August 15, 1997
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Isn't "terrorist" a relative term? What sort of values do terrorists teach their children? How much popular support exists for terrorists in their homelands? What's the difference between American and Middle Eastern terrorism? Could anyone be capable of a terrorist act? Viewer comments on Middle Eastern terrorism.
August 1, 1997:
A report on the attempted bombing of a Brooklyn subway.
July 30, 1997:
Clinton reacts to the Jerusalem bombing my militant Islamic group Hamas.
March 13, 1996:
A report on the international summit on terrorism.
March 12, 1996:
A report on terrorism and how to prevent it.
An Online backgrounder on terrorism.
Bob Lane of Nanaimo, British Columbia asks:
The old saying that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter seems to suggest that moral judgments are all relative. That is, how do we distinguish between the acts of, e.g., the 18th century American revolutionaries and the 20th century Middle Eastern revolutionaries? Do we label the terrorist on the basis of intent, action, or result?
Hala Jaber responds:
The literal definition of the word terrorist does not distinguish between intent, action and result. Needless to say it is both culturally and politically relative, making it dffficult to hold an international consensus on the definition. It may be easier to identify certain acts of violence as being "terroristic", but the justifications or explanations of the objective, and how an act's outcome is viewed depends on a number of things including a person's or group's perspective; their political persuasion; the dynamics of international relations.
For example, in the Middle East - a region synonymous with the word "terrorism"— and where virtually every act emanating from the area is seen and described by many as terroristic-- many of today's statesmen evolved from yesterday's "terrorists." Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was one such example. His name, for instance, topped the British authorities' list of wanted terrorists, for committing acts of violence against the British troops in the then state of Palestine. Yasser Arafat, a more recent example is another such former terrorist turned statesman. Arafat, and his PLO Organization were once regarded amongst the world's worst terrorists. No one ever imagined that the international world which had shunned him for years would converge on the lawns of the White House to celebrate the completion of his evolution from terrorist to president. Nelson Mandela, was another such example as are the IRA and the list goes on.
This does not however mean that every so-called terrorist win necessary legitimize himself into leadership, but the point I am making is that certain political environments could make us see people in various ways, and that so long as the above precedents exist there can never be a general consensus on what or who constitutes a terrorist.
We should not forget that even states and governments use terrorism against their citizens or opponents. Saddam Hussein's practices against his Iraqi people is a large example of state terrorism against one's own citizens, whereas Israeli actions and its continuous raids against South Lebanon are another example of state terrorism against another people.
For example the state of Israel claims that it uses air attacks against civilians or infrastructure targets in Lebanon as a means of alienating the people against Hezbollah and to pressure the Lebanese government into halting the group's resistance activities in South Lebanon. In both incidents, Israel's activities are terroristic, even if some can dispute that their motives are not.
Prof. Martha Crenshaw responds:
Terrorism is a method or strategy, no matter who uses it for what reason. It should not be identified with any particular political cause. It usually occurs in civil conflicts, and we associate its use with the weaker side, thus with groups who want to challenge powerful governments. But governments may also use terrorism against their opponents or against their own citizens.
Terrorism typically involves deliberate violence against people who are not prepared to defend themselves and who pose no direct or immediate threat to those who attack them. Terrorist attacks are prepared in secret, the better to catch victims and the governments who would protect them off guard. Surprise is essential to creating the psychological shock that makes terrorism effective. Targets are selected for their symbolic value, not because killing or injuring them will necessarily make any material difference to the outcome of the struggle that has led to violent confrontation. It is the emotional reaction of the public to terrorism that counts, not its military value.
To gain some perspective on the question of moral judgment, let me introduce a comparison. When we make moral judgments about military strategy in warfare, we rely on principles of "just war" that prohibit attacks on noncombatants or the use of methods that are particularly atrocious. In warfare, it can be that the justice of the cause gives an actor greater moral standing, so that possibly we could excuse means that we would otherwise condemn. But we would require that the need to use morally abhorrent methods be desperate and that the user of such methods have no other alternative.
Thus, for example, many people feel that strategic bombing is morally objectionable, but that Britain during World War II was forced to bomb German cities because of the direct and immediate threat to national survival. There was also believed to be a clear military utility to such bombings; they were expected to have a direct effect on the enemy's war effort. But we would make such a judgment carefully on a case by case basis; we would not say that all strategic bombings of enemy civilians are automatically justified if a democracy is fighting a totalitarian dictatorship. We would certainly not say that bombing German cities was justified because it was retaliation in kind. And we would not say that such methods were "right," only that the risk of greater evil made them necessary at that particular moment. Our approval would be reluctant. It would not be a blanket authorization.
Thus no moral claim is so strong that we should not judge the means by which the end is pursued. Weakness, resistance to oppression, even national survival do not automatically justify immoral means. All is not permitted.
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