Semantics are Strategic in the War on Terror


Sep 30, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on September 30, 2004.

Words can be weapons, and the word “terrorist” is a very powerful weapon. It is used to convey the impression that anyone so labelled is a villain who operates outside the standards of morality and civilization -- someone who merits universal condemnation and must be stopped.

The current “war on terror” provides numerous examples of how the label of “terrorist” is applied to enemies. In some cases, governments have relabeled their foes to enlist international support.

Just three months after attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, China added vaguely worded concepts of terrorism to its criminal code to crack down on traditional dissidents. Even before the horror at Beslan, Russia applied the term terrorist to Chechen separatists. And Israelis and Palestinians apply the term to each other.

Pressed on whether the convicted leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the organization credited with the Bali terrorist bombing, had received an adequate prison sentence (four years), Indonesia's vice president shot back: “Who are the terrorists? America, that's who.”

Historically, “terror” was sometimes a component of enforcing colonial rule, and terrorism was a component of the armed struggles against it. Anti-colonial wars provided examples of both, leaving a generation of leaders in the newly independent states of Africa and Asia deeply suspicious of any efforts to brand as “terrorism” the tactics that had won them freedom.

It is not surprising that international consensus has been hard to reach. Defining terrorism was the Bermuda Triangle of international discussion. Entire conferences sank in it without a trace.

To get around the political differences, scholars and jurists have tried to define terrorism according to the quality of the act itself, rather than the identity of the perpetrators or the nature of their cause. A consensus has developed that all terrorist acts must involve violence or the threat of violence. In addition, a terrorist act ordinarily would be considered a crime -- such as murder, kidnapping or arson. And most terrorist acts also violate the rules of war, as in attacks against innocents.

Ordinary criminals may terrify but they are not terrorists. A single perpetrator pursuing his own cause may be a terrorist, but “lone wolves” often turn out to be lonely crackpots. When an Egyptian limousine driver walked up to the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4, 2002 and shot and killed two people, he appeared to fit the definition of an emotionally disturbed killer rather than a terrorist. Still, victims' families and members of the community were outraged when the authorities hesitated to label the attack an act of terrorism.

Terrorist acts are carried out in a dramatic way to attract publicity and create an atmosphere of alarm that goes far beyond the actual victims. The identity of the victims is often irrelevant to the terrorists, who aim their violence at the people watching.

This distinction between actual victims and a target audience is the hallmark of terrorism.

Not every act of even the most extreme violence is terrorism. Adolf Hitler launched the Holocaust to physically eliminate all Jews, not frighten them. To say that an act fits better in the category of a crime against humanity or a war crime, rather than terrorism, should in no way diminish its horror or lessen our condemnation.

Political differences have not prevented international co-operation against terrorism. By constructing conventions that outlaw specific tactics and targets -- airline hijacking and sabotage, attacks on diplomats, taking hostages, bombings -- the international community has chipped away at terrorism without attempting an all-encompassing definition.

When terrorist attacks occurred on a smaller scale, governments aimed at apprehending the perpetrators and bringing them to trial. Military force was used on occasion to retaliate.

The Sept. 11 attacks changed perceptions. Few nations accept American use of the phrase “war on terror,” still preferring to instead deal with terrorism as an intelligence and law enforcement problem. But many nations now recognize that prevention of 9/11-scale events is paramount. That requires a continuing campaign to disrupt terrorist operations.

It is now no longer sufficient to define a terrorist act. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Canada, Australia, the United States, members of the European Union, and other countries have co-operated in officially listing terrorist organizations along with the “charities” that finance them, although not all the lists agree.

Being listed officially as a “terrorist organization” has financial and political consequences. It makes it illegal to collect or contribute funds or provide other forms of material assistance. That also means the overseas information offices and propaganda activities that many larger groups operate can be shut down. It impedes connections with supportive diasporas and relations with foreign governments. It is collective moral condemnation.

The lists themselves have become battlegrounds. Should removal of the terrorist label be offered to further the cause of peace?

Britain's negotiations with the Irish Republican Army, which the United States assisted, provide a precedent of sorts. Clearly, the IRA's hard men were terrorists. How could the British negotiate with them? The solution was to accept a distinction, largely a fiction, between the terrorist IRA and its political arm, the Sinn Fein, as an acceptable negotiating partner. The choreography was at times exquisite, but it did bring about a cessation of the violence -- a good end.

Combatting terrorism does not always require combat. Sometimes, words can be used as weapons.

Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization in the United States

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