| Sometimes legitimate
If obscenity baffles those who try to define it, much the same and even more can be said about terrorism. Obscenity lurks in the grey area of the law, and remains difficult to pin down in the ambiguities of moral judgment. Yet this elusiveness does not threaten to destabilize the world which a rampant, undefined terrorism threatens to do. That is the difference which the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, seemed to overlook when, at the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting, he brushed aside the need for a definition and called for an accelerated campaign against terrorism. The Philippines president endorsed this view by claiming, as many others have done, that “when we see it we recognize it”. But can such a recognition be so easily achieved'
According to the Washington Post, terrorism, which supports “the sometimes legitimate political cause”, is justified. This, at the least, has the merit of not seeing violence as violence but as linked to a purpose or mission. But how is one to judge a cause as legitimate or illegitimate' Obviously, its legitimacy fluctuates widely according to the context in which it is assessed and the convenience of the assessor.
Before Israel was formed, the Jewish terrorists were recognized as terrorists but after the event they were acclaimed as founders of the new state. This process of before and after has elevated Nelson Mandela from being labelled a terrorist to the status of a highly respected nationalist leader. As Israel sees it, anyone opposing the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is ipso facto a terrorist and a similarity can be found in the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Terrorism has been a factor in the formation of nation states including Cyprus, Yemen and the Republic of Ireland. Can it be said that a political or ideological cause becomes respectable if and when the terrorists who push it are finally successful' When the CIA financed and armed the taliban, it wasn’t terrorist. Today an adjustment of political convenience has rendered it terrorist. Is there a way out of this dilemma'
Perhaps it will be helpful to see terrorism in its double role as an act of violence and as the outward manifestation of the cause that inspires it. There are those who, like George W. Bush and company, concentrate on the first and refuse to accept the second as equally important. And there are others who, obsessed with the causes of terrorism, downplay the need to cope with it at the physical level. Both these groups are guilty of a form of intellectual unilateralism which will get them nowhere. For what is implied by the phrase “fighting terrorism” is countering terrorism at the physical level and understanding it at the other levels of politics and psychology. Another way of putting it is to say that terrorism must be fought and solved.
One part of the solution — this must be unhappily acknowledged — is that force must be countered with force. But the other part, namely causation, is one which the American psyche, not just Bush’s, has persistently rejected. As far back as 1985, a foreign minister asked the then secretary of state of the United States of America to consider the causes of Palestinian terrorism. His reaction was quite what Bush’s would have been. He bellowed indignantly that “there is no connection with any cause”. Elaborating, he added, “we know the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters”. That at least distinguishes one from the other, which is more than what Bush is prepared to do. And nowhere is this made more evident than in his use of the word “terror”. We are repeatedly called on to fight “terror”, not terrorists or terrorism.
To recognize “causation” is to acknowledge that terrorism is perpetrated by human beings, impelled to do what they do by motivation. “Terror” in Bushlanguage is an abstraction which dehumanizes the terrorists, reduces them to ciphers, not worthy enough to be understood and asking only to be wiped out. But, of course, they will not be wiped out. Global disaffection is vast and growing, technologically well-equipped and with no problem of further and endless recruitment. It isn’t easy to regard terrorists who commit atrocities and kill women and children as having any claim to being human. Yet they cannot repudiate their humanity and no one has the right to deprive them of it.
A failure to accept this has enabled the Bushists to propagate their version of fighting terrorism as the authorized one, uncritically accepted by the majority in the world community. Denied causation, terrorism becomes a matter of force and counter-force, a cycle of violence which is self-perpetuating, feeding on each other and never arriving at a solution. Which is why Bush tells us that he will stick it out and is not intimidated. Dogged, mindless determination is seen as the answer, with neither the time nor the capacity to bother about analysing, understanding, and defining the terrorist problem. This has a fallout on two fronts.
On one we have an enemy who is nameless, undefined, un-understood, misunderstood, unlocated, shadowy, seemingly multiheaded, and unscheduled in its attacks and appearances. On the other we have a growing awareness of the reality of state terrorism. A suicide bomber is a terrorist. But if he wears a uniform and, in targeting the terrorists, kills innocent civilians on behalf of the state, he is an agent of law and order. This fable has worn thin to the point where no one can take it seriously. Yet it is the basis on which Bush world-wide and Ariel Sharon in west Asia carry on sponsoring violence.
Terrorism is further fuelled by exploiting it in various ways. “Terror” is an umbrella word which can be affixed to anyone as politically convenient at any given moment. However abhorrent some aspects of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq was not, as it is now, a hotbed of terrorists as a direct consequence of the US attack and occupation. Hence we have the technique of deliberately or innocently provoking terrorism and using this as justification for intervention, giving birth to the doctrine of pre-emption. Then there is the device of exporting terrorism across a border and in this way instigating, funding and organizing an insurrection in a neighbouring state. So, for those who ostensibly oppose terrorism, it has become an arm of militant diplomacy as practised in the 21st century.
One of the staggering achievements of the Bush administration is the way in which it kept critical questioning of its policies at bay by “sexing up” the terror theme and inventing imminent dangers that never existed. Ironically, these dangers have, in fact, become all the more real by inventing them in the first place. So we are saddled with a terror spectre that is not interested in conquering, in promoting a creed, in pushing a state interest, in recreating imperialism, in acquiring territory, and in propagating an ideology. It is a new and unprecedented kind of enemy that demands a quality of sophisticated intelligence well above the level of “intelligence” talked about in the context of 9/11.
Instead we have had Donald Rumsfeld’s muddled thinking as reflected in his muddled words: “The truth is look — if something is going to happen — there has to be something — for it to happen with — that’s interested in having it happen.” Undeniably there has to be “something” and the only way to find it is to give some thought to “causation” while necessarily firing missiles, dropping bombs, conducting assassinations and unnecessarily imposing a particular brand of democracy.
As the prime minister has said, do not negotiate with terrorists, if only because this phantom enemy is not interested in negotiation. Nor is it on the cards, as the Americans believe, that the problem can be resolved by doling out handfuls of money. They did so in Afghanistan only to find that in the anti-terrorist campaign, while people can be bribed, their loyalty can’t be bought. Twenty-five million dollars have been on the table for some time for information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, but to no avail.
So has Bush been overtaken by second thoughts' The Pentagon’s responsibility for Iraqi reconstruction has reportedly been eroded or taken away in favour of a new agency under Condoleeza Rice. Many will think that this is a makeshift adjustment that has come too late in the day and, in any case, has been negated by an American general who declared that god remains on America’s side — a sentiment which has very much a Bushist ring.