Wednesday, September 28, 2005

What is terrorism?

A long time pet peeve of mine has been the mischaracterization of terrorism. Terrorism is the use of force to achieve a political agenda by attacking and intimidating civilians.
Pretty much all attacks intended to cause civilian damage are terrorist acts.

Any attack against a military target is likewise not a terrorist attack. Claiming otherwise is to cheapen and blur the antipathy with which everybody should regard terrorism.

An insurgent in Iraq attacks coalition and Iraqi military targets. A terrorist in Iraq attacks civilian targets which have no ostensible military objective.

Analyzing some of our own history, we can discriminate such attacks in ways which the media commonly overlooks:
WTC bombings (1994): terrorism
USS Cole bombing: act of war
Beirut barracks bombing: act of war
Khobar towers bombing: act of war
Various suicide bombings in Israel: terrorism
7/7 UK bombings: terrorism
Madrid train bombings: terrorism
9/11 attacks: terrorism
IED attacks on coalition forces in Iraq: act of war

Some acts can get a little bit murky. For example, the bombing of US embassies in Africa was targetted at African civilians, yet was also targetted against US government/military control structures. Act of war? Yes. Act of terrorism? Yes. Fortunately, most actions are much more easily distinguishable.
In some cases, there also appears to be confusion between what is a terrorist act, what is an act of war, and what is a war crime.

Insurgents in Iraq who fire at US soldiers from crowds of civilians are not employing terrorism. These insurgents are using particular guerilla tactics which are expressly forbidden as war crimes. Is it a war crime for the enemy to blend in with a crowd of civilians? No. But if they launch attacks from a vantage point at which a retaliatory strike must compromise civilians, that is a war crime.

For the most part, these issues have clear tests by which their legitimacy or lack thereof can be established. The media in the US needs to do a better job of educating people and classifying attacks both by and against the US more accurately.

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