What terrorism is and is not 0

What is terrorism?

First, what it is not. It is not a movement. It is not in itself an ideology.

Terrorism is a method. It can be defined as: The use of violence to create public fear.

It can be used for various ends. The mafia uses it for commercial ends. The Papal and Spanish Inquisitions used it for religious ends. Most often and most urgently it has long been and continues to be used for political ends. It is as old as mankind and is unlikely to fall into disuse while there is human life on earth.

Generally speaking one can class an act of violence as terroristic by asking the question; Does it make most people feel safer or less safe? A terrorist act is designed to make the public feel unsafe: “It could happen to any of us” and “If they get their way we’ll be worse off” versus “If that blow sets us free from fear it was a blow well struck”. So Hamas bombs lobbed into Israel are terroristic, while Israel targeting Hamas leaders holds out the chance of liberation from the true oppressors of Gaza as well as warning them off. Israel kills civilians only by accident, not design. Knowing that Israel does not want to kill civilians, Hamas uses women, children, and hospital patients as human shields.

In the case of tyrannicide, it is not terroristic to kill the tyrant, but if you deliberately kill his wife, kid, or aunt it is an act of terrorism.

Question: If terrorism is a method – therefore allowing one to deny that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter – and terrorism is bad, how do we avoid condemning Horoshima, Dresden, Napalm in Vietnam?

Answer: Britain and the US were not the aggressors in WW2 nor in Vietnam. Nuclear bombs and napalm were not used to terrify but to win. If you are hit with ruthless attack, hit back hard, really hard, no punches pulled, fight to win. War is terrifying, but it is not terrorism. Acts of terrorism are sometimes carried out within war as a different sort of thing, as when Nazis shot all the men of a French village they were occupying in retaliation for one of them being killed by an unknown villager. That was to terrify the whole population, not leaders or military forces, into compliance.

Churchill said, “They wanted total war, they’ll get total war.” Dresden was beautiful, but it was also a place where industry was feeding the German war machine. (There were more than 100 factories there; arms plants, including aircraft components factories, a poison gas factory, and an anti-aircraft and field gun factory; and barracks and munitions stores.)

Napalm was to clear forests so that the hidden enemy could be revealed.

The Hiroshima bomb did end the war.

Question: But strictly logically speaking, Dresden was meant to terrify – that was the proximate aim. And the IRA could say they wanted to win. Is it possible to separate acts of terrorism within a war from terrifying acts of war without reference to whether the cause is good or bad?

Answer: Churchill bombed Dresden to destroy the military targets, hoping also to convince the Nazi leadership that Germany would be bombed flat if they did not soon capitulate. Terror was meant to play its part. Terror is always present in war, but neither side relies exclusively on terror to win it. Yes, the IRA [Irish Republican Army] wanted to win, exclusively by the method of terrorism. If they had won, Northern Ireland would have been less free under their (Communist as much as nationalist) rule than it was as a British province. Terrorists use the morality of their target society against itself. The West hates the deliberate and random murder and maiming of its citizens: the terrorists do not care. Nazism and Communism are terroristic by their very nature. What makes a cause right or wrong is whether its supporters have moral scruples. The allies in WW2 wanted to restore a society that had moral scruples. To do so they had to fight a defensive war – with its inevitable terrorizing – against terroristic powers: Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and their ally Japan (which was not terroristic at home but was very much so toward its prisoners of war and in its conquered territories.)

There are rare times when it is hard or even impossible to say whether an act of violence is terroristic or not – eg blowing up a train carrying arms to an evil power when the train is also carrying civilians. One can only look to the ends in such cases – so yes, the good or bad of the ends counts. Collectivists, not individualists, believe that the end justifies the means. But as with the unwanted killings of civilians in Gaza, the end sometimes is achieved by means that do harm to the innocent.

All collectivism, whether of the egalitarian kind like Communism, or the inegalitarian kind like Nazism and Islam, is intrinsically terroristic. The control of many by the few is terroristic. As big government is the master of the citizens rather than their servant, it is terroristic by nature even if it is restrained in its use of violent force. Only a system which guards individual freedom does not threaten the innocent but protects them from threat. Under what circumstances could you imagine a free society using terrorism? None, if it is to remain a free society. If it has to go to war against another power that threatens its freedom – then yes, it too will terrorize, it too might regrettably find it has killed civilians. But that is not what it aims for, and not what characterizes it.

Terrorism is often called “the warfare of the weak”. It has been allowed to succeed. The Western world is now terrified of offending Muslims because they do not scruple to use random murderous violence in pursuit of their political, religious, ideological ends. They do so within free societies. It is urgently necessary for political leaders to find effective ways of dealing with this evil.

Jillian Becker, July 5, 2010

Jillian Becker was Director of the Institute for the Study of Terrorism, London, 1985-1990.