Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Fighting Terrorists,
Like America

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 2, 2001 --  

Nearly three weeks have passed since President Bush declared war on what he calls "terrorism," and no public officials have stepped forward to define what the word means. Doing so is not an obscure academic exercise. With the United States Government preparing to enlist the support of shady regimes around the world to fight terrorism, it is critical that both American citizens and America's newly found foreign partners understand who is the enemy and who is not.

To Americans, a consensus on who is a terrorist seems clear. Those who bombed the Khobar towers in Saudi Arabia were terrorists. Those who bombed the USS Cole in Yemen were also terrorists. Terrorists caused the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, the World Trade Center in 1993, the airliner over Lockerbie in 1988, the Berlin disco in 1986, and the Marine compound in Lebanon in 1983.

But what is it about these acts that made them terrorist acts? They were all surprise attacks on Americans. They all instilled fear or terror. In each case, the people who did it had political motives. But these can't be the sole defining factors -- the Japanese instilled fear by attacking Pearl Harbor for political motives, and while that is certainly considered an act of war, it is never described as an act of terrorism. Perhaps attacking innocent civilians is the key. The Japanese attacked military installations. Last month's attack on the World Trade Center targeted civilians.

This definition, too, falls apart quickly. The attack on the Pentagon was certainly against a military target, as were the attacks on the Khobar towers and the USS Cole. Why were the attacks on these military targets acts of terrorism, when the attack on Pearl Harbor was not? Perhaps the key factor is the independent nature of the perpetrators. The Japanese attack was led by a nation. Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden do not lead independent nations.

This definition doesn't work either. The nation of Libya was implicated in the attack on the Berlin disco, which was considered terrorism. Closer to home, a few loosely-organized bands of political separatists attacked British troops in North America 230 years ago. Far from terrorism, these surprise attacks by politically-motivated people who don't control a state were the beginning of America's Revolutionary War.

Without a doubt, there is no consistent definition that can be applied to all the historical acts that Americans commonly refer to as terrorism. Does this matter? Perhaps terrorism is an elusive term like obscenity, about which Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart infamously declared, "I cannot define it, but I know it when I see it."

If this is so, then God help us. What are the consequences of the most heavily armed nation on the face of the earth declaring war against something that it cannot even define? Since there is no definition, the U.S. Government's newly found allies have started offering definitions that are to their own liking. To Russia, fighting terrorism means fighting Chechens. Russia was quick to offer its political support to America, in return for America's support for putting down the independence struggle in Chechenya. America's support seems to be holding, despite Russia's brutal tactics that have earned the scorn of human rights organizations.

But Russia is not alone in applying a self-serving definition of terrorism to exploit America's declaration of war. In Turkey, it is the independence-minded Kurdish rebels that are the terrorists. In Uzbekistan, it is the Islamic separatists. In India, the Kashmiri separatists. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils. In Israel, the Palestineans. In China, the Uighurs.

Scores of countries that have offered the United States aid in fighting terrorism have done so in order to earn American support for fighting domestic rebels, which have been conveniently cast as "terrorists." Shockingly, this seems to be working, despite the fact that many of the governments in question are far more deserving of scorn than the independence-minded groups that have been instantly defined as the enemy.

To continue on this path will ultimately prove disastrous. During World War II, the United States helped build up the Soviets because they, like America, were fighting Nazis. Once they became the enemy, the United States helped build up extremist rebels in Afghanistan because they, like America, were fighting Soviets. Now these Afghanistan-based extremists are the enemy, and the United States is planning to build up countless despots because they, like America, are fighting terrorists.

But they are not. They are not like America. The terrorism they fight is not our terrorism. And we don't even know what our terrorism is.

Related Web Column:

Terrorizing Words, October 17, 2000.