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Home  > Tamils - A Trans State Nation > Beyond Tamil Nation: One World > The Strength of an Idea > Nations & Nationalism  > International Relations in the Age of Empire  > Armed Conflict - A Continuation of Politics with the Addition of Other Means> Humanitarian Laws of Armed Conflict > What is Terrorism? > Danger of Branding all Wars as Terrorism

What is Terrorism?

Danger of Branding All Wars as Terrorism 

Gregory Clark 
Honorary President,  Tama University
and a former Australian diplomat in The Japan Times. 
Courtesy: The Straits Times, 3 September 2002


"...‘Terrorist’ has become an omnibus word that allows governments to try to suppress enemies at will. It has replaced ‘communist’, and is much more useful...Most of what is now called terrorism is, in fact, civil war. Such wars are inevitable when disputes within the nation cannot be solved through negotiation, elections or some other peaceful means..."

Soon after last year’s Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, I got into a debate with a hawkish member of the private consultative committee set up by then-Japanese foreign minister Makiko Tanaka. He was demanding angrily that Japan should help eliminate something called global ‘terror’. I tried to get him to define the word.

Were the Irish Republican Army attacks in Northern Ireland an example, I asked? Yes, he said firmly, with no hint that he realised how even British conservatives had come to rethink rights and wrongs in that dispute.

Sri Lanka, where the minority in revolt have had even more reason to complain of discrimination? That, too, was terror, he said unblinkingly.

Chechnya? Yes. Kashmir? Of course. The French revolution, the US War of Independence? Silence. The Meiji Restoration? Deep silence.

In the 1980s, the South African apartheid government used to complain to the United Nations about cross-border ‘terrorism’ by anti-apartheid guerillas. At the time, no one took the complaint too seriously. Today, the world sees those former guerillas as heroes.

‘Terrorist’ has become an omnibus word that allows governments to try to suppress enemies at will. It has replaced ‘communist’, and is much more useful.

With ‘communist’, there had to be at least some proof of left-wing leanings before setting out to exterminate people. With ‘terrorist’, not even this restraint is needed.

Unless, of course, the people fighting back are opposed to someone we dislike. Then, they are called freedom fighters, with every right to use whatever means possible to survive. The governments that chide Pakistan for supporting anti-Indian guerrillas in Kashmir were full of praise when it supported Afghan guerrillas opposed to the former pro-Moscow regime in Kabul.

Anti-Government Battles 

Most of what is now called terrorism is, in fact, civil war. Such wars are inevitable when disputes within the nation cannot be solved through negotiation, elections or some other peaceful means.

In most civil wars, usually one side will lack a formal government and army. So, it has no choice but to use unconventional means to pursue its struggle - guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, surprise attacks, sabotage, or support from across borders.

The fact that it uses such means is hardly proof of illegitimate ‘terrorism’. On the contrary, the willingness of people in the anti-government forces to suffer extreme hardship to fight for their cause could well be proof of sincerity and even legitimacy.

The same logic can operate at the international level. People at odds with a stronger foreign enemy will feel they have no choice but to use unconventional means. But none of this necessarily adds up to global terrorism, even if the people targeted think otherwise.

This is especially true in the Middle East, where dissidents come together more on the basis of shared religion rather than the tribalistic nation-state. Use of unconventional means to wage disputes is inevitable.

Label Needs to Be Proven 

Someone  should tell US President George W. Bush that he got it right when, in the wake of Sept 11, he said, ‘This is war’. Islamic militants had declared war on the US in response to what they saw as a de facto US war against the Islamic world. The US now has to decide how to wage that war. It can risk the enormous trauma and expense of trying to crush its guerilla-minded Islamic enemy. Or it can try to answer some Islamic grievances. But either way, spare us the ‘terrorist’ label.

True, efforts by some of the more fanatic Islamic militants to use violence for extremist goals can sometimes be labeled as terrorism. It is just possible that the Sept 11 attacks fall into that category; we should, in any case, feel sorrow for the victims, just as we should feel sorrow for the victims of past US interventions in the Islamic world.

But accusations of terrorism need to be proved, with very close attention to the motives of those who commit the violence. US hawks, whose past support for anti-Soviet Islamic militants in Afghanistan did so much to lay the groundwork for the Sept 11 attacks, are hardly qualified to judge.

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