Soon after last year’s Sept. 11 attack on the United States by Islamic militants, I got into a debate with a hawkish member of the private consultative committee set up by then-Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka. He was demanding angrily that Japan should help eliminate something called global “terror.” I tried to get him to define the word.

Were the Irish Republican Army attacks in Northern Ireland an example, I asked? Yes, he said firmly, with no hint that he realized how even British conservatives had come to rethink rights and wrongs in that dispute.

Sri Lanka, where the minority in revolt have had even more reason to complain of discrimination? That, too, was terror, he said unblinkingly.

Chechnya? Yes. Kashmir? Of course. The French revolution, the U.S. war of independence? Silence. The Meiji Restoration? Deep silence.

Tanaka followed our debate bemusedly. But by the time I got to Kashmir she was beginning to get the point. She has now been replaced by Yuriko Kawaguchi, a woman with fine bureaucratic credentials but who seems to lack Tanaka’s mental flexibility. Kawaguchi recently took it on herself to telephone the president of Pakistan to demand an end to support for cross-border “terrorism” in Kashmir.

In the 1980s, the South African apartheid government also used to complain to the United Nations about cross-border “terrorism” by antiapartheid guerrillas. At the time no one apart from a few U.S. and British ultrahawks took the complaint too seriously. Today the world sees those former guerrillas as heroes.

As predicted in this column just a year ago, “terrorist” has become a omnibus word that allows governments to try to suppress enemies at will. It has replaced “communist,” and is much more useful.

With “communist,” there had to be at least some proof of leftwing leanings before setting out to exterminate people. With “terrorist,” not even this restraint is needed. When those being suppressed try to fight back, governments can say this indeed proves how those people all along were indeed “terrorists” who deserved to be exterminated

Unless, of course, the people fighting back are opposed to someone we dislike. Then they are called freedom fighters, with every right to use whatever means possible to survive. The governments that chide Pakistan for cross-border support to anti-Indian guerrillas in Kashmir were full of praise when the same Pakistan supported Afghanistan guerrillas opposed to the former pro-Moscow regime in Kabul.

Most of what is now called terrorism is, in fact, civil war. Such wars are inevitable when disputes within the nation cannot be solved through negotiation, elections or some other peaceful means. Americans should know; they had a civil war more than a century ago and are still talking about it.

In most civil wars, usually one side will lack a formal government and army. So it has no choice but to use unconventional means to pursue its struggle — guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, surprise attacks, sabotage, support from across borders, etc. The fact it uses such means is hardly a proof of illegitimate “terrorism.” On the contrary, the willingness of people in the antigovernment forces to suffer extreme hardship to fight for their cause could well be a proof of sincerity and even legitimacy.

The same logic can also operate at the international level. People in dispute with a much stronger foreign enemy will inevitably feel they have no choice but to use unconventional means. Japanese hawks should know, since they once felt they had to rely on a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and kamikaze attacks to settle a dispute. The Americans should know, too, since they once had to use guerrilla warfare, surprise attack and sabotage in their war of independence against Britain. But none of this necessarily adds up to global “terrorism,” even if the people targeted think otherwise.

This is especially true in the Middle East where dissidents come together more on the basis of shared religion rather than the tribalistic nation-state. Use of unconventional means to wage disputes is inevitable.

Someone should tell U.S. President George W. Bush that he got it right at the beginning, when in the wake of Sept. 11 he said “This is war.” Islamic militants had declared a war on the U.S. in response to what they saw as a de facto U.S. war against the Islamic world.

The U.S. now has to decide how to wage that war. It can risk the enormous trauma and expense of trying to crush its kamikaze, guerrilla-minded Islamic enemy, with the struggle probably lasting for decades if other Islamic forces decide to join in. Or it can try to answer some Islamic grievances. But either way, spare us the “terrorist” label.

True, efforts by some of the world’s more fanatic Islamic militants to use violence for extremist religious goals can sometimes be labeled as terrorism. It is just possible that the Sept. 11 attacks come into that category; we should, in any case, feel sorrow for the victims, just as we should feel sorrow for the victims of past U.S. interventions in the Islamic world.

But accusations of terrorism need to be proved, with very close attention to the motives of those who commit the violence. U.S. hawks, whose past support for anti-Soviet Islamic militants in Afghanistan did so much to lay the groundwork for the Sept. 11 attacks, are hardly qualified to judge.

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