Tuesday, July 05, 2005

What is a Terrorist?

I was astounded at the sheer volume of discussion elicited by the Wikipedia entry on "terrorism."

Most of the discussion centered on an attempt to find a definition of the word itself. Is it really that difficult to define? To me, a terrorist is:
a clandestine non-governmental operative who uses, or attempts to use, violence or the threat of violence against other non-governmental actors in order to further a political goal.
I think that falls in line with what most people think of as a "terrorist". (e.g., Abu Nidal, Al Qaeda, Timothy McVeigh, Black September). To try to define "terrorist" so broadly as to include anyone who employs fear of violence to coerce someone else is just silly. That type of definition makes everyone a terrorist. I may or may not want to pull over for a cop, but I do it partly because I realize the consequences of not pulling over (which could certainly include violence) and I'd prefer to avoid those consequences. That doesn't make the cop a terrorist.

Now, if a member of the Syrian Secret Police sneaks in to Baghdad and blows up a marketplace in order to scare the populace and destabilize the democratic government, is he a "terrorist"? May seem strange, but he's not a "terrorist" according to my definition above. What if he's an "independent contractor" working at the behest of the Syrian government? He's a terrorist. Why? Because he's not officially a governmental actor.

Why the distinction between clandestine and public actors, and between governmental and non-governmental operatives? For the same reasons we draw a distinction between murderers and soldiers. Public and governmental actors, however nasty their activities may be on occasion, are subject to certain controls. Actors who are both clandestine and non-governmental are subject to no such controls. Hence, they're completely out of control, and hence, they completely scare the crap out of us. A member of the Syrian Secret Police is probably not going to be attacking the New York Stock Exchange. Why not? Because the Syrian government understands that there would be extremely dire consequences for that action. Consequently, we don't have a lot of fear of Syrian Secret Police. It's not that they couldn't do something, only that they're unlikely to. Similarly, any non-governmental actor publicly declaring his identity and his intention to attack the NYSE would have almost no opportunity to carry such an attack out. We can likely restrain him. It's that combination of clandestine, non-governmental, directed at civilians and the goal of instilling fear which define a terrorist.

There are curious results to the above definition. For example, a clandestine non-governmental actor could set off a bomb inside the Pentagon for the purpose of interfering with the logistics of U.S. military operations. Under my definition, that also wouldn't be a terrorist act, since the attack was directed at a governmental target and it wasn't for the purpose of instilling fear.

Some other illustrations:

Are palestinian suicide bombers terrorists? Absolutely.

Is Zarqawi a terrorist? Yes.

Were the reconstruction-era KKK terrorists? You betcha.

Are insurgents fighting U.S. troops terrorists? No.

Was Blackbeard the Pirate a terrorist? No.

Was Gen. Curtis LeMay a terrorist? No.

Was John Brown a terrorist? Only to the extent that he can be considered "clandestine"

Was George Washington a terrorist? No.


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