October 19, 2014
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.
When President Barack Obama spoke to the public in September about his decision to use American military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria he used familiar language. ISIS (or ISIL as the White House and others refer to the group), the president said, "is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way." The man picked to manage Obama’s strategy, General John R. Allen, wrote in the publication Defense One that "the Islamic State is an entity beyond the pale of humanity and it must be eradicated."
The powerful rhetoric centered on the word "terrorism" makes it difficult to speak intelligently about its real sources.
It is undeniable that many of the tactics being used by ISIS — executions of civilians and well publicized beheadings of hostages — do violate accepted standards of conduct in conflict (detailed in an evolving legal and philosophical code known as just war theory.) And understandably, those moved by language of the sort used by the president and his staff are in no mood to consider softer tactics like negotiation with ISIS, nor to ponder the complex causes contributing to its rise. Obama’s stated policy of removing the "cancer" threatening the established political order in the Middle East is already underway, and is facing little resistance.
This is merely the latest example of a powerful rhetoric centered on the word "terrorism" that has shaped — and continues to shape — popular conceptions about contemporary political conflicts, making it difficult to speak intelligently about their real sources.
If individuals and groups are portrayed as irrational, barbaric, and beyond the pale of negotiation and compromise, as this rhetoric would have it, then asking why they resort to terrorism is viewed as pointless, needlessly accommodating, or, at best, mere pathological curiosity. Those normally inclined to ask "Why?" are in danger of being labeled "soft" on terrorism, while the more militant use the "terrorist" label to blur the distinction between critical examination and appeasement.
Part of the success of this rhetoric traces to the fact that there is no consensus about the meaning of "terrorism." While it is typically understood to mean politically motivated violence directed against civilians, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Defense, for example, describe terrorism as the unlawful use of violence to achieve political goals by coercing governments or societies. The State Department cites a legal definition of "terrorism" as "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents." It adds: "The term 'noncombatant’ is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed or not on duty." Thus, by means of linguistic gerrymander, members of uniformed government military forces acting under government authorization are incapable of committing acts of terrorism no matter how many civilians are ground up in the process.
When violent political groups like ISIS are labeled as irrational and barbaric, asking why they resort to terrorism becomes pointless.
Even when a definition is agreed upon, the rhetoric of "terror" is applied both selectively and inconsistently. In the mainstream American media, the "terrorist" label is usually reserved for those opposed to the policies of the U.S. and its allies. By contrast, some acts of violence that constitute terrorism under most definitions are not identified as such — for instance, the massacre of over 2000 Palestinian civilians in the Beirut refugee camps in 1982 or the killings of more than 3000 civilians in Nicaragua by "contra" rebels during the 1980s, or the genocide that took the lives of at least a half million Rwandans in 1994. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some actions that do not qualify as terrorism are labeled as such — that would include attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah or ISIS, for instance, against uniformed soldiers on duty.
Historically, the rhetoric of terror has been used by those in power not only to sway public opinion, but to direct attention away from their own acts of terror. Yet, to the fair-minded, the attempt by governments to justify bombardment of residential districts, schools and hospitals in the name of fighting terrorism is outright hypocrisy. Government forces have long provided outstanding examples of politically-motivated violence against civilians, the very thing they allegedly oppose. Claims about not "targeting" civilians ring hollow when it is quite obvious that high-tech explosives are aimed at buildings known to contain civilians.
If what is insidious about terrorism is its callous disregard for civilian lives in pursuit of political goals, why is there not an uproar about state terrorism? Why do so many reserve their venom for people whose destructive capacity pales in comparison with those who command tanks, artillery and warplanes?
It is easy to lose sight of inconsistencies in wartime hostilities. Instead, the emotional impact of language tends to triumph at the expense of accuracy and fairness. By effectively placing designated individuals or groups outside the norms of acceptable social and political behavior, the rhetoric of "terror" has had these effects:
1) It erases any incentive the public might have to understand the nature and origins of their grievances so that the possible legitimacy of their demands will not be raised.
2) It deflects attention away from one’s own policies that might have contributed to their grievances.
3) It repudiates any calls for negotiation.
4) It obliterates the distinction between national liberation movements and fringe fanatics (for example, during the 1990s, the "terrorist" label was applied to Nelson Mandela and Timothy McVeigh alike);
5) It paves the way for the use of force by making it easier for a government to exploit the fears of its citizens and ignore objections to the manner in which it responds to terrorist violence.
This is not just a strategy of the United States government. For decades, Israeli leaders have used such language in their attempt to discredit Palestinian nationalism and deflect attention away from their own policies in the occupied territories. In the 1986 book "Terrorism: How the West Can Win," Benjamin Netanyahu, the book’s editor, who is now Israel’s prime minister, encouraged pre-emptive strikes "to weaken and destroy the terrorist’s ability to consistently launch attacks," even at the "risk of civilian casualties." Addressing the origins of terrorism, he surmised that "the root cause of terrorism lies not in grievances but in a disposition toward unbridled violence" traceable to "a worldview that asserts that certain ideological and religious goals justify, indeed demand, the shedding of all moral inhibitions." Other contributors to the volume voiced similar sentiments in portraying the terrorist as a carrier of "oppression and enslavement," having "no moral sense," "a perfect nihilist," and whose elimination is the only rational means for the West to "win."