To Be Freed Of The Word

John V Whitbeck

In his televised “Meet the Press” interview on 8 February, President George W Bush was never asked a question about “terrorism”. Yet, in his answers, he used the word (or a variant) 22 times. This word explained, and justified, everything - past, present and future. Few American politicians or commentators dare to question the conventional wisdom that “terrorism” is the greatest threat facing America and the world. This being so, the real threat lies not in the behaviour to which this word is applied but, rather, in the word itself.

Far from bringing freedom and democracy to the world, George Bush's 'war on terrorism' is turning the 21st century into a time of fear and loathing.

Far from bringing freedom and democracy to the world, George Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ is turning the 21st century into a time of fear and loathing.

It is no accident that there is no agreed definition of “terrorism”, since the word is so subjective as to be devoid of any inherent meaning. At the same time, the word is extremely dangerous, because people tend to believe that it does have meaning and to use and abuse the word by applying it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding rational thought and discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behaviour.

There is no shortage of precise verbal formulations for the diverse acts to which the word “terrorism” is often applied. “Mass murder”, “assassination”, “arson” and “sabotage” are available—to all of which the phrase “politically motivated” can be added, if appropriate. Such crimes are already on the statute books, rendering specific criminal legislation for “terrorism” unnecessary and undesirable.

However, such precise formulations do not carry the overwhelming, demonising and thought-deadening impact of the word “terrorism”, which is, of course, precisely the charm of the word for its more cynical and unprincipled users and abusers. If someone commits “politically motivated mass murder”, people might be curious as to the cause or grievance that inspired such a crime. But no cause or grievance can justify (or even explain) “terrorism”, which all right-thinking people must agree is the ultimate evil.

Most acts to which the word “terrorism” is applied (at least in the West) are tactics of the weak, usually—although not always—against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort. To cite one example, the Palestinians would certainly prefer to be able to fight for their freedom from a 36-year-long occupation by “respectable” means, using F16s, Apache attack helicopters and laser-guided missiles such as those the United States provides to Israel. If the United States provided such weapons to Palestine as well, the problem of suicide bombers would be resolved. Until it does, or at least until the Palestinians can see some hope for a decent future, no one should be surprised or shocked that Palestinians use the “delivery systems” available to them—their own bodies. Genuine hope for something better than a life worse than death is the only cure for the despair that inspires such gruesome violence.

Want to end terrorism? Then take the tanks off the streets, and give oppressed people something more than martyrdom to hope for.

Want to end terrorism? Then take the tanks off the streets, and give oppressed people something more than martyrdom to hope for.

The poor, the weak and the oppressed rarely complain about “terrorism”. The rich, the strong and the oppressors constantly do. While most of mankind has more reason to fear the high- technology violence of the strong than the low-technology violence of the weak, the fundamental mind-trick employed by the abusers of the epithet “terrorism” is essentially this: The low-technology violence of the weak is such an abomination that there are no limits on the high-technology violence of the strong which can be deployed against it.

Not surprisingly, since 11 September 2001, virtually every recognised state confronting an insurgency or separatist movement has eagerly jumped on the “war on terrorism” bandwagon, branding its domestic opponents (if it had not already done so) “terrorists” and, at least implicitly, taking the position that, since no one dares to criticise the United States for doing whatever it deems necessary in its “war on terrorism”, no one should criticise whatever they now do to suppress their own “terrorists”. Even while accepting that many people labelled “terrorists” are genuinely reprehensible, it should be recognised that neither respect for human rights nor the human condition is likely to be enhanced by this apparent carte blanche seized by the strong to crush the weak as they see fit.

Perhaps the only honest and globally workable definition of “terrorism” is an explicitly subjective one—“violence that I don’t support”. Anyone who reads both the Western and Arab press cannot help noticing that the Western press routinely characterises as “terrorism” virtually all Palestinian violence against Israelis—even against Israeli occupation forces within Palestine—while the Arab press routinely characterises as “terrorism” virtually all Israeli violence against Palestinians. Only such a formulation would accommodate both characterisations, as well as most others.

If everyone recognised that the word “terrorism” is fundamentally an epithet and a term of abuse, with no intrinsic meaning, there would be no more reason to worry about the word now than prior to 11 September. However, with the United States relying on the word to assert, apparently, an absolute right to attack any country it dislikes, many people around the world understandably feel a genuine sense of terror (dictionary definition: “a state of intense fear") as to where the United States is taking us.

Meanwhile, in America itself, the Bush administration has for the past two years been feeding the US Constitution and America’s traditions of civil liberties, due process and the rule of law (the finest aspects of American life and the principal reasons why the country used to be respected abroad out of admiration and not simply out of fear) into a shredder. Who would have imagined that 19 men armed only with knives and box-cutters could accomplish so much, provoking a response, beyond their wildest dreams, which has proven vastly more damaging to their enemies even than their own appalling acts?

Whatever their intended consequences, and whoever was behind them, the attacks on September 11th 2001 are plunging us all into a fascist future.

Whatever their intended consequences, and whoever was behind them, the attacks on September 11th 2001 are plunging us all into a fascist future.

Some sense of proportion, and some reflection on the real dimensions of “terrorism”—and even of 11 September—is in order. It was not inevitable that the events of that day, awful though they were, would “change the world forever”. In an average three-day period, more Americans die from smoking than were killed in the 11 September attacks. That is a serious problem. In an average month, more Americans die from gunshots inflicted by their fellow Americans than were killed in the 11 September attacks. That is a serious problem. AIDS is a serious problem. Global warming is a serious problem. Even if an attack of 11 September dimensions occurred every few months, “terrorism” would still be a lesser problem than these and many other problems facing America and the world.

If the world is to avoid a descent into anarchy, in which the only rule is “might makes right”, every “retaliation” provokes a “counter-retaliation” and a genuine “war of civilisations” is ignited, the world—and particularly the United States—must recognise that “terrorism” is simply a word, a subjective epithet, not an objective reality and certainly not an excuse to suspend all the rules of international law and domestic civil liberties which have, until now, made at least some parts of our planet decent places to live.

The world—and particularly the United States—must also recognise that in a world filled with injustice violent outbursts by those hoping desperately for a better life, or simply seeking to strike a blow against injustice or their tormentors before they die, can never be eradicated. At best the frequency and gravity of such outbursts can be diminished by seeking to alleviate (rather than continuing to aggravate) the injustices and humiliations that give rise to them. A single-minded focus on increased military, “security” and “counter-terrorism” programmes and spending will almost certainly continue to prove counter-productive to its declared objective, diminishing both security and the quality of life for all mankind. Perfect security is, and will always be, an illusion, and “victory” in a “war on terrorism” is no more likely than in a “war on poverty”, a “war on crime” or a “war on drugs”.

It is long overdue, but not too late, for the American people to liberate themselves from the aggressive and self-destructive paranoia inflicted on them by unscrupulous abusers of an undefinable word. Perhaps John Kerry will have the courage and genuine patriotism to question the wisdom of continuing to wage a perpetual “war” against a subjective epithet and, by doing so, to set us free, restoring some measure of sanity and more mature and constructive priorities both to American society and to America’s relations with the world.


Published Thursday, February 19th, 2004 - 07:20pm GMT

Article courtesy of Al-Ahram Weekly

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John V Whitbeck



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