Fighting Words


Notes toward a definition.

If any of the terms in our new lexicon has undergone a process of diminishing returns, it is the word “terrorism.” This is partly because it is carried over from an earlier lexicon. It is also partly because even that previous lexicon was experiencing a little fatigue, in consequence of the word’s ambiguity and hypocrisy. The president himself, declaring us at war with this word, seemed unconsciously to try and hurry us past it, by slurring and condensing it into “terrism” or (it seems on some days) “tourism.”

But we need a more exhaustive and exclusive and discriminating definition of it, or recognition of it. The clue may lie in turning the lexicographical pages even further back. In the 1970s, Claude Chabrol produced a brilliant film called Nada. It precisely captured both the pointless nastiness and the sinister grandiosity of some of the movements of violence that disfigured that decade. The Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Red Army Faction in Japan—all gave themselves permission to kill, but without any announced goal or objective beyond more of the same. There were other groups in the same epoch, such as the Basque ETA or the Palestinian “Black September,” which used unscrupulous and hateful tactics but whose aims could be understood. Chabrol’s title, however, recalled an earlier usage for promiscuous cruelty—nihilism. Terrorism, then, is the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint.

I may as well get the obvious out of the way. In London and Belfast during the same period, I was more than once within blast or shot-range of the IRA and came to understand that the word “indiscriminate” meant that I was as likely to be killed as any other bystander. I also remember seeing a car bomb explode outside the High Court in London, and I remember a friend of mine being taken hostage by Provisional IRA gangsters. However, at no point in this period did I fail to remind myself that the British policy in Ireland was stupid and doomed and—much more important—open to change.

The same held, in different degrees, for Zimbabwe and for the Palestinians. It’s glib and evasive to say that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” because the “freedom fighters” are usually quite willing to kill their “own” civilians as well. But then, so are states. In an excellent recent essay in Newsweek, the conservative Fareed Zakaria points out that as between Russia and Chechnya, there is simply no comparison in the scope and scale and intensity of civilian-casualty infliction. Yeltsin and Putin win the filthy prize every time. I hate and despise Hezbollah and Palestinian suicide-murderers, as they ought to be called, but they’d have to work day and night for years to equal the total of civilians killed in Lebanon alone, or by Sharon alone. Lebanese and Palestinian irregulars are, by the way, entitled by international law to resist foreign occupation that has been internationally condemned. Fact. So when Sharon says—as he did on his visit to Ground Zero—that “there is no good terrorism and bad terrorism,” he suggests a tautology that operates at his own expense. All parties to all wars will at some time employ terrorizing methods. But then everybody except a pacifist would be a potential supporter of terrorism. And if everything is terror, then nothing is—which would mean we had lost an important word of condemnation. 

This doesn’t mean that we are stuck with some dismal moral equivalence. The IRA or the Al Aqsa Brigades can be reminded, as can states and governments, that some actions or courses of action (bombs detonated without warning in civilian areas; kidnapping; rape) are crimes under every known law. And the evidence is that such awareness, along with some of its moral implications, does become available to them. (The same thought can also be instilled by other less pedagogic means.) Then of course, you should try and imagine Nelson Mandela or Salvador Allende—leaders of peoples who really did have a beef with the “empire”—ordering their supporters to crash civilian planes into civilian buildings. Excuse me if I say no more, though Mandela was in fact on a Defense Department “terrorism” list as late as the early-1980s.

Now put the case of al-Qaida. Its supporters do not live under a foreign occupation, even if you count the apparently useless and now embarrassing American bases in Saudi Arabia. It is partly a corrupt multinational corporation, partly a crime family, partly a surrogate for the Saudi oligarchy and the Pakistani secret police, partly a sectarian religious cult, and partly a fascist organization. Its most recent taped proclamation, whether uttered by its leader or not, denounces Australia and celebrates the murder of Australians—for the crime of assisting East Timorese independence from “Muslim” Indonesia! But this doesn’t begin to make the case against Bin Ladenism. What does it demand from non-Muslim societies? It demands that they acknowledge their loathsome blasphemy and realize their own fitness for destruction. What does it demand for Muslim societies? It demands that they adopt 17th-century norms of clerical absolutism. How does it demand this? By a program of indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population of both. (Yes, both: The Afghan population was reduced by as many Hazara Shiites as the Taliban could manage to kill.) This is to demand the impossible, and to demand it by means of the most ruthless and disgusting tactics.

Enfolded in any definition of “terrorism,” it seems to me, there should be a clear finding of fundamental irrationality. Al-Qaida meets and exceeds all of these criteria, to a degree that leaves previous nihilist groups way behind. Its means, its ends, and its ideology all consist of the application of fanatical violence and violent fanaticism, and of no other things. It’s “terrorist,” all right.

What this means in practice is the corollary impossibility of any compromise with it. It’s quite feasible to imagine Hezbollah or Hamas leaders at a conference table, and one has seen many previously “intransigent” forces of undemocratic violence, including the Nicaraguan Contras and the Salvadoran death-squads and the Irgun, make precisely that transition. Even Saddam Hussein, who is certainly irrational but was not always completely so, could perhaps, and certainly until recently, have decided to save his life and his regime. But some definitions cannot be stretched beyond a certain point, and the death wish of the theocratic totalitarians, for themselves and others, is too impressive to overlook. One has to say sternly: If you wish martyrdom, we are here to help—within reason.