Who’s a Terrorist?

Over the years, America has evolved into the most dominant power in our planet, now much touted as the only super (or more appropriately, hyper) power. Her powerful navy roams around all the seas unhindered and unchallenged. To dominate the oceans and seas of the world, America has more than a dozen naval task forces built around aircraft carriers. She has military bases in all the continents of the world. According to the Defense Department’s annual "Base Structure Report" (2003), which itemized foreign and domestic U.S. military real estate, the Pentagon owned or rented 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and had another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories. The number of foreign bases jumped to 737 in 2005. The worldwide total of U.S. military personnel in 2005, including those based domestically, was 1,840,062 supported by an additional 473,306 Defense Department civil service employees and 203,328 local hires. Its overseas bases, according to the Pentagon, contained 32,327 barracks, hangars, hospitals, and other buildings, which it owns, and 16,527 more that it leased. As of May 2007, about 1,426,705 people are on active duty in the military with an additional 1,458,400 people in the seven reserve forces. One can justifiably assume that those numbers have now simply grown.

From numerous secret bases, and satellites stationed in the sky, the American government can monitor what the people of the world, including its own citizens, are saying, faxing, or e-mailing to one another. American military budget equals the budget of the rest of the world. She has amassed so much nuclear warheads and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that she could obliterate any nation on earth. With all such brute powers to destroy humanity at his finger tips the president of the USA is undoubtedly the most powerful man in our planet.

American leaders are zealous to sustain this enviable status for all times to come. For years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, they spent billions of dollars on weapons program, including the missile defense system, imagining that the threat to national security might come from hostile powerful states like Russia or China. In recent decades, prior to 9/11, national security concern was heavily focused on the possibility that unfriendly states like Iran or North Korea might launch or threaten to launch a missile attack on the USA. Missile defense was thus an idea that gained popularity.

But 9/11 changed all such notions of false security. There is no doubt that 9/11 is a seminal event in American history. It has changed forever the history of power politics. The American public could never imagine that 19 individuals, armed only with box-cutters and a firm determination, could attack America. With all the weapons in their disposal, they had imagined invulnerability unto America. According to Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, never before had so much pain been inflected on so powerful many by so impotent few. Therein lies the dilemma for our world’s only superpower: how to cope with an enemy that is physically weak but endowed with an unfathomed passion?

Before we delve into the subject of America’s prudent response to dealing with terrorism effectively, a short review of terrorism may help.

Terrorism was widespread in Tsarist Russia from the mid-19th century to the beginning of the WWI, many of those crimes perpetrated by Ashkenazi Jews who overwhelmed various nihilist and communist organizations. It involved thousands of violent attacks, including high level assassinations and dynamiting of buildings. Almost 7000 officials and politicians were its victims in Russia, including the Tsar Alexander II (in 1881). The assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, is another example of terrorism that sparked WWI.

Almost all "terrorist" activities originate from a political conflict and have been seeded as well as sustained by it. That applies to the Bolsheviks in Imperial Russia, the IRA in Ireland, the ETA or the Basque separatists in Spain, the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) in Peru, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the FARC in Colombia, the CPP/NPA in the Philippines, the 17N or N17 and Revolutionary Nuclei in Greece, the Red Army Faction in West Germany; the Ghadar Party, and the Azad Hind Fauz (of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose) in British India; the Partai Nasional Indonesia in Dutch-ruled Indonesia, the RSS and the Naxalites in India, the Mau Mau rebels of Kenya, the Mukti Bahini in erstwhile East Pakistan (March –” December, 1971), the African National Congress (of Nelson Mandela) in apartheid South Africa, the Tamil Liberation Tigers in Sri Lanka, the communists in Nepal, the Aum Shinrikyo in Japan, the Chechen rebels in Russia, the PKK in Turkey, the MEK in Iran; the PLF (of Abu Abbas), the PFLP and Abu Nidal Organization in the Occupied Territories of Palestine; the Irgun Zvai Leumi, Stern Gang and Lehi in Palestine (during the British Mandate of Palestine), the Kach and Kahane Chai in Israel, and to all other groups.

As can be seen from the short list above, yesterday’s "terrorist" can be today’s "patriot", and even president and prime minister, something that happened to Zionists like Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir of Israel; Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Sukarno of Indonesia, Sheikh Mujib of Bangladesh, Nelson Mandela and Mbeki of South Africa, and many others. Some of those groups were (and are) engaged in national liberation struggle of their country or people, while some others committed violent crimes against individuals.

In 1941, Yitzhak Shamir was imprisoned by British authorities for his terrorist activities in Palestine. After escaping from the detention camp, he became one of the three leaders of the gang in 1943, reforming it as "Lehi". During his tenure, Lehi was also responsible for the 1944 assassination of Britain’s minister of state for the Middle East, Lord Moyne; an assassination attempt against Harold MacMichael, the High Commissioner of Palestine in the same year, and the 1948 assassination of the United Nations representative in the Middle East, Count Folke Bernadotte who was seen by Shamir and his collaborators as an anti-Zionist and "an obvious agent of the British enemy". Lehi also played a major role in the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre of some 254 unarmed Palestinians.

And yet, Shamir argued that Lehi never engaged in terrorism: "There are those who say that to kill Martin (a British sergeant) is terrorism, but to attack an army camp is guerrilla warfare and to bomb civilians is professional warfare. But I think it is the same from the moral point of view. Is it better to drop an atomic bomb on a city than to kill a handful of persons? I don’t think so. But nobody says that President Truman was a terrorist. All the men we went for individually — Wilkin, Martin, MacMichael and others — were personally interested in succeeding in the fight against us. So it was more efficient and more moral to go for selected targets. In any case, it was the only way we could operate, because we were so small. For us it was not a question of the professional honor of a soldier, it was the question of an idea, an aim that had to be achieved. We were aiming at a political goal. There are many examples of what we did to be found in the Bible — Gideon and Sampson, for instance. This had an influence on our thinking. And we also learned from the history of other peoples who fought for their freedom –” the Russian and Irish revolutionaries, Garibaldi and Tito."

Shamir’s argument is quite revealing in that he, like most "terrorists" of our time, did not consider those heinous acts as anything but revolutionary. It is here that the definition of terrorism gets blurred. Truly, in spite of all the clamor and excitement around terrorism for the last several decades the international community has never managed to satisfactorily define the term. It thus remains an abstract concept. Someone’s patriotism can be someone else’s terrorism and vice-versa.

Professor Igor Primoratz of the University of Melbourne says that many scholars have been reluctant to assign the word "terrorism" to activities that could be construed as "legitimate state aims". Primoratz himself defines terrorism as "the deliberate use of violence, or threat of its use, against innocent people…", and writes that his definition can be applied to both state and non-state activities. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law and Practice at Princeton, has a similar opinion and says that terrorism "should apply to violence deliberately targeting civilians, whether committed by state actors or their non-state enemies." Historian Howard Zinn writes: "If ‘terrorism’ has a useful meaning (and I believe it does, because it marks off an act as intolerable, since it involves the indiscriminate use of violence against human beings for some political purpose), then it applies exactly to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki."