Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Terrorizing Words

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, October 17, 2000 --  

The escalating violence in the Mideast has led to a deafening chorus of propagandists shouting "terrorist!" at the top of their lungs. These cries are almost always politically motivated, but true charges of terrorism have nothing to do chauvinistic name-calling. Terrorism is a truly evil act, and it has a precise meaning that should never be diluted for political gain.

Terrorism is the use of violence against non-combatant civilians in order to create an atmosphere of fear that helps the perpetrator achieve political objectives. Victims of true terrorism are always civilians. They can never be soldiers, government officials, or even civilians mistakenly hit during an attempt to attack a government or military target.

It's not surprising that sectarian rivals should misuse such terms. But when it comes to the leader of the free world, more should be expected. President Clinton, referring to the bombing of the USS Cole said, "If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act." An act of terrorism? Hardly. As terrible as the deaths of American seamen are for their families and loved ones, it is hard to imagine a more legitimate military target than a naval destroyer armed to the teeth with missiles.

The label of terrorism is often wrongly applied to guerilla operations. Since they don't have comparable resources, the weaker party in a conflict often practices guerilla warfare. When guerilla tactics are used, small numbers of hidden combatants sneak up upon their larger enemy, then hit and run before their more powerful forces can be put to use. Such tactics can be devastating to the recipient, as they were in the case of the Cole. Thus, it is not surprising that Clinton would prefer to face the guerillas in less "cowardly" but more conventional situation where U.S. forces could utilize their overwhelming superiority.

Similar claims of terrorism have bounced back and forth in Israel over the past week. Strictly speaking, none of the violent events in the area have been acts of terrorism:

October 12, 2000: A Palestinian mob kills two Israeli soldiers
The stabbing and beating death of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah was an indefensibly brutal act. It could accurately be described as murder, but certainly not as terrorism. The victims were active Israeli reservists, and thus members of an armed force that is forcefully occupying the city of Ramallah and other Palestinian areas.

October 12, 2000: Israeli forces bomb Arafat's headquarters
Bombing Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah was a knee-jerk response to the aforementioned murders. Since the target was governmental in nature, though, it was certainly not an act of terrorism.
October 12, 2000: Israeli forces bomb Voice of Jerusalem TV Station
This was almost a terrorist act, but not quite. Had the television station been controlled by civilians independent of the Palestinian Authority, and had bombing it been intended to disrupt Palestinian society, it could have been considered a terrorist act. In reality, though, the TV station is but a governmental propaganda machine controlled by Arafat, and the Israelis persuasively defended their actions by claiming it was being used to incite violence in a war zone.

Misapplications of the terrorist moniker are hardly limited to the past few weeks. Consider the following cases:

June 1999:Israeli forces bomb Beirut power plant
This was unquestionably an act of terrorism. Last summer, Israel decided to punish the Lebanese government for failing to control the Hezbollah rebels threatening Israel. The Israeli actions were inappropriate and inexcusable. They launched attacks on civilian power plants hundreds of miles from the combat zone and plunged the country into darkness. This violent attack preyed upon a civilian population to seek political gain against a third party. This is the classic case of terrorism. The only unusual part about it was the perpetrator -- a sovereign nation that committed the act openly.
August 1998: U.S. forces bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant
Although the U.S. government has never admitted it, there is little if any evidence that the plant hit by a cruise missile in Khartoum was used to produce chemical weapons. This was probably a case of mistaken identity, and as a result, a civilian factory was destroyed. However, since the bumbling U.S. government clearly intended to hit a military site linked to guerilla leader Osama bin Laden, this can not be considered a true act of terrorism.
June 1996: A bomb kills 23 U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia
The bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia was the event that first put Osama bin Laden in the news. Since the targets were soldiers, however, it was clearly not an act of terrorism.
April 1995: A bomb kills 168 people in a federal building in Oklahoma City
Despite popular perceptions, this was absolutely not a case of terrorism. The convicted bomber, Tim McVeigh, had successfully targeted armed agents of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. In the process McVeigh killed an extremely large number of innocent civilians. Despite these deaths, this is was simply not a case of terrorism because McVeigh's purpose was not to kill the civilians -- he was just willing to accept an outrageously high collateral death toll in order to achieve his misguided goals.

Of course, not every usage of the terrorist label is inappropriate. In December 1988, people around the world rightfully condemned the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. This was a classic terrorist act. The intended victims were civilians. The motivation apparently was to instill fear in Americans and thereby influence the policies of the U.S. Government. It is for cases such as this that the terrorist label must be reserved.

Does it really matter if officials mislabel attacks as terrorist? Absolutely. Terrorism is more than just any bad word. The U.S. State Department regularly publishes a list of rogue states that support terrorism. This list is used to politically pressure governments to behave in more civilized ways. If officials redefine terrorism to suit the political objectives of the day, it dilutes the meaning of the term, lessening reactions of outrage to what is called terrorism and destroying the power behind the term.

  1. The Washington Post, Terrorism Suspected in Navy Ship Attack, October 13, 2000