My French aunt died the other day. She was lovely woman. But sadly she was also a terrorist.
Born British, she had married a member of the French World War II Resistance forces fighting the Nazi occupation of their country. He had been betrayed by another Resistance fighter under Nazi torture, himself tortured and then killed. She had survived the next three years in a German slave-labor camp.
At the war’s end, she was brought back to France as a heroine. But the fact remains that she and others in the Resistance had used violent, undercover force against the established authorities. By today’s standards that is “terrorism.” And that is what the Nazis thought too.
The world was not always so mixed up. In the past the right of people to use force to oppose perceived injustices by oppressive regimes was generally recognized.
Even if they opposed regimes we liked, we at least called them insurgents or guerrillas. Now they are automatically called “terrorists” unless, of course, they oppose regimes we dislike, in which case they are called “freedom fighters.”
Afghanistan used to be the classic example, with the former Taliban anti-Soviet “freedom fighters” transformed into “terrorists” the moment they became anti-U.S. Today we have an even more extreme example in northern Iraq where, as the New York Times points out, the U.S. condemns the PKK Kurdish guerrillas there fighting against Turkey as terrorists at exactly the same moment as it quietly supports the same guerrillas when they are fighting against Iran.
The damage is not just linguistic. Once you denounce people as “terrorists” you do not have to consider their motives. By definition they become crazed fanatics deserving cruel suppression. Even torture is permitted. The idea that they may include people of genuine conscience and bravery, like my aunt, can be dismissed.
Japanese media are probably the worst offenders.
Currently they talk endlessly about something called the antiterror law. In fact, much of the debate is over whether fuel supplied to U.S. warships in the Indian Ocean was once diverted from Afghanistan for use in Iraq. There is almost no mention of the “antiterror” results in Afghanistan — villages bombed with heavy losses of civilian life that even the pro-U.S. Afghanistan regime deplores.
True the Japanese can be excused if they do not realize the pejorative “have you stopped beating your wife” implications of the word “terror.” But we English-speakers have less excuse. By denouncing as “terror” the resort to force by Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority seeking justices, London managed to delay for more than 20 years the negotiations needed to resolve the situation.
Violence by the authorities against the IRA “terrorists” simply led to increased IRA violence against the authorities. A typical vicious circle got under way, similar to what we have seen repeatedly in a host of tragic guerrilla war situations everywhere from Aceh and Sri Lanka to Chechnya and Colombia, and which the authorities invariably denounce as “terrorism.”
Ironically, one of the few examples of genuine terrorism in recent years was in Japan — the sarin gas attacks by Aum fanatics. Before that we had the wartime Japanese bombing attacks on Chinese cities and the U.S. fire-bombing attacks on Japanese cities, both of which came close to the true definition of terror — indiscriminate destruction of civilian life and facilities for no purpose other than hatred and revenge.
Al-Qaida attacks on the United States are described as terror. In fact they were a new form of global guerrilla war with a clear purpose — removal of the U.S. presence from the Middle East to allow the creation of a unified Islamic state.
If this fact was properly realized it is quite likely the U.S. could have come up with effective countermeasures. Instead the crudely emotional U.S. backlash to so-called 9-11 “terror” has already begun the global escalation needed to help the “terrorists” reach their objective
The biases continue. The world is right to be upset over Darfur, though there are also elements of a civil war situation there. In Somalia today far worse is happening. But since the hundreds of thousands of starving refugee victims of indiscriminate U.S.-backed air attacks are described as Islamic “terrorists,” few care.
Yet those so-called Somalia “terrorists” enjoyed far more popular support than the rival U.S.-backed warlord regimes. They were the only people who could provide Somalis with desperately needed law and order, noncorrupt government and social services. Their only sin was that they were strict Islamists.
In Lebanon and Gaza, the pro-Islamist forces — Hezbollah and Hamas — have enjoyed similar popular support and for much the same reasons. But they too are designated as “terrorists” because, as in Northern Ireland, they too have felt they had no choice but to resort sometimes to force against perceived injustices. Israel’s attempts to retaliate in Gaza by starving Hamas into submission hardly seem appropriate for a nation whose own people suffered similar treatment from the Nazis in the 1945 Warsaw Ghetto.
In the past, when might was right, we could ignore the rights and wrongs of these kinds of disputes. But today the people who believe they are wronged have the technologies to retaliate.
To describe their often self-sacrificing attacks as cowardly terrorism while the people who drop 227-kg bombs, white phosphorous and cluster bombs on them are brave warriors in the war against “terror” is less than convincing.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and foreign affairs commentator. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net