Saturday, March 22, 2008

Terrorism, where are the definitions?

Terrorism is a frightening reality, but then so is the way our political leaders use the term to protect their grip on power. It is difficult to fight a situation that lacks shape and definition, a characteristic of real terrorism but increasingly a characteristic of the term itself.

Our democracies and even marginal democracies have been guilty of cynically employing terrorism to introduce dubious suppression laws and/or strengthen support through creating needless fear.

Terrorism and democracy

The Bush administration, leaders of the great democracy, have also been masters of subverting democracy through its misuse of terrorism, as have some allies. Terrorism has been the justification for questionable laws used to suppress opposition to the government It has justified spying on its own citizens; it has justified a war of greed in which many thousands of young Americans have died.

Worst of all, misuse of the term has created a situation whereby even asking the question, doubting the honesty of the Bush regime became unpatriotic and un-American. That’s great, we give you freedom to keep your mouth shut, follow us without question and re-elect us.

Pakistan of course is only a marginal democracy, so few really question it when Musharaff uses the terror threat to jail political opponents in the lead up to an election. After all, Pakistan is on the front line of terrorism, supposedly keeping them at bay. We can afford to sacrifice the freedoms there to save our sorry arses.

Time to define terrorism

I admit there are people out there better qualified to define terrorism and its meanings, but I’ll jump in here and start at least. One acknowledged problem is that there is no accepted general definition, and perhaps worse, no uniform legal definition of terrorism.

The danger of that is thee is no sound base from which to debate the issues; lack of consistent accepted universal legal definition, with prescribed limitation, ‘the state’ can extend draconian laws at a whim, indefinitely.

A major factor inhibiting any consistent definition of terrorism is that countries invariably find themselves potentially guilty of various acts which come under any reasonable description. So rather than dealing with strict definitions we are restricted to looking at terrorism on the basis of understandings of right and wrong.

Under various names and guises terrorism seems to have existed for millennia, either as a threat or laudable behaviour, depending on which side you are on. I would posit that espionage is a form of terrorism and that nation states such as the USA and Israel were born out of acts of terrorism.

The modern sense of terrorism comes to us from regime de la terreur, the Reign of Terror of the revolutionary government in France from 1793 to 1794. But revolutionary leader, Robespierre, as did Washington, styled their acts of terror as noble and worthy responses.

“Terrorism aims to achieve political or other goals, when direct military victory is not possible.” Encyclop√¶dia Britannica

So terrorism has been described variously as both a tactic and strategy; a crime and a holy duty; a justified reaction to oppression and an inexcusable abomination. Though is now more generally used as a pejorative.

The United States Department of Defense defines terrorism as “the calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful 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 problem the US faces with that definition is how unlawful might be defined in respect to their actions. If the Bush regime imposed a reign of terror on Iraq solely to install a ‘democratic’ government, mindless of the ‘collateral damage’ to the civilian population, and without International consent that could well be a terrorist activity. If they did it to gain control of Iraqi oil fields it is a criminal act by any standards.

Faces of Terrorism

There is a real distinction between local/regional and global terrorism, at least so far as the most general definitions. Admittedly regional can flow wider through immigration from, or tourism to, trouble spots. Like disease, easy travel now allows the spread of the terrorist scourge well beyond local targets.

In fact local/regional terrorists will target tourist destinations purely to gain coverage of their cause and activities. Immigration is more problematic, and the ‘Irish Troubles’ are probably still the best case study for that. While the bulk of ‘terror’ activities have been historically confined to the UK associated criminal activities have followed immigration.

This also connects the terrorism Vs criminal aspects of our definitions and again, the US falling short on the action/ rhetoric equation. Criminal activity has been associated, originally, with fund raising and arms buying. The organised crime culture of the US provided a readymade base for these fanatics.

In later years, as political solutions began to take the heat out of the issues, IRA cells at home and abroad turned to selling their wares to other terrorist and criminal groups. Cognizant of these issues, and the terror created within the UK, the US still failed to act against Irish terrorists based on their soil. Only two years ago the US refused to ratify an extradition treaty with the UK for fear that Irish suspects would have to be returned to Britain.

But they are the big boy’s games, the real terror threat if you like. Inspired by the activities of the big blokes young wannabes are causing their own havoc, devoid of any real cause beyond the general dissatisfaction of youth.

The major difference is that these kids are being used in the terror argument to warrant greater controls, when their behaviour is clearly straight criminal; rape, violence and crime in the name of some half understood cause.

My fear is that while governments shrink away from defining terrorism, for fear of implicating themselves, they continue to push through anti-terrorism laws. On what basis? For what purpose? Yet many of those laws are little more than tougher criminal law, tougher in the sense of police powers, or more often designed to impede voices of dissent.

12 comments:

lindsaylobe said...

Why do we have terrorism in a form that brings Suicide Bombers to detonate themselves and cause loss of life to innocent bystanders? Is it a religious fervor, a promised paradise for martyrdom?

In Islam suicide is forbidden and its incidence is at a lower pro rata rate to population than the West. A taking of a life is only allowed by way of justice with the death penalty for murder, but it is also acknowledged that forgiveness is better. Harming innocent bystanders, even in war, is forbidden under the Qur’an. On a personal level Muslims are generally peaceful, honest, hard working, civic minded people, no different to any other societies. The profile of the Suicide Bombers is not as you would expect. About 50% have a university degree; the majority are aged 18-23 and indistinguisable from the general populace. The largest share doesn’t come from Bush's proclaimed axis of evil, but from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and within the general populace of nations affected.

The crux of the matter and what brings fear to the mind is the term Jihad, which is to exert utmost effort, to strive, to struggle. Jihad has many different meanings, but it is simplistically attributed in non Islamic cultures to a “Religious War”. It has the same negative connotation in the West as “Crusade” has in the Islamic world, an association there with the Christen Crusaders who fought the Muslims for control of the Holy Land. The Link to a religious fervor as a precursor to violence is indeed a tenuous one. You might say Islamic fundamentalism is an enabler, rather than a motivator for theses acts of Terror. Violence and conflict in the region is largely a secular struggle, unconnected to religion. For example when Israel withdrew from 70% of it occupation of Gaza, captured mostly in the 7day war 40 years earlier, the number of suicide attacks by Hamas reduced by 90%.

We all know the weapons of mass destruction were a complete furphy; and I think history will judge the decision to invade Iraq one of the worst ill conceived wars in modern day times. It will take along time for America to recover from is loss of credibility in the world stage, to be respected as genuine peacekeeper who is able to help make the world a better a place.
All of this does not define terrorism, but what I am suggesting is there should be enough people of goodwill in every country to start debating what it is and how we can help eradicate it. But first of all as you say, we need to define it. It is real chance to establish new ties everywhere. When we define it we may find its base can only be reduced markedly through collaboration, goodwill and, education rather than over reliance on ever increasing security checks and curtailment of individual freedoms.

abi said...

Both of you make an excellent point. You can't fight what you won't even clearly define, and to define terrorism clearly would put the US and other states squarely in the category of terrorists.

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. You cite the US revolution as one example. I would cite the US bombing of Japanese civilians in WWII as one of the most heinous campaigns of terrorism the world has ever seen. But here in the US, we're quite proud of it.

Cart said...

Oh Lindsay, Lindsay, Lindsay – you raise even more thorny questions. And Abi, again you head right to the heart of things. I was consciously trying to be dispassionate, avoiding Islam and a range of US sanctioned terror activities.
In all of this I have an article by my favourite economic commentator – Ross Gittins SMH. (Selfishness Goes Only So Far, We Also Like a Fair system) You can Google it
Okay, it is a stretch, but the gist of his article is that perceptions of fairness override many issues, including personal well being at the extremes. He has applied the concept to economics, I’m sure it would apply equally across the public affairs spectrum.
Why would a religiously inclined person take their own life or the lives of others when all major religions subscribe to pro-social norms, such as – helping your neighbour, giving each his due and turning the other cheek?
Why do we, in so called free societies, sacrifice our freedoms to unspecified and ill-defined threats?
Is it a case of perceptions fairness, of social equity and again at the extremes, a willingness to suffer in order to punish those who transgress? It hardly sounds logical, but we have been watching this unfold and know it is reality.

Praguetwin said...

Very good post.

Interestingly enough, it seems to me that America's actions in WWII more closely fit the Britanica definition of terrorism than say the 777 bombers. The former were trying to induce surrender, a direct military victory being less than certain if not unlikely. Conversely, the 777 bombers engaged in an act of revenge, much like a retribution killing in a gang war. They have not said, "do this, this and this and we will stop" they are saying, "you've already done this, this and this and now we are going to continue to make you suffer for it."

In any case, it is quite interesting that our leaders expect us to get behind a "war on terror" before they even define what "terror" is in any clear, understandable way.

Cart said...

PT, I've been through some of the provisions, part definitions, used around the world to back up terror specific legislation.
I guess the cheery part is that lawmakers really have to walk through political minefields to word part definitions without implicating their own behaviour.
I doubt we will ever see a widely accepted definition, it is simply not in the interests of governments to accept one.
If we do it will probably carry as much weight as the often ignored Geneva Convention.

lindsaylobe said...

Cart-For what it's worth and to respond to your request here is my first stab at it.
Interestingly enough this attempted brief definition would condemn many aspects of War, particularly as was mentioned about WW2 in the previous comment.

Terrorism is any premeditated violent act or acts or use of unlawful force or threatened use of force against noncombatant targets, occasioning or intending indiscriminate harm or destruction against property, peoples, institutions, government or similar targets where the purpose of such acts is to intimidate its intended audience and cultivate such a climate of societal fear as to bring attention towards the ideological goal of the perpetrators.

best wishes

Cart said...

Lidsay, your definition is consistent with many of the definitions of non-interested parties like governments.
Even Australia has the problem of defining the situation yet maintaining world renowned units like the SAS.
I believe the Australian military, even under-resourced has developed a balanced and admirable approach to conflict.
But that partly relies on units capable questionable tactics to retain overall balance.
It certainly is a conundrum. The means and ends argument has never been resolved either. As a pacifist I find the dilemma haunting me constantly.

D.K. Raed said...

Great post and comments!

I think one default definition might be if YOU are doing it, it's not terrorism, it's covert operations or acceptable collateral damage. But if it's being done TO you, then it's terrorism.

Also if the terrorism you conduct is successful, then you are the victor & since it's the victors who write history, you are also not considered to have engaged in terrorism. guerrilla war, maybe, but not terrorism.

I guess this is a roundabout way of saying I have no definition. Since Bush-Cheney so conveniently define it as whatever they want to, and as you pointed out, if we even question it, we become unpatriotic, I will personally define it as the opposite of what they are telling me it is.

ps, what is "furphy"? Linsay used it in his comment. I always have to wonder with you aussies if you've coined yet another worthy new word.

Cart said...

what is "furphy"? DK, it is Australian term from WW1. Furphy Foundry were the makers of the water tankers that followed the diggers (troops). So I guess it was like gathering around the water cooler telling tall stories or passing rumours. I generally means a dubious, if colourful, statement or fact, if not outright lie.

D.K. Raed said...

I should've read your post at Kvatch's Ragebot (so I wouldn't be redundant).

Thanks for the new word. "Furphy" seems like one we should be using a lot in reference to the Bush Admin's stmnts on, ohhhh, EVERYthing!

Cart said...

Sorry DK, I'm posting less and I'm more scattered at the moment, but you are never redundant.
For a start every though put into the process is vital - but ten you do wonderful things for my search queries by being curious about strange words. Meri cats is still pulling regular hits :) and I expect furphy will do the same.
I must say it's wonderful having another Aussie - Lindsay - on board, and a smart one at that. He should tickle your interest in language...

D.K. Raed said...

OMG, you are right about Mericats (as one word). You are still #3 on the Google Hit Parade! If you google it as 2 words, you get a bunch of "cat" stories, not Cartledge.