FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

“Terrorism:” the Indefinable Word

Paris.

The Western world has reacted to the “terrorist” shooting spree in Paris with near-hysteria, immediately intensifying its own lethal violence in the Middle East.

Israel is branding as a wave of “terrorism” the continuing suicidal attacks by hope-deprived Palestinian children armed only with knives and scissors.

In the new “peace process” for Syria, Jordan has accepted the thankless task of deciding which of the many armed groups in Syria are “terrorists” and, as such, are to be excluded from the process and bombed.

And Americans have been fiercely debating whether the latest in a long line of domestic gun rampages, carried out by a Muslim married couple, deserves to be deemed an act of “terrorism”.

In this context, it may be enlightening to recall the last international effort to define this indefinable word.

At the UN’s 60th anniversary summit in September 2005, the 191 member states tried but failed to agree on a convention defining the word “terrorism”. Some commentators actually sounded surprised, even saying that there had been a failure “even” to agree on a definition. No one should have been surprised.

The definition being proposed by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan would have defined “terrorism” as “any action intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organization to carry out or to abstain from any act.”

A fair and reasonable definition, surely. Read it again. Think about it. What are the odds that the United States would ever have permitted “terrorism” to be so defined?

For starters, if this proposed definition had been accepted and if George W. Bush and Tony Blair were correct in their repeated assertions that the motivations behind the 9/11 attacks and the 2005 London bombings were “because they hate our freedoms” or some other form of blind, mindless malevolence or sick desire to kill innocent people for the sake of it, then the term “terrorism” could not properly be applied to these events. To make the label fit, Bush and Blair would have had to admit that the motivations were fundamentally political – to intimidate their populations or governments into carrying out major changes in their Middle East policies.

Furthermore, this proposed definition was not limited to acts by “non-state actors”. It would have applied not only to the low-technology violence of the weak but also to the high-technology violence of the strong, which has always been vastly more destructive and deadly.

If this proposed definition had been accepted, the attacks on the US Marine barracks in Beirut and Al-Khobar in 1983 and 1996 and on the USS Cole in Aden harbor in 2000, as well as any and all attacks against American and Israeli military forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or elsewhere, would clearly not constitute acts of “terrorism”. On the other hand, the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would clearly have constituted “terrorism” on a massive scale. Indeed, in the 21st century, the American and Israeli governments would have been – and would still be – among the world’s leading practitioners of “terrorism”.

If this proposed definition had been accepted, even the United Nations itself would have spent the 12 years between the two wars against Iraq as a “terrorist” organization. How could it be characterized otherwise in light of the “genocidal” sanctions regime against Iraq (so called by two successive coordinators of the UN’s “humanitarian” program in Iraq), which, by UNICEF’s own calculation, had killed half a million Iraqi children under the age of five by 1996 yet which, on the insistence of the United States and Britain and in full knowledge of the deadly consequences in the relevant “context”, was maintained until their 2003 invasion? The ostensible “purpose” of these deadly sanctions was clearly to “intimidate a population or compel a government … to carry out or abstain from [an] act” – specifically, to give up the “weapons of mass destruction” which Iraq did not possess.

The word “terrorism” has always been the ultimate subjective epithet, and the popularity and utility of the word for all its users and abusers around the world has been based largely on this subjectivity. Until the world is of one mind as to what constitutes good and evil, right and wrong and justice and injustice, it is inconceivable that the world could agree on a precise and legally binding definition of what actions are always, in all circumstances, under all conditions, on any grounds and regardless of who is doing it to whom, unjustifiable, impermissible and criminal.

However, “terrorism” did not escape unchastised at the 2005 UN summit. In what the BBC then trumpeted as a major success, Tony Blair did get the Security Council to adopt unanimously a resolution urging all states to pass laws making “incitement to terrorism” a crime. Since every state remained free to define “terrorism” as it pleased, so as to demonize whatever behavior or ideas its government disliked, while “incitement” is simply a pejorative synonym for “advocacy”, if this resolution proved to be of any relevance at all, it could only have been to provide a cover of international legitimacy for the worldwide trend (even in countries like Britain and America which once enjoyed high standards of civil liberties) toward restricting (indeed, toward criminalizing) freedom of speech and toward the totalitarianization of societies.

Actually, it cannot have been very difficult to achieve unanimous agreement on this resolution. People may not be able to agree on what “terrorism” is, but, whatever it may be, politicians readily recognize that it is risky to appear less than resolute in opposing this ultimate evil, and getting governments to agree that they should silence and quash their critics and opponents as they see fit is pushing against an open door.

The word “terrorism” does not enhance understanding. It stifles rational thought and discussion and, all too often, is used and abused to excuse one’s own illegal and immoral behavior.

Perhaps, rather than seeking an international convention agreeing on what the overused word “terrorism” should mean, it would have been more constructive ten years ago – and would be more constructive today – to seek an international convention obligating governments, government officials and media to stop using the word entirely, to focus rationally on the nature and causes of violent behavior by both the strong and the weak and to work toward reducing all forms of violent behavior and reversing the accelerating trend toward a more vicious, less free and increasingly fear-infested world.

More articles by:

John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who as advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.

August 21, 2018
Anthony DiMaggio
Fascist Nation: The “Alt-Right” Menace Persists, Despite Setbacks
Chris Floyd
Dial “N” for Mayhem: Wording Our Way to a New Level of Hell
Creston Davis
The Education Impasse in the USA
Jonathan Cook
In Detaining Peter Beinart, Israel Has Declared it No Longer Represents Millions of Jews Overseas
Kshama Sawant
UPS Teamsters, We Have Your Back in this Fight
Kenneth Culton
Trump Supporters: the Joyous Cult Bound by Shared Story and Ritual
Andy Thayer
Why the Chicago ‘68 Convention Matters Today
Simone Chun
Sea of Tears: The Tragedy of Families Split by the Korean War
William Blum
The Russians Did It (cont.)
Manuel E. Yepe
How Capitalism Erodes Mental Health
Doug Noble
Thomas Mountain
Djibouti Faces Dark Days to Come; Eritrean Ports, Pipeline Threaten Ethiopian Trade Lifeline
Binoy Kampmark
Finding Fault and Faulty Infrastructure: Genoa’s Morandi Bridge Disaster
Kary Love
“Suffer Not the Little Children….”
Thomas Knapp
Omarosa Manigault Newman, Public Servant
August 20, 2018
Carl Boggs
The Road to Disaster?
James Munson
“Not With a Bomb, But a Whimper” … Then More Bombs.
Jonathan Cook
Corbyn’s Labour Party is Being Made to Fail –By Design
Robert Fisk
A US Trade War With Turkey Over a Pastor? Don’t Believe It
Howard Lisnoff
The Mass Media’s Outrage at Trump: Why the Surprise?
Faisal Khan
A British Muslim’s Perspective on the Burkha Debate
Andrew Kahn
Inhumanity Above the Clouds
Dan Glazebrook
Trump’s New Financial War on the Global South
George Wuerthner
Why the Gallatin Range Deserves Protection
Ted Rall
Is Trump a Brand-New Weird Existential Threat? No.
Sheldon Richman
For the Love of Reason
Susie Day
Why Pundits Scare Me
Dean Baker
Does France’s Economy Need to Be Renewed?
Jeffrey St. Clair
A Mighty Voice for Peace Has Gone Silent: Uri Avnery, 1923-2018
Weekend Edition
August 17, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Daniel Wolff
The Aretha Dialogue
Nick Pemberton
Donald Trump and the Rise of Patriotism 
Joseph Natoli
First Amendment Rights and the Court of Popular Opinion
Andrew Levine
Midterms 2018: What’s There to Hope For?
Robert Hunziker
Hothouse Earth
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Running Out of Fools
Ajamu Baraka
Opposing Bipartisan Warmongering is Defending Human Rights of the Poor and Working Class
Paul Street
Corporate Media: the Enemy of the People
David Macaray
Trump and the Sex Tape
CJ Hopkins
Where Have All the Nazis Gone?
Daniel Falcone
The Future of NATO: an Interview With Richard Falk
Cesar Chelala
The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church
Ron Jacobs
The Barbarism of US Immigration Policy
Kenneth Surin
In Shanghai
William Camacaro - Frederick B. Mills
The Military Option Against Venezuela in the “Year of the Americas”
Nancy Kurshan
The Whole World Was Watching: Chicago ’68, Revisited
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail