Wednesday, September 14, 2005

It's Harder Than You Think

This article in today's Dallas Morning News points out one of the most overlooked and vexing aspects of dealing with terrorism -- what the hell is it?

I am not being flip. I think I've established my antiterrorism credentials these last few years and I certainly know that terrorism exists and we must do our damndest to stamp it out. I am working on a book on global terrorism, and the very first chapter confronts establishing a definition. The scholar and writer Boaz Ganor's article "Terrorism: No Prohibition Without Definition" has been particularly important in my thinking on this issue. If we want to stop terrorism, if we are to develop a coherent program to deal with those who engage in it, we must decide what it is -- to define terrorism is to establish a universal desire to prevent it and to punish those who engage in it.

And yet there are still days when I want to throw my hands up and adhere to Justice Potter Stewart's approach to dealing with pornography -- I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it. Unfortunately, that is not good enough. Because if we leave terrorism to be in the eye of the beholder, the terrorists will simply define themselves away. We do not want that. The DMN piece reveals the difficulty in establishing a universally recognized definition. Nonetheless, even if it seems like we are trying to nail jelly to a wall, we need to continue to pound away.


Cram said...

“Even some attacks by American revolutionaries or by Jews fighting for independence before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, however they were justified at the time, could be defined as terrorism, he said.”

I really don’t see a problem with this. Why should the US allow nationalistic pride to prevent it from doing something (such as defining terrorism) that is not only beneficial but necessary.

The US Intelligence Community is guided by the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d):
—The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.
—The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country.
—The term “terrorist group” means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

I consider this definition to be useful.
Premeditated: It cannot simply be a random outburst by some disgruntled person, but must be the implementation of some kind of plan.
Politically Motivated: This excludes most crimes and murders, be they crimes of passion or crimes for personal enrichment. Although technically, I suppose anything could be considered “political,” the context clearly means political in the sense that it seeks to alter or abolish some government action.

Of course, the agencies like the CIA might be legitimately subject to this definition for what they did during the Cold War. If the US or Israeli citizens or agencies engage in this, then let them be rightfully called terrorists.

Only the existence of a working definition will enable the US or anyone else to seriously try and end or punish terrorism. We need to stop worrying about our own skeletons in the closet and start paying attention to the future.

montana urban legend said...

I think the definitions here are largely useful, at least as general guidelines, although I don't see a reason why the group in question need be "subnational." The reason for that insertion probably has something to do with actions many claim to have been committed in the name of the U.S. government in years past. I say "claim to" not because I would deny them, but because I declare outright my own ignorance over specific details of the historical record that I wouldn't see myself defending, either. I'm not defending ignorance either, just admitting to it.

Lee said...

The most universally acceptable measure of "terrorism" would be the focus on noncombatant targets.

In the example of Iraq, our war on "terror" has suffered from serious confusion about who qualifies as a terrorist. We have tended to conflate the insurgency with Zarqawi, refusing to identify and negotiate with those who focus on attacking American troops rather than civilians.

In 1948, Menachem Begin organized the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people (mainly British troops and officers). 30 years later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating peace with Egypt. Most of the world will not remember him as a terrorist.

We can only hope that it is possible to find the Iraqi equivalent of Begin... Figures like Zarqawi and Bin Laden are incapable of making such a transition. They operate purely outside the bounds of any rational discourse.

And perhaps that's where I would draw the line:
1. Terrorists target primarily noncombatants, seeking to achieve political aims through sheer fear
2. Real terrorists do not respond to rational political negotiation, and they are incapable of changing to pursue non-violent political activity
3. Many terror groups also tend to be localized in their activities, organized around a particular national/ethnic/religious conflict. Generally speaking, the more local the cause, the more likely the terror group might shift away from violence.

By these measures, Al Qaeda is about as close to a pure terror group as you will ever find. They have no serious political wing, they unite a multinational bunch of fanatics mainly with a message of religious hatred, and their targets are almost purely civilian. They may fantasize about political power, but any Al Qaeda-sponsored government would be bombed into oblivion.

Groups like Hamas are harder to categorize. They are certainly terrorists who aim frequently at civilian targets. However they also conduct more traditional anti-military operations, and they have a massive political wing. They seem capable of stopping violence when such cessation meets their political aims, which are more localized to a particular conflict.

What's frightening about the latest modern suicide terror is the sheer nihilism of it... Once you've unleashed thousands of suicide bombers, how do you staunch the tide? How do you convince such fanatics to give up those ideas and go back to a peaceful life?

So to sum it up... Some terrorists are more nihilistic than others, and your worst danger comes from those with utterly unrealistic aims.

dcat said...

Lee --
I actually prefer "civilian" to "noncombatant." Countries try to play clever games with what is and is not a noncombatant. Soldiers when they sleep, say? General staff planning a war in their offices? Military spies?
Now don't get me wrong -- there are lots of things that we can condemn and punish through military or other means that are not terrorism, so I have no aversion to a relatively narrow definition being drawn that we can agree upon that does not preclude action against other nefarious activities that we nonetheless do not call "terrorism."