On Terrorism

1 commentBeirut,Writing

The chest of this Martyr was pierced by a real bullet during the Lebanese War.

First, a disclaimer: I’m against all forms of violence regardless of method, scale, pretext, or context. However, today out of the clear blue sky I had a thought which I formulated into the following statement:

When the word “terrorism” is brandished about willy nilly as a tool of blatant propaganda, it demeans its victims and glorifies its perpetrators.

Now to me that seems like an objective and universal truth if there ever was one. The world seems to make a distinction between two categories of mass violence:

1. Terrorism: acts of violence perpetrated by villains on martyrs (considered a criminal act).

2. War: an act of violence perpetrated by heroes against villains (considered a legitimate act).

My statement suggests that equating both under the umbrella term of “terrorism” makes villains out of the heroes and martyrs out of the villains. In simpler terms, it equates a criminal act with a legitimate one.

However to play the devil’s advocate I’d like to subject the statement to closer scrutiny. The most obviously controversial term there is “terrorism,” however all dictionary entries I’ve come across (of which the below is a sample) fail to give anything but a rudimentary definition that, most crucially, falls short of sufficiently distinguishing it from the concept of war.

terrorism (noun)
the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear.

Here the operative word is not “political, religious, or ideological” (for these have also been used as pretexts for war) but rather “civilian.” It seems that the consensus is that terrorism is an act of violence against civilians. For the purpose of this argument then, we can use the below as a more concise distillation of the contemporary understanding of what constitutes an act of terrorism:

Terrorism is the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians.

Surely that can’t be enough. First, the threat of violence is used by political leaders all the time, even against their own people, for any number of reasons including a call to arms. Therefore the parenthetical weakens the definition and must be stripped for it to make sense.

Second, wars are not waged (as they were historically) between opposing military forces in open fields devoid of civilian presence. In most wars, there are inevitable civilian casualties. So it seems that motive needs to be reinserted for our definition to make sense, and focus must be shifted to a new operative word.

Terrorism is the calculated and unprovoked use of violence against civilians.

Now the corollary of the definition would suggest that a provoked act of violence would not be condemned as terrorism and could be incontrovertibly filed under “war.” Therefore, to validate the definition one would have to look into what might constitute a valid provocation.

Here I would like to venture an answer: A valid provocation is a prior act of unprovoked violence by the other side equal to or greater than the act itself. Crucially what that means is that political disagreement countered by an act of violence against civilians qualifies that act as terrorism pure and simple.

In practical terms, what that means is that if you and I are competing farmers and you campaign for what I consider an unfair embargo on my livestock and in response i kill your chicken, that is an act of terrorism in which i am the villain and you are the victim.

Similarly, if your chicken kills my chicken and my chickens kill your cow in retaliation, my response is not legitimate and can therefore be termed an act of terrorism — not because a cow is higher up the food chain than a chicken, but because the cow has no beef (pun not intended) in the scuffle between the chickens and therefore my response is unprovoked.

However if in response I let loose my chickens on yours in an all-out confrontation, then all bets are off and that constitutes an act of war. Now if your cows get involved and are wiped out in the process, that does not change the nature of the confrontation to an act of terrorism. Otherwise that would make heroes and martyrs out of your unprovoked chickens (the villains) and villains out of mine (the victims and martyrs).

In an ideal world, this entire post would rightfully be dismissed as abstract semantics. Unfortunately in the world of contemporary politics, the convenient redefinition of “terrorism” is a very real tool of both local policy and global propaganda.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

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