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'Terrorism': the word itself is dangerous.

Dear Casi member,

The article below is not strictly an anti-sanctions/Iraq issue, but these days it is hard to keep 
the focus, as everything is getting muddled and mixed up with everything else. The article is about 
terrorism, and I'm sure you will appreciate it. It is from today's Daily Star (Lebanon). URL is 
located at the end of the article.

Leiden, The Netherlands.

‘Terrorism’: the word itself is dangerous

The greatest threat to world peace today is clearly “terrorism” ­ not the behavior to which the 
word is applied but the word itself. 
For years, people have recited the truisms that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom 
fighter” and that “terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.” However, with the 
world’s sole superpower declaring an open-ended, worldwide “war on terrorism,” the notorious 
subjectivity of this word is no longer a joke. 
It is no accident there is no agreed definition of “terrorism,” since the word is so subjective as 
to be devoid of meaning. At the same time, the word is extremely dangerous, because people tend to 
believe that it does have meaning and to use and abuse the word by applying it to whatever they 
hate as a way of avoiding rational thought and discussion and, frequently, excusing their own 
illegal and immoral behavior. 

There is no shortage of precise verbal formulations for the diverse acts to which the word 
“terrorism” is often applied. “Mass murder,” “assassination,” and “sabotage” are available (to 
which the phrase “politically motivated” can be added if appropriate), and such crimes are already 
on the statute books, rendering specific criminal legislation for “terrorism” unnecessary. However, 
such precise formulations do not carry the overwhelming, demonizing and thought-deadening impact of 
the word “terrorism,” which is precisely the charm of the word for its more cynical and 
unprincipled users and abusers. If someone commits “politically motivated mass murder,” people 
might be curious as to the cause or grievances which inspired such a crime, but no cause or 
grievance can justify (or even explain) “terrorism,” which, all right-thinking people agree, is the 
ultimate evil. 

Most acts to which “terrorism” is applied (at least in the West) are tactics of the weak, usually 
(although not always) against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort. 
To cite one example, the Palestinians would prefer to fight for their freedom by “respectable” 
means, using F-16s, Apache attack helicopters and laser-guided missiles such as those the United 
States provides to Israel. If the United States provided such weapons to Palestine as well, the 
problem of suicide bombers would be solved. Until it does, and for so long as the Palestinians can 
see no hope for a decent future, no one should be surprised or shocked that Palestinians use the 
“delivery systems” available to them ­ their own bodies. Genuine hope for something better than a 
life worse than death is the only cure for the despair which inspires such gruesome violence. 

In this regard, it is worth noting that the poor, the weak and the oppressed rarely complain about 
“terrorism.” The rich, the strong and the oppressors constantly do. While most of mankind has more 
reason to fear the high-technology violence of the strong than the low-technology violence of the 
weak, the fundamental mind-trick employed by the abusers of the epithet “terrorism” (no doubt, in 
some cases, unconsciously) is essentially this: The low-technology violence of the weak is such an 
abomination that there are no limits on the high-technology violence of the strong which can be 
deployed against it. 
Not surprisingly, since Sept. 11, virtually every recognized state confronting an insurgency or 
separatist movement has eagerly jumped on the “war on terrorism” bandwagon, branding its domestic 
opponents (if it had not already done so) “terrorists” and, at least implicitly, taking the 
position that, since no one dares to criticize the United States for doing whatever it deems 
necessary in its “war on terrorism,” no one should criticize whatever they now do to suppress their 
own “terrorists.” 

Even while accepting that many people labeled “terrorists” are genuinely reprehensible, it should 
be recognized that neither respect for human rights nor the human condition are likely to be 
enhanced by this apparent carte blanche seized by the strong to crush the weak as they see fit. 
Writing in the Washington Post on Oct. 15, Post Deputy Editor Jackson Diehl cited two prominent 
examples of the abuse of the epithet “terrorism”: “With their handshake in the Kremlin, Sharon and 
Putin exchanged a common falsehood about the wars their armies are fighting against rebels in 
Chechnya and the West Bank and Gaza. In both cases, the underlying conflict is about national 
self-determination: statehood for the Palestinians, self-rule for Chechnya. The world is inclined 
to believe that both causes are just … Sharon and Putin both have tried to convince the world that 
all their opponents are terrorists, which implies that the solution need not involve political 
concessions but merely a vigorous counterterrorism campaign.” Perhaps the only honest and globally 
workable definition of “terrorism” is an explicitly subjective one ­ “violence which I don’t 

The Western press routinely characterizes as “terrorism” virtually all Palestinian violence against 
Israelis (even against Israeli occupation forces within Palestine), while the Arab press routinely 
characterizes as “terrorism” virtually all Israeli violence against Palestinians. Only this 
formulation would accommodate both characterizations, as well as most others. 
However, the word has been so devalued that even violence is no longer an essential prerequisite 
for its use. In recently announcing a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against 10 international tobacco 
companies, a Saudi Arabian lawyer told the press: “We will demand tobacco firms be included on the 
lists of terrorists and those financing and sponsoring terrorism because of the large number of 
victims smoking has claimed the world over.” If everyone recognized the word “terrorism” is 
fundamentally an epithet and a term of abuse, with no intrinsic meaning, there would be no more 
reason to worry about the word now than prior to Sept. 11. However, with the United States relying 
on the word to assert, apparently, an absolute right to attack any country it dislikes (for the 
most part, countries Israel dislikes) and with President Bush repeatedly menacing that “either 
you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists” (which effectively means, “either you make our 
enemies your enemies or you’ll be our enemy ­ and you know what we do to our enemies”), many people 
around the world must feel a genuine sense of terror (dictionary definition: “a state of intense 
fear”) as to where the United States is taking the rest of the world. 

Meanwhile, in America itself, the Bush Administration appears to be feeding the US Constitution and 
America’s traditions of civil liberties, due process and the rule of law into a shredder ­ mostly 
to domestic applause or acquiescence. Who would have imagined that 19 angry men armed only with 
knives could accomplish so much, provoking a response, beyond their wildest dreams, which threatens 
to be vastly more damaging to their enemies even than their own appalling acts? If the world is to 
avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule is “might makes right,” every “retaliation” 
provokes a “counter-retaliation” and a genuine “war of civilizations” is ignited, the world ­ and 
particularly the United States ­ must recognize that “terrorism” is simply a word, a subjective 
epithet, not an objective reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend all the rules of 
international law and domestic civil liberties which have, until now, made at least some parts of 
our planet decent places to live. 
John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian 
conflict and wrote this commentary for The Daily Star


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