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Mmm...Semantics

Montopoli writes on the oldie but goodie subject of who you should call a "terrorist." My (brief) take is that you need to understand this as what philosophers call a "thick moral concept" -- mixing descriptive and normative. I believe the standard example is "brave." Many praiseworthy actions can't be called "brave" because brave improperly describes the sort of thing that was being done if it doesn't involve facing up to danger. At the same time, someone might do something dangerous that you don't want to call brave. You might prefer "foolish," "stupid," or "risky" because calling something "brave" is a kind of compliment and not all danger-involving actions are compliment-worthy.

The upshot of this is that the much-derided slogan "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is quite literally true. Nobody describes themselves or groups they support as "terrorists." In a different world, HAMAS could say, "our acts of terrorism directed against the Israeli population are a legitimate means of struggle against a fundamentally illegitimate state." Vladimir Putin could argue that "state-sponsored terrorism against the civilian population of Chechnya is the only way to prevent the dissolution of the Russian federation." But nobody uses the words like this. HAMAS will deny that it commits acts of terrorism, which is not to deny that it commits the acts that I call "acts of terrorism," but to deny that those acts are terrorism. It's not "terrorism is a legitimate means of fighting Israel." Rather, it's "fighting Israel is legitimate, therefore the acts are not terrorism."

Many people seem strangely resistant to this conclusion and want to demand that there's some kind of non-speaker-relative standard as to what does and does not qualify as "terrorism." This reluctance stems, I think, from some kind of confusion. Saying that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter is not to say that we must throw up our hands in confusion. It's just saying that you need to decide which man you are. You call certain acts "terrorism" because you think those actions are worthy of condemnation. What you don't do is condemn certain acts because you've determined that the acts are acts of terrorism. People have no problem with the similar treatment of the word "murder" in non-legal contexts. There are no justifiable murders, because a murder is, by definition, an unjustified killing.

March 7, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

It's just saying that you need to decide which man you are. You call certain acts "terrorism" because you think those actions are worthy of condemnation.

Exactly right!

Which is why it is so telling that an institution like, say, Reuters, refuses to call the suicide bombings by Hamas or al Qaeda "terrorism": they don't consider such acts worthy of condemnation! Which is why many of us on the right consider Reuters (and others who are unwilling to label such acts "terrorism") to be morally depraved...

Posted by: Al | Mar 7, 2005 5:54:43 PM

There are no justifiable murders, because a murder is, by definition, an unjustified killing.

Wrong. Murder is unlawful killing. Murder can be perfectly just, not to mention justified.

If 'terrorism' means nothing more than that you oppose the cause for which actions are taken, then you've corrupted the meaning totally. Subjugating language to your allegiances is intellectually bankrupt.

Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 7, 2005 5:55:21 PM

Al--Presumably you think guys like Elliott Abrams and John Negroponte are sponsors and facilitators of terrorism? Or are you morally depraved?

Posted by: rea | Mar 7, 2005 6:09:14 PM

Wait, what? Terrorism is attempting to kill or injure civilians to further some political cause. So, Hamas suicide bombings are terrorism. The bombing of Dresden was state terrorism. "Joe Hamas" or General Hap Arnold trying to argue different doesn't make it so. Conflict about the application of a concept doesn't by itself prove the concept has no meaning beyond what arbitrary partisans give it. If so, we would be able to justify anything that could help us as "not-terrorism" and everything our enemies do as "terrorism." But while that type of rhetorical pressure is always there, it doesn't dominate in everyone. There are plenty of Palestinians who think "fighting Israel is legitimate" but who pull back from endorsing putting nail bombs in pizza parlors. They recognize an independent moral limit against slaughtering civilians. Similarly, all the Allied nations agreed on the need to defeat the Nazis, but even at the time people argued against the intentional bombing of civilians as a great moral wrong.

Posted by: rd | Mar 7, 2005 6:12:57 PM

rea - I would take issue more with the words "sponsors" and "facilitators" than the word "terrorism".

Posted by: Al | Mar 7, 2005 6:22:31 PM

Montopoli points to the State Department definition of terrorism as the purposeful killing of non-combatants for a political cause. Thus terrorism refers to a method of combat, an unlawful method. Past acts of war such as the bombing of cities during WWII to destroy the industrial capacity of the enemy would now be labeled as terrorism. Present bombings of houses and civilian areas in Iraq are said not to meet this definition since we do not purposefully target civilians (and indeed take efforts to limit civilian casualties), even though large numbers of civilian casualites may result. Even if the insurgents target the military targets, they are labeled as illegal combatants and thus "terrorists", because they do not wear a uniform and display their arms openly. But these are the rules of the strong.

What method of combat for the weak? How can one fight if your enemy is protected by invincible armor or air power? What if they send unmanned machines and robots against you? Is resistance reduced to non-violent marches? Or futile sucide charges against the machines? In such circumstances, I can see how the suicide bomber developed as a hopefully effective strategem. Attack the will of those who send the the invincible warriors. Kill the civilians who support the warriors instead.

What remains from the laws of war is the principal of proportionality.

We can condemn someone for using evil or unlawful methods, even in a good cause. But how to weigh that against one who has an evil cause, even if he uses lawful methods?



Posted by: chew2 | Mar 7, 2005 6:39:40 PM

Natalie Portman's going to play a terrorist in the new movie V for Vendetta.

Posted by: Dan the Man | Mar 7, 2005 6:47:58 PM

Terrorism is the spectacle of deadly force against non-military targets for the purpose of intimidating and demoralizing a civilian population. Terrorism is communication by death.

Those who practice terrorism freely admit that they kill for the communicative effects of their acts. Early anarchists spoke of "the propaganda of the deed."

Terrorists and their apologists do not need to justify the killing of innocents because they believe, in the words of the anarchist bomb-thrower Emile Henri, that "there are no innocents." So- all Israelis are settlers, all World Trade Center workers were little Eichmanns, all Irish Protestants are oppressors, all vacationing Australians are supporters of the US occupation of Iraq.

It is not hard to spot a terrorist. Freedom fighters are not terrorists, except in Newspeak. Please, Matt, no more Newspeak apologetics from you.

Posted by: JR | Mar 7, 2005 6:57:39 PM

Good point Matthew. It is important to remember what the terrorists are actually fighting for. Twenty years ago, we were told it was self determination, ending occupation and all of that clap trap. But today, lo and behold, Hezbollah is holding rallies in FAVOR of Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Hamas boycotts elections in the Palestinian territories, al-Qaeda comes out against the vote in Iraq. And when the terrorists do get hold of a country, adulterers are stoned in the biblical sense, women are told to cover their bodies in extreme heat, dissenting authors are marked for death etc... So perhaps a better approach is to call them caliphists, child abusers, barbarians--or better yet all three.

Posted by: Eli Lake | Mar 7, 2005 7:02:46 PM

Re: Even if the insurgents target the military targets, they are labeled as illegal combatants and thus "terrorists", because they do not wear a uniform and display their arms openly.

If they restrict themselves to military targets they should be seen more properly as guerillas (a legitimate form of warfare), not terrorists.

Re:What method of combat for the weak?

How about, Give up and admit defeat? In most cases in the modern world (e.g., Iraq etc.) the fact of life under the superior power would not be so dreadful.

Posted by: JonF | Mar 7, 2005 7:04:34 PM

Hey, can we have that whole Homicide Bomber/Suicide BOmber argument again too?

Terrorism is what whomever is decrying it says it is. I'm not in anyway defending the homicidal actions of those who bomb, maim, kidnap, assassinate, or what not - but its usually the opposition to their cause that labels them "terrorists."

While it's not really a valid comparison - you never here Paul Revere &c called terrorists - at least not on this side of the Atlantic.

Posted by: Brew | Mar 7, 2005 7:06:41 PM

An easy test: If the act accomplishes its purpose whether or not it is widely known, it is not terrorism.

If communication of the act to an audience is essential for its effect, it is terrorism.

Posted by: JR | Mar 7, 2005 7:12:43 PM

I call military operations, by a state or not, deliberately undertaken to kill and hurt noncombatants in the first place, terrorism. If you can approve of some such operations, you can, G-d help you, claim that some instances of terrorism are justified, but not that are not instances ot terrorism.

Posted by: Dabodius | Mar 7, 2005 7:17:30 PM

JR, I liked your previous post very much (especially the pointer to historical antecedents in anarchist terrorism). However your last point is too strong... under this model, acts of retaliation aimed at deterring future aggression would by definition be terrorism. I don't think they are.

That said, to some extent I find this conversation futile. Forget terrorism, try to define the category chair: I'm not persuaded that anyone has ever articulated necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in any category. See Lakatos (I think Matt referred to him a little while ago) for why this is in some sense true even in math. Or law: That's why we have courts.

However, to say that borders of concepts are always under negotiation isn't to say anything goes. Courts for example are expected to explain their reasoning.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Mar 7, 2005 7:25:54 PM

Dabodius- aerial bombings of munitions plants, terrorism or not? I say not. The goal is to stop the manufacture of munitions. Civilian workers are targeted and killed. Whether that is moral isn't the point. The point is that the goal is to kill these specific individuals and to destroy their workplace. Intimidation of others is not the goal.

Posted by: JR | Mar 7, 2005 7:28:16 PM

I'll add my penny to the definition of terrorism as "attacks aimed at killing innocent civilians".
Innocent here is to mean not closely involved in military, military-industrial, or espionage affairs.

Under this definition, Hiroshima was terrorism. The 9/11 attacks on the WTC were terrorism.

Attacks on civilian contractors in Iraq are not (not innocent), nor are attacks on arms-carrying Israeli settlers, nor was the attack on the Pentagon (not innocent -- civilians there were active and direct parts of the military infrastructure.) Collateral damage is not terrorism (though it may be violation of just war doctrine in other ways).
Attacks on the military-political leaders of regimes are not terrorism. (Though attacks on politicians and bureaucrats not closely in military activity are.)

Bombings of bars and clubs where off-duty military or security police congregate are probably not terrorism, just as attacks on sleeping soldiers are not.

Posted by: DeadHorseBeater | Mar 7, 2005 7:31:03 PM

Or to put this another way, the fact that there are unclear cases doesn't militate against the existence of clear cases. Attacking the World Trade Center was an act of terrorism. Attacking the Pentagon is not as clear, but it probably wasn't (which isn't to say that we aren't justified in retaliating for it). Blowing up a pizza parlor is an act of terrorism. Killing military guards at a checkpoint isn't.

Posted by: larry birnbaum | Mar 7, 2005 7:32:51 PM

Individuals have no problem defining terrorism. Many commenters here define it as intentionally targeting and killing civilians regardless of the end goal, and this is pretty uncontroversial.

It seems to me that the only objections to this definition come from governments or supporters of governments who would fall under this definition (or who would have in the past).

Posted by: fling93 | Mar 7, 2005 7:37:03 PM

When U.S. troops shoot and kill Iraqis seen in possession of cell phones near bomb detonations, is that terrorism or not? And on what grounds can we reach that conclusion?

I'm not persuaded that anyone has ever articulated necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in any category.

If I could revoke your ability to use language, I would. You're not worthy of it.

Posted by: Matt G. | Mar 7, 2005 7:59:37 PM

With that comment he revoked his own ability to use language.

Posted by: foolishmortal | Mar 7, 2005 8:15:45 PM

"intentionally targeting and killing civilians regardless of the end goal, and this is pretty uncontroversial."

I inject controversy. Dresden and Hiroshima fall into the category of "War Crimes." So also the mass retaliation by Nazis against French villages:War Crimes. I have never heard Assad's destruction of Hama called terrorism, not Is Saddam going on trial for terrorism. To extend "terrorism" to violent acts of a state against civilians is to invite comparisons of Ruby Ridge to 9/11.

The definition you gave is inadequate.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 7, 2005 8:36:26 PM

Matt G- A frightened soldier killing an innocent Iraqi is not terrorism. It may or may not be murder but it is not terrorism.

Terrorism is theater. It is a work of the imagination. It is the creation of images. It is no accident that terrorism arose at the same time as widespead mass communication.

The terrorist is a performance artist. He may be deluded or he may be rational; he may be good at his work or he may be uninventive; but he works within a system of political ideas. His goal is to translate those ideas into emotionally powerful images. These may be literal images or they may be images communicated in print, but they must be visceral. They must be so shocking that they dislocate one's sense of the established order of things. And they must be readily accessible, in the manner of pop culture.

The World Trade Center attack was the most brilliant piece of film-making in history. The point was not the killing of those few thousands of people. The point was the creation of the spectacular images of the killing of those people. The images communicate the vulnerability of American power more elegantly and concisely than even a defeat on a battlefield could have done.

Now I will have to correct myself, and my apologies. I said above that the purpose of terrorism is to intimidate. Not always. In the case of the World Trade Center, as in the case of anarchism, the opposite is the case. The bomb throwers wanted to energize and empower the working class to rise up in revolution. They wanted to open the minds of their hoped-for followers to the possibility of a new world order. They were delusional, and they failed.

Bin Laden is far more rational than those terrorists. He seeks to energize and empower empoverished Muslims around the world, and he has had considerable success. It remains to be seen whether he will succeed in his ultimate goal -- the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and his own installation as clerical ruler -- or whether he will be defeated. But there is no doubt that his tactics are brilliantly designed to accomplish his goal. He is an extraordinarily creative man, and he is not finished with us.

And we will not defeat him if we do not understand him, and if we fail to understand what he understands so clearly: that terrorism is the creation of images, that images mobilize masses, that mass movements topple regimes.

Posted by: JR | Mar 7, 2005 8:40:16 PM

Individuals have no problem defining terrorism. Many commenters here define it as intentionally targeting and killing civilians regardless of the end goal, and this is pretty uncontroversial. It seems to me that the only objections to this definition come from governments or supporters of governments who would fall under this definition (or who would have in the past).

Like Israel?

Posted by: Dan the Man | Mar 7, 2005 8:44:35 PM

Terrorism is theater. It is a work of the imagination. It is the creation of images.

So the War Against Terrorism is a war against the imagination?

Posted by: Dan the Man | Mar 7, 2005 8:47:25 PM

It is not hard to spot a terrorist. Freedom fighters are not terrorists, except in Newspeak. Please, Matt, no more Newspeak apologetics from you.

Yes, take a look at the death squads supported by Negroponte in the 80s. Quite obviously they were terrorists, and Negroponte's CIA-run embassy their state patron.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Mar 7, 2005 8:48:05 PM

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