Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
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
October 12, 2000: Israeli forces bomb Arafat's headquarters
October 12, 2000: Israeli forces bomb Voice of Jerusalem TV Station
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
August 1998: U.S. forces bomb a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant
June 1996: A bomb kills 23 U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia
April 1995: A bomb kills 168 people in a federal building in Oklahoma City
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.