Thursday, September 09, 2004

The meaning of terrorism (Normblog)

In case anyone is interested ... this item from the weblog of Norman Geras (Normblog) is a slightly revised version of a message I sent around yesterday.

I've also inserted a post by Jonathan Derbyshire, referring people to the Normblog piece, because it zeroes in on some points that I think are important to emphasize before one gets into the more analytical and political issues. (I take no responsibility for his excessively generous characterization of my reflections.)

Cheers,
Jeff Weintraub

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http://jonathanderbyshire.typepad.com/blog/2004/09/the_meaning_of_.html
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From the weblog of Jonathan Derbyshire
September 9, 2004

The meaning of terrorism

Jeff Weintraub has a superb piece on the meaning of terrorism up at Normblog. Here's his conclusion:

None of [the] criticism of the Beslan atrocity, and of the kind of terrorism it exemplifies, in any way justifies or excuses the fact that Russia has been fighting an incredibly brutal, destructive, and often appalling war in Chechnya, marked by extensive atrocities (on both sides!), massive civilian deaths, and pervasive violations of the laws of war, including murder, rape and kidnapping of civilians by Russian troops and security services. However, the opposite is also true. Nothing about the Russian war in Chechnya in any way justifies or excuses this kind of terrorist massacre, which ought to be unreservedly condemned whatever one thinks about the Chechen war.

But read the whole thing.

Posted by Jonathan Derbyshire on September 09, 2004 at 12:41 PM | Permalink

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http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2004/09/the_meaning_of_.html
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From the weblog of Norman Geras (Normblog)
September 09, 2004

The meaning of terrorism (by Jeff Weintraub)

'Terrorism' is a difficult term to pin down, not only because of the conceptual and ideological complexities involved, but also because it has gone through a range of different, sometimes overlapping, historically significant meanings. In the current era, one central meaning of the word (though not the only one) is the indiscriminate and deliberately conspicuous murder of ordinary civilians for political purposes.

This distinguishes it, for example, from the deliberate killing of armed combatants in warfare; the accidental killing of civilians in the course of conflicts; and the targeted assassination of combatants, military and/or political leaders, government officials, etc. All these raise their own ethical and political issues, and the last is also a form of terrorism, but all of them differ from the indiscriminate murder of civilians in that they make some attempt to discriminate between legitimate and prohibited targets. This strikes me as a qualitative difference.

Although the conceptual grounds are a little more hazy, I would also distinguish terrorism from some other forms of mass murder of civilians, ranging from small-scale local massacres to genocide. While these kinds of mass murder often do aim for a terrorizing effect, other purposes predominate, and the social and political dynamics of such atrocities are often different in practice from terrorism - for example, whereas terrorism makes no sense unless it is conspicuous, and in fact publicity is often one of its central aims, genocidal or quasi-genocidal campaigns of ethnically-targeted mass murder are often concealed or denied, as in the cases of the Nazi Holocaust or the current Darfur atrocity. At all events, genocidal mass murder seems to me to be a distinctive kind of crime, on a level different from terrorism. But I'm still thinking through these issues, since the conceptual and socio-historical ambiguities aren't easy to resolve completely.

One of the unfortunate developments of the last several decades has been a tendency for terrorism in the sense I've indicated above (that is, attacks aimed at the indiscriminate and conspicuous murder of ordinary civilians) to be increasingly accepted as a legitimate mode of political conflict - or, at least, as something which should be 'excused', 'explained', and/or justified rather than condemned. This acceptance (or even approval) of terrorist attacks on civilians helps make the tactic more useful and effective, while reducing its political costs, which contributes towards a self-reinforcing process. I think it's increasingly clear that the long-term effects have been pernicious, not least because they involve a dangerous erosion of some crucial moral boundaries.

It is therefore heartening to read that the spectacle of the terrorist atrocity in Beslan, with its televised images of kidnapped and murdered children, has provoked widespread dismay and revulsion in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and even some soul-searching about the moral and political costs of tolerating or glorifying the terrorist murder of civilians. This response is obviously not universal, and it may be transitory, but it is certainly welcome.

Without wanting to discount that, I feel compelled to mention a few flies in the ointment. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, there have been periodic condemnations of terrorism in general terms by (some) Muslim clerics, political leaders, and other spokesmen. But I notice that many journalistic accounts either miss or gloss over the troubling fact that even those spokesmen who condemn terrorism or attacks on civilians (especially children) in the abstract often make an exception, implicit or explicit, when it comes to the murder of Israeli or Jewish civilians (including children); this is not 'terrorism', but rather 'martyrdom' or 'resistance'. As far as I can tell from the latest news reports, that generally continues to be true after the Beslan massacre. In many cases, the exception is indicated by omission, but not always. And there are also examples of the characteristic mixture of denial and demonization:

Ali Abdullah, an Islamic scholar in Bahrain who follows the ultra-conservative Salafi stream of Islam, also condemned the school attack as 'unIslamic'. However, he insisted Muslims were not involved and revived an old conspiracy theory: 'I have no doubt that this is the work of the Israelis, who want to tarnish the image of Muslims.'
Yet there are also signs that the Beslan atrocity has produced a genuine shock, and with luck it may help to propel a deeper and more thoroughgoing reconsideration. Let's hope so.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I want to emphasize some further points as clearly and forcefully as I can. None of this criticism of the Beslan atrocity, and of the kind of terrorism it exemplifies, in any way justifies or excuses the fact that Russia has been fighting an incredibly brutal, destructive, and often appalling war in Chechnya, marked by extensive atrocities (on both sides!), massive civilian deaths, and pervasive violations of the laws of war, including murder, rape and kidnapping of civilians by Russian troops and security services. However, the opposite is also true. Nothing about the Russian war in Chechnya in any way justifies or excuses this kind of terrorist massacre, which ought to be unreservedly condemned whatever one thinks about the Chechen war. (Jeff Weintraub)

Posted by Norm at 11:56 AM | Permalink

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