Saturday, January 3, 2009

Defining terrorism

Nir Rosen in The Guardian:

Terrorism is a normative term and not a descriptive concept. An empty word that means everything and nothing, it is used to describe what the Other does, not what we do. The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims' struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed … these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the purpose.

Counterinsurgency, now popular again among in the Pentagon, is another way of saying the suppression of national liberation struggles. Terror and intimidation are as essential to it as is winning hearts and minds.

Normative rules are determined by power relations. Those with power determine what is legal and illegal. They besiege the weak in legal prohibitions to prevent the weak from resisting. For the weak to resist is illegal by definition. Concepts like terrorism are invented and used normatively as if a neutral court had produced them, instead of the oppressors. The danger in this excessive use of legality actually undermines legality, diminishing the credibility of international institutions such as the United Nations. It becomes apparent that the powerful, those who make the rules, insist on legality merely to preserve the power relations that serve them or to maintain their occupation and colonialism.

Attacking civilians is the last, most desperate and basic method of resistance when confronting overwhelming odds and imminent eradication. The Palestinians do not attack Israeli civilians with the expectation that they will destroy Israel. The land of Palestine is being stolen day after day; the Palestinian people is being eradicated day after day. As a result, they respond in whatever way they can to apply pressure on Israel. Colonial powers use civilians strategically, settling them to claim land and dispossess the native population, be they Indians in North America or Palestinians in what is now Israel and the Occupied Territories. When the native population sees that there is an irreversible dynamic that is taking away their land and identity with the support of an overwhelming power, then they are forced to resort to whatever methods of resistance they can.

Not long ago, 19-year-old Qassem al-Mughrabi, a Palestinian man from Jerusalem drove his car into a group of soldiers at an intersection. "The terrorist", as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called him, was shot and killed. In two separate incidents last July, Palestinians from Jerusalem also used vehicles to attack Israelis. The attackers were not part of an organisation. Although those Palestinian men were also killed, senior Israeli officials called for their homes to be demolished. In a separate incident, Haaretz reported that a Palestinian woman blinded an Israeli soldier in one eye when she threw acid n his face. "The terrorist was arrested by security forces," the paper said. An occupied citizen attacks an occupying soldier, and she is the terrorist?

I don't agree a hundred percent with this, mostly in that I'm not as radical about it as he is. A few points:

1. I believe that there is a useful and meaningful place for the word "terrorism." The main difference between intimidation as practiced by states and their armies and intimidation as practiced by terrorists has to do with power relations and technology. When states do it, it is a military action implemented by a national power against an equivalent or lesser national power or population. It has conventional military technologies and huge resources. When terrorists do it, they are by definition less powerful in the arena of force than their object--that is, they can't invade the object of their terror and just make what they want to happen happen. Their primary tactic is to get what they want through intimidation, whereas a state army uses intimidation among a broader array of tools (subjugation, shaping government policy, trying to win hearts and minds among the population). In addition, terrorists cannot engage on some level of diplomatic equality the way two governments, particularly two governments of similar military strength, can. The terrorists are not a government; there is no reason for a more powerful state to negotiate with them until they can make themselves known and dangerous by posing a threat. Until then, they are only concerned foreign citizens and easily ignorable.

Properly used, "terrorism" is a name for a particular technology or form of implementation, subject to severe military and political asymmetry. This is why terrorism and insurgency--another term for a technology or form of political-military action--are so frequently correlated; they are subject to the same restrictions in terms of power, resources, and legitimacy as a political actor. The distinction between intimidation as practiced by states and intimidation as practiced by small, non-state actors is important and useful. The problem is that "terrorism", predictably, is a highly politicized word that has come to include a negative moral dimension, which means it is very useful for anyone involved in any conflict to describe their opponents as terrorists--which, as we have seen, everyone does. Israelis are terrorists according to Palestinians and vice versa. The U.S. is a terrorist nation according to, well, lots of people, and lots of people are terrorist organizations or nations according to the U.S. The fine line between "terrorist" and "freedom fighter" has been discussed many times before (more on that later).

2. Following on that, and provided that that politicized context is present, I absolutely agree with his assessment of how "terrorism" is defined in practice, which is as any use of force that is inconvenient to the more powerful actor. Since the more powerful actor typically has the sympathy of the media as well as greater control over it, not to mention comity of interests with other powerful actors (for example, the U.S. and E.U. lists of terrorist organizations look pretty similar), it generally gets to dictate these terms more easily. This is the valuable thing about this article--he lays this out incisively and convincingly.

3. The paragraph describing the attacking of civilians as a last, most desperate use of force by people or groups without options seems a little too morally pure, and in places too radical, to me. The fact is that powerful actors with lots of options do it too--this is part of why Rosen is so pissed at Israel. Plus, it is entirely possible to understand why Hamas does what it does, or why groups operating sometimes with Hamas's consent and sometimes not such as Islamic Jihad do what they do (bomb Israel), why it makes sense for them, and why it's even morally understandable (everybody understands frustration and revenge), without declaring it morally justified. This is the difference between compassion, and/or realism, and partisanship.

I find his claim that the Israeli government "uses civilians", by which he means settlers in this instance, a bit far-fetched. Are there elements in the government--or at least in Israeli politics--who still refuse a two-state solution and see the settlers as a means toward eventually eradicating Palestinian territory? Almost certainly. Is that state policy? No. The Israeli government has, in the past, agreed to massively curtail settling and relocate existing settlers, and has in fact done so--at fairly intense political cost--rather recently (was it 2006? Maybe 2005--my memory is not perfect). The radical elements among settlers can safely be said to have gone rogue from the state, and this has been seen when Israeli soldiers attempt to intervene in neighborhood Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. That the state has not yet publicly acknowledged and faced this problem does not make it state policy. The more general version of this claim, that powerful actors use civilians as props in conflicts, is certainly possible and historically documented--I just don't think it applies here.

4. The final paragraph, I think, points to another sloppy elision in the use of the word "terrorist". A terrorist individual or organization has a stated objective, which they attempt to achieve through the planned and organized use of spectacular, pyrotechnic, but small-scale violence (as distinct from military force) and coordinated threats. Most of his examples seem to be instances of very frustrated and, at that moment at least, reckless individuals attacking their oppressors. If it can be proved that these individuals acted at the behest and with the support of actual terrorist organizations; and/or, that they planned these attacks in advance and attempted to extract some kind of concession from their victims before or after the attacks, then they can be said to be terrorists. If these conditions are not present, they are not terrorists; they are violent, and they are quite arguably very amateurish and disorganized freedom fighters.

5. Coming back to the definition of "terrorism", it is important to point out that it is objectively very possible to be freedom fighters and terrorists at the same time--in fact, especially in modern times, it is likely. "Freedom fighter" describes the objective, and "terrorist" the method. Theoretically, one can fight for freedom conventionally, without employing terrorist or guerrilla tactics (I'm having a hard time distinguishing between those two, and I'm pretty sure in practical terms the distinction is entirely moral and subject to the power relations described by Rosen), but that would require a balance of power, popular support, and resources that is almost never present in terrorist/guerrilla situations. Anticolonial struggles could take this form, since it became people's militias against the state, as could conventional civil wars (see the American or Spanish examples), but these circumstances are largely obsolete. At this point, any oppressed group within any state is small enough and oppressed enough that it cannot martial these kinds of resources, OR, in the case of some civil conflicts in Africa that come to mind (Rwanda, the Sudan) the violent group has always chosen to employ terrorist tactics even though it doesn't have to.

Now, an actor with the parity just described that engaged in the kind of horrific and pyrotechnic violence typical of terrorist acts could, I think, be objectively described as morally bankrupt and despicable (shout out to the janjaweed), and treated as such, because it would be engaging in horrific acts when it has other options. The Mongols might be an example of this. I would say, frankly, that Hiroshima or the firebombing of Berlin might count. That's why we have the term "war crime". (Abu Ghraib, anybody? Nazis?) This does not apply to any Palestinian organization, however, no matter how violent and horrific its tactics.

In this sense, then, the difference between freedom fighters and terrorists tends to be whether we like them, and/or whether we dislike the state or people they are attacking. Turkish Kurds are, for some Americans, freedom fighters who sometimes employ regrettable or even terrorist tactics; Islamic Jihad, to many Americans (if many Americans had ever heard of IJ instead of lumping them in with Hamas, as is common), would be terrorists who are, admittedly, in a shitty situation. That's what the many discussions of the line between freedom fighting and terrorism reflect.

Very rarely, of course, freedom fighters adopt the spectacularly nonviolent tactics of Nelson Mandela or Ghandhi. One could argue that these freedom fighters are also terrorists, but the force they bring to bear is not bombs or killings but the threat of total international disgust, divestment, and even military intervention by others to save the peaceful resistance from the violence of the state. However, since I firmly believe that "terrorism" refers properly to particular tactics of force, this would not be terrorism. I'm not sure there's a name for it; "nonviolent resistance" is such a politically and morally sanitary and sugar-laden term that it escapes the pragmatic element of tactics that I want to denote.

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