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'Terrorism':Aworldensnaredbyaword
ByJohnV.Whitbeck
Published:February18,2004

JIDDAInhistelevised"MeetthePress"interviewFeb.8,President
GeorgeW.Bushwasneveraskedaquestionabout"terrorism."Yethe
usedtheword(oravariant)22times.Thewordexplained,and
justified,everythingpast,presentandfuture.

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FewAmericanpoliticiansorcommentatorsdaretoquestionthe
conventionalwisdomthat"terrorism"isthegreatestthreatfacing
Americaandtheworld.Ifso,therealthreatliesnotinthebehavior
towhichthiswordisappliedbutintheworditself.

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Itisnoaccidentthatthereisnoagreeddefinitionofterrorism,since
thewordissosubjectiveastobedevoidofanyinherentmeaning.At
thesametime,thewordisextremelydangerous,becausepeopletend
tobelievethatitdoeshavemeaning,andtheyuseandabuseitby
applyingittowhatevertheyhateasawayofavoidingrationalthoughtanddiscussion
and,frequently,excusingtheirownillegalandimmoralbehavior.

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Thereisnoshortageofpreciseverbalformulationsforthediverseactstowhichtheword
"terrorism"isoftenapplied."Massmurder,""assassination,""arson"and"sabotage"are
available(toallofwhich"politicallymotivated"canbeaddedifappropriate),andsuch
crimesarealreadyonthestatutebooks,renderingspecificcriminallegislationfor
"terrorism"unnecessaryandundesirable.
However,suchpreciseformulationsdonotcarrytheoverwhelming,demonizingand
thoughtdeadeningimpactoftheword"terrorism,"whichis,ofcourse,preciselythe
charmofthewordforitsmorecynicalandunprincipledusersandabusers.Ifsomeone
commits"politicallymotivatedmassmurder,"peoplemightbecuriousastothecauseor
grievancewhichinspiredsuchacrime,butnocauseorgrievancecanjustify(oreven
explain)"terrorism,"which,allrightthinkingpeoplemustagree,isanultimateevil.
Mostactstowhichtheword"terrorism"isapplied(atleastintheWest)aretacticsofthe
weak,usually(althoughnotalways)againstthestrong.Suchactsarenotatacticofchoice
butoflastresort.
Thepoor,theweakandtheoppressedrarelycomplainabout"terrorism."Therich,the
strongandtheoppressorsconstantlydo.Whilemostofmankindhasmorereasontofear
thehightechnologyviolenceofthestrongthanthelowtechnologyviolenceoftheweak,
thefundamentalmindtrickemployedbytheabusersoftheword"terrorism"isessentially
this:Thelowtechnologyviolenceoftheweakissuchanabominationthatthereareno
limitsonthehightechnologyviolenceofthestrongthatcanbedeployedagainstit.
Notsurprisingly,sinceSept.11,2001,virtuallyeveryrecognizedstateconfrontingan
insurgencyorseparatistmovementhaseagerlyjumpedonthe"waronterrorism"
bandwagon,brandingitsdomesticopponentsifithadnotalreadydoneso
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'Terrorism'AworldensnaredbyawordNYTimes.com

"terrorists."
Evenwhileacceptingthatmanypeoplelabeled"terrorists"aregenuinelyreprehensible,it
shouldberecognizedthatneitherrespectforhumanrightsnorthehumanconditionis
likelytobeenhancedbythisapparentcarteblancheseizedbythestrongtocrushtheweak
astheyseefit.
Perhapstheonlyhonestandgloballyworkabledefinitionof"terrorism"isanexplicitly
subjectiveone"violencethatIdon'tsupport."AnyonewhoreadsboththeWesternand
ArabpresscannothelpnoticingthattheWesternpressroutinelycharacterizesas
"terrorism"virtuallyallPalestinianviolenceagainstIsraelis(evenagainstIsraeli
occupationforceswithinPalestine),whiletheArabpressroutinelycharacterizesas
"terrorism"virtuallyallIsraeliviolenceagainstPalestinians.Onlysuchaformulation
wouldaccommodatebothcharacterizations,aswellasmostothers.

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Ifeveryonerecognizedthat"terrorism"isfundamentallyatermofabuse,withnointrinsic
meaning,therewouldbenomorereasontoworryaboutthewordnowthanbeforeSept.
11.ButwiththeUnitedStatesrelyingonthewordtoassert,apparently,arighttoattack
anycountryitdislikes,manypeoplearoundtheworldunderstandablyfeelagenuinesense
ofterror(dictionarydefinition:"astateofintensefear")astowheretheUnitedStatesis
takingtherestoftheworld.
Iftheworldistoavoidadescentintoanarchy,inwhichtheonlyruleis"mightmakes
right,"theworldandparticularlytheUnitedStatesmustrecognizethat"terrorism"is
simplyaword,asubjectiveepithet,notanobjectiverealityandcertainlynotanexcuseto
suspendrulesofinternationallawanddomesticcivilliberties.
EverynationandparticularlytheUnitedStatesmustalsorecognizethatinaworld
filledwithinjustice,violentoutburstsbythosehopingdesperatelyforabetterlifeor
simplyseekingtostrikeablowagainstinjusticeortheirtormentorsbeforetheydiecan
neverbeeradicated.
Atbest,thefrequencyandgravityofsuchoutburstscanbediminishedbyseekingto
alleviateratherthancontinuingtoaggravatetheinjusticesandhumiliationsthatgive
risetothem.Asinglemindedfocusonincreasedmilitary,"security"and"counter
terrorism"programswillalmostcertainlycontinuetoprovecounterproductivetoits
declaredobjective,diminishingbothsecurityandthequalityoflifeforallmankind.Perfect
securityis,andwillalwaysbe,anillusion,and"victory"ina"waronterrorism"isnomore
likelythanina"waronpoverty,"a"waroncrime"ora"warondrugs."
Itislongoverdue,butnottoolate,fortheAmericanpeopletoliberatethemselvesfromthe
aggressiveandselfdestructiveparanoiainflictedonthembyunscrupulousabusersofan
undefinableword.
PerhapsJohnKerrywillhavethecourageandgenuinepatriotismtoquestionthewisdom
ofcontinuingtowageaperpetual"war"againstasubjectiveepithetand,bydoingso,to
setusfree,restoringsomemeasureofsanityandmorematureandconstructivepriorities
bothtoAmericansocietyandtoAmerica'srelationswiththeworld.
*
ThewriterisaninternationallawyerbasedinSaudiArabia.
[Nottobereproducedwithoutthepermissionoftheauthor.]
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