Yesterday, I was home recovering from a flu shot gone bad and had the opportunity to watch parts 1 & 2 of Vladimir Putin’s interview with Charlie Rose. I thought Putin scored some good points even though I recognize that he is master politician able to spin a brick.
During the interview, I paused the recording to have a debate with my wife. It was about the definition of a terrorist. Putin referred to what they call DASH and we call ISIL or ISIS as a terrorist organization. I was arguing that they are not really terrorists, but rather non-state actors. My wife argued that they rape the women and kill children. I countered that this behavior has been part of war since time immemorial.
One of the hallmarks of terrorism is asymmetry. Terrorism uses fear of random attacks as a tool for leverage against a bigger foe. Terrorist actions are also always directed at innocent citizens. ISIS has troupes and equipment on the ground and they are pushing opposition forces back in classic military fashion. This is not terrorism. This is war. What happened on 9/11 was terrorism.
To be sure, these distinctions are not black and white. What troubles me is that governments and the media use the term “terrorist” to put our enemies in a special category. Few would argue that terrorist tactics go against the basic principles for an honorable war (if there can be such a thing). While atrocities are almost the rule rather than the exception in war, they generally occur when citizens find themselves in the way of a war between military forces.
Terrorism is a certain type of act. Terrorists are the specific people who perpetrate such an act. Sympathizers to such acts are not terrorists. They are enemies to those who have been attacked, but they are not terrorists. To use the term to gain public favor for military operations is abhorrent. It’s tantamount to trying to evict a neighbor you don’t like by telling other neighbors his is a child molester when all he did was spank his kid for being bad.
It seems to me that one of two things can come of this trend:
- We become desensitized to the term and start thinking of it as another term for enemy
- We start to see all of our enemies as the evil people who perpetrate such acts
I’m sure governments are rooting for #2. Lord knows we don’t want people questioning the motivations of our enemies. We wouldn’t want them thinking there may be grounds for negotiation. After all, we never negotiate with terrorists. Hamas is a case in point. They now run a legitimately elected government, but we’ve forced ourselves to treat them differently because of how they’ve been labeled.
This is not a simple topic with clear-cut answers. As citizens, we need to remain vigilant against rhetoric that is designed to pull our emotional trip wires. Our propensity to fight is almost always triggered by strong emotions and “terrorism” is a new psychological tool to gain the public opinion needed for war. Watch out!