Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Hostile Acts Committed by Terrorists Aren't Necessarily Terrorism

In Slate, William Saletan makes what is probably an unpopular argument, but one with which I agree. He attacks the practice of labelling every attack on U.S. forces as terrorism. At a time when words and phrases have become almost meaningless by virtue of broad and contested definitions, such as "torture," and "war crimes," it is good to see someone reject an expanded definition of the word "terrorism."

The bombing of the CIA base, like the November massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, was an act of war. It was also espionage. But it wasn't terrorism. Terrorism targets civilians. The CIA officers killed at the Afghan base, like the soldiers shot down at Fort Hood, were not civilians. They were running a war.
He goes on.
According to the U.S. Code (Title 22, Chapter 38, Section 2656f), "the term 'terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."
The whole article is worth reading.

Why is this important? Along with Saletan's points, consider this one. An expanded definition of terrorism gives credence to those who would label U.S. actions terrorism. It fails to note the difference between those who are arguably legitimate targets, and those who are civilian non-combatants. No American should be happy that CIA agents are dead. But killing intelligence agents directing a drone assassination program is not morally equivalent to blowing up an airplane full of civilians. Those are different categories of targets. It also ignores intent. An attack intended to kill those who are working to kill you is a much different intent than one which intends to kill the innocent, in order to terrorize the enemy in general. 

Where Saletan is wrong is in his attempt remove the label "terrorist" from those who belong to, or are associated with a terrorist organization. If someone voluntarily associates himself with a terrorist organization, it is reasonable to refer to him as a terrorist. But an act of terrorism must be judged independently. The U.S. military is not made up of terrorists. But if the U.S. were to adopt a strategy of eradicating Pakistani villages, deliberately killing civilians in order break the Taliban, the military would be carrying out acts of terrorism. Just as non-terrorists can engage in acts of terror, terrorists can take actions which do not constitute terrorism. 

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