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

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)

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