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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Why we need to understand the word ‘terrorism’?

Terrorism did not begin on 11 September 2001, but that terrible day did change the world. The attacks on the United States that claimed the lives of nearly three thousand innocent people showed us that terrorism had morphed into a global phenomenon that could cause massive pain and destruction anywhere. The magnitude of the attacks meant that no one could stand on the sidelines anymore.

The word “terrorism” as it is generally used in the common political vocabulary, does not necessitate an explanation to understand the character of an event that it precisely tries to feature. Since the late 20th century, as the usage has become pervasive inter continentally, the semantics of terrorism has often been questioned. When there was an attack on the American Centre Library in Calcutta, which resulted in the death of five Indian policemen, the New Delhi government called it an act of “terrorism”, rather than “cross border terrorism.”

But the Americans refused to accept it and said it was revenge killing. Perhaps the person who planned the attack did so in order to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of Indian police in Gujarat in a fake encounter. Again, when an Egyptian immigrant killed two people at the El Al office of Los Angeles, the Israelis dubbed it “terrorism” but the Americans did not consider such isolated individual killing as acts of terrorism. Since the killers in both incidents were Muslim by faith it was also facilely categorized as “Islamic terrorism”. But in neither case was the faith of the killers was responsible either by way of providing a justification for such acts or a source of inspiration.

Read more: The dilemma of terrorism that is still haunting India

There are also other layers to the word

Mr. Vaiko had recently declared his support for the LTTE and the state government hauled him up. Does such an announcement amount to terrorism even when there is no obvious link between Vaiko and the LTTE? It is interesting to note that the Central Government did not consider the Tamil Nadu government as culpable under the Tamil leader’s act as culpable under POTA, the Defense Minister George Fernandes even went to see Vaiko in prison. So, what do the various governments within the country mean by terrorism?

Even the legal luminaries of the day fail to demystify the concept. Attorney General of India Soli Jahangir Sorabjee and JS Verma (Chairman, National Human Rights Commission), was rushed to New York to forestall the UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson from condemning the violence of human rights in post-Godhra Gujarat. But, was not the carnage in Gujarat “terrorism”? Sorabjee recently testified to the UN Subcommittee on human rights in Geneva that, indiscriminate killings of innocent citizens cannot be justified under the “spurious label of a freedom struggle or the slogan of self-determination.” Such acts naturally go under the name of terrorism. The bloody attack in Kaluchak and the shooting of Jammu students are acts of terrorism, he said.

Then what about the violence in East Timor in recent years? The Indonesian army played havoc with the civilians there, but the Timorians also were guilty of brutal violence. The Christians there as well as in other res of Indonesia like in Aceh province have killed innocent people in Timor and yet the international community agreed that the aspiration and struggle of the people of East Timor were just and justifiable.

Sorabjee also went on to say that the end does not justify the means and that this rule applies not just to the terrorists but also to the governments pursuing their legitimate end of combating terrorism. He gave the instance of the treatment of captured terrorists and their trial in-camera by military governments. Sorabjee could also have talked of the treatment of captured terrorists by democratic governments.

Read more: The dynamics of subcontinental terrorism before and after Taliban takeover

Terrorism cannot be taken to mean as one man’s freedom struggle

But then what about those terrorists who are simply killed even when there is a fair chance of capturing them alive? That could also help in the investigation process. So. the term terrorism defies a definition that can cover all the manifestations of terrorism. On August 3, 2002, President George W Bush said, “W owe it to the future of   civilization not to allow world’s worst leaders to develop and deploy—and therefore blackmail—the freedom loving countries of the world with world’s worst weapons.”

Thus, Saddam Hussein became a terrorist. The words of the 43rd American President and the early years of the (Vice) President of his father, the 41st (Senior Bush) did not mind what Saddam had done to the Kurds. That Saddam openly used biological weapons and lethal gas against the Kurds did not concern the Americans so much as the invasion of Kuwait became the former did not jeopardize American interest in West Asia as the latter did.

American strategic interests in oil and Israel were threatened by the Iraqi invasion. Factually, the heinous attack on the Kurds was as terrifying as any other act of terrorism. So, the leading nation of the world in its war on terrorism is selective in applying the term. There is no denying that Bush might change his rhetoric on terrorism when there is dissent within the nation—already the former Vice President Al Gore has criticized Bush for reducing a surplus economy into a state of massive deficit which the President has blamed on the cost of war on terrorism.

So, the term terrorism defies a definition that can cover all the manifestations of terrorism. On August 3, 2002, President George W Bush said, “We owe it to the civilization not allow world’s worst leaders to develop and deploy—and therefore blackmail the freedom-loving countries of the world’s worst weapon. The words of the 43 President (Senior Bush) did not mind what Saddam had done to the Kurds. That Saddam Hussein openly used biological weapons and lethal gas against the Kurds did not concern the Americans so much as the invasion of Kuwait because the former did not jeopardize American interest.

Read more: Pakistan and its war against terrorism

One word, many meanings 

What guarantee is there that the meaning of terrorism will not change if the political situation of a nation becomes unstable? Will the meaning of terrorism, revert to its derivation from the French phrase that had come into use in the French regime de la terreur? The English word is derived from this French phrase that had come into use in France in the aftermath of the uprising of 1789. It refers to the system of government or regime delaterreur that strove to establish order in that transient anarchical period of great upheaval. In this sense, the word “terror” becomes a means of governance and hence a positive aspect of a government.

But then, that will help many other nations of the world including those in the Caribbean and South America to justify their regimes. Some of them, including Grenada and Panama, which the US invaded, also had revolutionary or transient anarchical periods. Bush’s axis of evil has Iraq, Iran, North Korea, etc, among which the revolutionary past of turmoil and anarchy is shredded by many. Will the US accept their positivistic use of terror? Is the geopolitical system so simple that the world will be reformed on the diktat of President Bush, “you are with us or against us”?

Can collateral damage and unintended targets be called terrorism? The Americans have been found guilty of the former and the Israelis of the latter. The collateral damage in the village of Deb Baswad in Afghanistan slaying of the villagers (the unofficial death tolls are at 150 attending a marriage party; the bride and the bridegroom too were killed. It has to be kept in mind that, in order to dislodge Saddam the Americans will flex their military muscle like never before—they had already started justifying what they have not even committed. (In the name of UN sanctions, they have so far been responsible for the deaths of some five million Iraqi children.)

Read more: Recognizing Pakistan’s effort in countering terrorism

The Israelis Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quite jubilant when he announced that they had killed the Hamas leader Salah Shehadde. However, the midnight attack in Gaza was far gorier and full of terror. The US supplied F-16 fighter fired a missile into a residential building 13 others, including nine children while wounding around 140. The images of Palestinian rescue workers lifting the dead body of a two-month-old baby from the rubble created such a new wave of rage that 100,000 people marched in the funeral of Salah Shehade. The Israelis only knew too well that the Gaza town is the most densely populated area of Palestine.

Was the unintended death of the 13 and injury to 140 any less an act of terrorism than the Palestinian suicide bombers killing Israelis and the kamikaze-style destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on that horrifying morning one year back? And yet, President Bush’s displeasure over the Israeli action in Gaza was not on account of the American weapons used in the attack, rather it had to do with spoiling his chances of an imminent attack on Iraq. Terrorism thus wears too many faces and too many masks.


Mustafa Khan holds a Ph.D. on Mark Twain. He lives in Malegaon Maharashtra, India. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.