Monday, July 18, 2005

Terrorism Defined

This could be considered another slice of half-baked philosophy pie except I actually do have a reasonable idea what I'm talking about here (yes, for a change). Without wishing to sound like an arse, I have studied terrorism at University so I do know a fair bit about it (not that I'm claiming to be an expert mind you). Now that I've alienated you with my feeble attempts at intellectual snobbery, lets get on with it.

Last week I wrote about the reaction to the BBC's decision not to use the word terrorist. Doctorvee spotted an amusingly straplined Nick Cohen article on the subject. Now the point I made is that terrorism is actually very difficult to define. I'd be very surprised if Pollard didn't know this when he wrote:
But terrorism is not a value judgement. It is recognised as a crime against humanity under international law. Professor Norman Geras defines it as “the deliberate targeting of civilians with a view to killing and maiming them and if possible in large numbers”.
I'm afraid he's being disingenuous (is about the kindest thing I can think to write here). Now I don't really want to make the fellow look foolish but lets start with the definition he gives. Terrorism is "the deliberate targeting of civilians with a view to killing and maiming them and if possible in large numbers". It seems reasonable enough. So was the bombing of Hiroshima a terrorist attack? Was it a crime against humanity? I'd argue that it could be considered the former and it's certainly the latter. Lots of people will agree, but lots of people will disagree too. They might argue that it saved many more lives than were lost, for example. We have to agree that it was the "deliberate targeting of civilians with a view to killing and maiming them and if possible in large numbers" because that is undeniably what it was. But do we agree that it was terrorism? No, because it's a value judgement. So this definition can be discarded. For many people, it's possible for an action to fullful the criteria but not qualify as a terrorist act.

So, lets look at some other definitions.
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary keeps it short (as you'd expect).
a person who uses violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.
Derivatives: Terrorism.
Well, that one is obviously rubbish. Every soldier who ever fought a war is guilty of that. Every PM or President who ever ordered war is guilty of that. Discard. Next.

The Cambridge Dictionary of American English.
violent action for political purposes
Every war ever. Discard. Next.

Encyclopedia Britannica.
Systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.
The US carpet bombing of Hanoi, was that terrorism? What about Dresden? Value judgement. Discard. Next.
The unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.
Good effort. "Unlawful force" makes this more precise. So, was the war in Iraq legal? I, and many other people, say no, our great leader says yes. If it wasn't legal the invasion of Iraq would qualify under this definition. Smells like another value judgement to me. Discard. Next.

Oh, this is futile. I've got an idea. Why don't I check to see what Wikipedia has to say. It's created democratically so it should have the most refined definition.
The word "terrorism" is controversial and has many definitions, none of which are universally accepted.
Right. So that's pretty much exactly what I've been saying then (although I see the article is disputed, must be a disagreement over value judgements). You see why I find it very difficult to understand why Pollard says "But terrorism is not a value judgement". If there was one definition of terrorism we could all agree on then this might be true. As it is, he's peddling an untruth to further his own agenda. If you really want to inform people about terrorism the first thing you should do is explain how difficult it is to define.

Just to be absolutely clear, my point is not whether the London bombers can be called terrorists. I'd say the bombers can be called terrorists by almost any definition you care to come up with. The point is that a word with no clearly agreed definition isn't actually a very useful word. It might be a fantastic word for poetry but it's not that useful for reporting the news. The BBC prefers to use the word bomber because it does have a clearly agreed definition.

If you disagree with me, here's a little challenge. Provide a definition of terrorism which isn't controversial. My comments are open for sensible debate . I'd advise against employing the standard "non-state actors" gambit though. It opens up the possibilty that a suicide bomber directly employed by a state cannot, by definition, be a terrorist. That surely wouldn't be right, would it?
(I appear to have accidentally taken handfull of pompous pills today. Sorry, but I can't think of a better way to phrase that last paragraph. I'm actually quite modest once you get to know me, it's true, honestly it is...)

Tim Ireland takes a wider view of the Pollard article and describes what he sees. Definitely worth reading.

Edit: Spelling, see comment. Doh...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting...thought- provoking...excellent! It would be good for the leaders of The West to read this and reflect on it... perhaps The U.S. and some European countries would find themselves in fewer wars which are in fact acts of invasion and occupation...perhaps fewer American,British,French,etc. soldiers will be killed and maimed.