is, but obviously it's radically different from my own. And probably as fuzzy as their African history, because "terrorist" is a damned difficult word to define. Anyone who is going to write about it and assert opinions about it, though, owes it to himself and his audience to have a go at a definition. Here's my working definition, which is imperfect but which satisfies me for daily use:

TERRORIST: One who seeks to achieve a political end primarily by using violence against civilians and non-combatants, with the primary aim of creating a psychology of fear and an awareness of threat in the body of people the terrorist wishes to manipulate for the sake of the political goal.

This seems to me a fair start. When I read some people's attempts at definition, they seem to be carefully worded to group together only certain people or causes that the writer dislikes, and to exclude others he favors. Mine's not meant to be like that. It can include statesmen and military leaders. The Allied area bombing campaigns against German cities in World War II, for instance, fit the definition. The original "terrorists" -- the rulers of France during the Revolution -- are still included in my definition.

But attempts to define terrorism tend to run into the same problems. For instance, the restriction to civilian victims allows for slipperiness: The al Qaida cell that attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen were attacking an entirely military target, and thus were not behaving as terrorists by my definition, but I have no trouble thinking of them as terrorists, and they certainly behaved like it in other times and places without any conscious modification in their goals. Certainly their attempt against the Cole was not meant to scuttle the U.S. Navy, but to make the American people fear them. Some defenders of the Sept. 11 terrorists point out that the Pentagon was a "legitimate military target," but overlook the 64 passengers on American Airlines Flight 77, who were not. Nor were they collateral damage: the intent was to kill them spectacularly.

What about assassinations? An assassin who simply kills a politician to stop up his voice, or to avenge some perceived wrong, isn't being a terrorist. He's just an assassin. But if he kills with the intent of intimidating this leader's following, or discouraging any future leader from pursuing the course that ends in this killing, then that is a terrorist's motive. But how can you separate them in any one vicious mind?

Some people define terrorism to include property attacks. I chose not to. It's certainly true that the destruction of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe would have a crushing psychological effect on France, even if no one was killed in the process. But to include all property as potential targets of terrorism seems to be defining the word down too severely. I think "eco-terrorism" needs a new name and a new category.

"Primarily" and "primary" are key words in my definition. Some people deliberately omit any notion of intent, the better to paint all state violence -- and U.S. military action in particular -- as "terrorism." I find that disingenuous. Certainly a state military action can be terrorism. And to this day I cannot determine whether Sherman's march through Georgia had sufficient strategic military purpose, balanced against the intended psychological damage to the South, to escape the label "terrorism."

Terrorism has other characteristics, but they are secondary, not essential to its definition. For instance, its chief practitioners tend to be utopian, ideological, and religious.

It is least effective against totalitarian regimes. The Nazi terror in Russia actually backfired, and turned the Russian people, many of whom at first welcomed their release from the Soviet yoke, into partisan opponents of the Germans who ensured their defeat in Russia. The Allied bombing of German cities, meanwhile, made no appreciable difference to the end of the war. There was no way for the terrorized populace to express itself against its rulers. The Nazi V-rocket terror attacks on London in 1944, however, almost broke the will of the British.

Another inevitable result of terrorism is that by nature it depends on the free flow of information, and especially media images, to give it strength. It exploits the media as a disease exploits the respiratory system.

* * *

Marc at American Future has an excellent post on the legal and legislative context of the NSA wiretaps issue. I recommend it, and I can add nothing to the thoughtful work he's done there. But he introduced his post with two examples of recent words from the kind of Americans who were made uncomfortable by Sept. 11, I suppose because it revealed starkly that there are organizations with the will and the ability to kill great numbers of us, and, by golly, defending ourselves with force might be the order of the day after all.

One is a blogger named Glenn Greenwald, who uses a comparison Marc correctly identifies as "specious:"

The total number of Americans killed by Islamic terrorists in the last 5 years ? or 10 years ? or 20 years ? or ever ? is roughly 3,500, the same number of deaths by suicide which occur in this country every month.

Must we go through this again? Yes, and the number of college students killed by National Guards at Kent State was less than the number that dies that year from alcohol overdoses. And more blacks in the South in the 1920s died from food poisoning than from lynching. Yes and all those Jews incinerated at Auschwitz would be dead by now of old age anyhow. So these things weren't real problems, right? Just exaggerations trumped up for some political purpose.

That people are foolish enough to write this way shows they haven't really thought about terrorism. One of the secondary characteristics of it is the indignity: The indignity of being its victim. The soldier in battle kills you before you can kill him. The mugger may kill you for your money, to the terrorist, you are irrelevant. You have nothing he wants but your life. It's been noted before that there's a perverted quality of art to terrorism; it contains many elements of theater, and the essential players are artist, audience, and medium. The dead are just props. The essential connection is between the terrorist and the audience who will be psychologically traumatized.

Terrorism's victims are taken to death with full human deliberation and will and craft. But they are essentially taken at random. Sometimes, even it is their innocence that dooms them. They cannot negotiate release, and nothing they could have done in their lives would avoid this outcome. They are not hostages in any sense. They are living corpses waiting to be arranged for the camera in the most dramatic poses. It is the ultimate objectification of human life.

Yet idiots persist in comparing the number of humans slain by terrorist hands to, say, the number of victims of lightning strikes.

The other quote Marc pulls is from the historian Joseph J. Ellis, who has problems getting a grip on the truth even of his own life. Ellis opines on the significance of 9/11:

... where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.

Now, America, why is this man a revered historian? The burning of the wretched architecture of Washington in 1814 was hardly a nation-threatening calamity; a good courthouse fire in a populous county would have dome more damage to the republic. As for the rest of it, he mostly compares entire wars and movements to a single day -- Sept. 11. Sept. 11 is not to be compared to World War II, its proper comparison is Pearl Harbor. If you want to compare anything to World War II, you compare it to what has come after Sept. 11 -- the War on Terrorism, or whatever you choose to call it.

I can't lay off "the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union," either. That's barely acceptable in undergraduate papers. The Southern secession of 1860-61 ended the old union under the Constitution of 1787. The Northern and Western states still formed an American union, however. The flag was still flying from Maine to California, the Congress still met, the courts still functioned. The South never sought to destroy the Union. It just wanted to leave it. Then the North put up a fight over tariff revenues in Southern ports, and the South put up a fight over federal property in Southern states, and then the Civil War began.