Dr Savimbi is a freedom-fighter and Nelson Mandela is a terrorist. Yasser Arafat’s PLO is a terrorist movement; the Shah of Iran is a statesman. Mandela is a statesman, but so is Saddam Hussein. Hizbullah is a terrorist movement, and Iran supports terrorism, but Arafat is a statesman. The Contras are freedom-fighters, yet Syria is on the list of states supporting terrorism. Usama Bin Ladin is a freedom-fighter, but Arafat is a terrorist, again. General Musharraf is a statesman, but Saddam supports terrorist movements. The IRA is a terrorist movement, the Taliban are statesmen, but Bin Ladin is a terrorist. Syria is off the list of terrorist states and Arafat is a statesman (again), but the Taliban are terrorists. Ariel Sharon is a statesman, while Hizbullah is still a terrorist movement. For people who get their news from the mainstream Western media, such as CNN and the BBC, it is difficult to keep track of the continuously shifting and often contradictory images and soundbites used to describe complex political events.
‘Terrorism’ is part of the vocabulary and imagery used by state power to describe resistance to military aggression. For example, although Israel is consistently condemned by the UN for its illegal occupation of Lebanese and Palestinian territories, the Israeli state defines the actions of anyone who resists that occupation as ‘terrorism.’ Regardless of the circumstances the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance are invariably labelled ‘terrorist movements.’ This is partly to dehumanize them, but also to justify the arbitrary use of state power against them.
The Zionists consistently depict as ‘terrorism’ all Palestinian resistance to Israel’s illegal military occupation. To viewers of CNN, the use of the word ‘terrorism’ to describe the bombing of a cafe in an Israeli town may seem accurate, but it gets more difficult to use the word when the targets of attacks are military, and it is even less credible to describe as ‘terrorism’ the Palestinians’ resistance of Israeli tanks and bulldozers rolling over their homes. The Palestinians have an internationally recognized right to resist the Zionist occupation of their land and the destruction of their homes, Israel is practising ‘state terrorism,’ although the news media never say so. Left unqualified in this way, ‘terrorism’ becomes a politically charged term. When the Western media use it to portray the opponents of their proxies and allies, they do the English language an injustice, and an even greater injustice to the cause of resistance.
Media consumers need to think critically about how Israel, with a history of aggression against Palestine, has come to be seen as the main victim of terrorism. Such thinking involves the need to examine the purposes served by these reversals, who gets to define ‘terrorism’, and what is left out of that definition. Terrorism is often a self-serving intellectual construct that is hidden from view by its politicized use. Most recently, its meaning has been hijacked by the United States, which began to use the word sporadically in the 1970s to describe various expressions of ‘Third World’ nationalism, and by Israel. In the so-called information age, power is in words and images. What is happening now is that the aggressors are framing their victims as ‘terrorists.’ But, for the purposes of critical thinking, it is necessary to separate the realities on the ground from the way people talk about them, to avoid contributing to self-propaganda by normalizing definitions and concepts that actually have no agreed meaning.
Because it has no agreed public definition, ‘terrorism’ can be used for a variety of purposes, and the meaning can be changed as needed. Sometimes it means "anything that gets in our way", and at other times it means any resistance to colonization or other forms of invasion. A good example is the image of Yasser Arafat. For years the Americans and Israelis refused to call him anything but a terrorist. After Oslo he became a ‘statesman.’ However, his new title depended on his terrorizing Islamic and leftist activists, which is why the Israelis gave the PLO guns and allowed them to build prisons and bunkers. But that plan did not work, because it is hard to shoot one’s brothers and cousins when one’s real enemies are so obviously the invaders and occupiers: so Arafat was stripped of the robes of a statesman and returned to his previous status of terrorist. However, when Arafat’s services as a policeman were needed again, the media again stopped calling him a terrorist. So what is terrorism really?
Since President Bush declared a "war on terrorism", every two-bit dictator and repressive regime has been wanting to rein in its opposition, while pretending that it is "fighting terrorism". In China, for example, the government now describes nationalists in its centuries-old ethnic and religious conflicts in the north as terrorists allied with Usama Bin Ladin. The Philippine government, which has been struggling for several decades against independence movements in its southern islands, has now joined the "war on terrorism" by bringing US commandos into a region that has been the scene of American imperial intervention since the nineteenth century. Regional geopolitical problems have become linked to a ‘global threat’ of ‘terrorism.’ One could extend the discussion to the "cold war", when any form of "third world" movement for independence that promoted a leftist agenda was ‘terrorism’ according to the Americans, and the Soviet Union was the main ‘sponsor of terrorism.’ In the mean time, American-backed terrorists became "freedom fighters".
In addition to its value in justifying self-serving policies and explaining the aggressive actions of state power, ‘terrorism’ is a necessity in other ways. America has always needed an ‘evil other’ in opposition to its good self. The ‘evil other’ in history has taken many shapes, from despots, pirates and bandits to communists and anarchists. In Western civilization, which is ferociously dichotomous, the necessity has always been felt to define through opposition, and therefore a ‘terrorist’ or some other nefarious character — real or imagined — has actually become mandatory for the maintenance of a Western self-image. This can be traced back to the Crusades, and carried forward through the Enlightenment, the Age of Imperialism, and into the twentieth century. So Muslims are not actually alone in being singled out as terrorists; other peoples at other times have had the same label thrust on them, always for the purpose of serving the interest of the major powers of the time. We can ask why people so readily accept an image of Muslim terrorists, and this has a lot to do with the legacy of the Crusades in the Christian West, and that of several decades of anti-Arab propaganda in America and elsewhere on behalf of Israel.
Aiming for world domination since the fall of communism, America has been trying to bring various stubborn holdouts into its sphere of influence. This is what the World Trade Organization and other big financial entities are trying to do, much as the Marshall Plan did after the second world war. Islam is feared not so much for things like ‘terrorism’ and ‘fundamentalism,’ since the West has always had much more virulent strains of both; what is feared is that Islam has its own way of seeing the world, its own outlook that differs in fundamental ways from the ‘liberal’ western outlook being propagated by America. Nor is Islam alone in this; there are other visions out there, too. So the west is unsure of itself, of its institutions, its military tactics, its self-image, its education, economy and many other things: there is a profound insecurity in the Western world, a fear that the rest of the world is waking up to modernity as a destructive and unsustainable phase of human history, soon to pass away of its own irreconcilable contradictions. This is the real fear in the West, fear of self-destruction and implosion: but it is much easier to try to blame these essentially internal problems on some external enemy. Enter the terrorists, communists, or even aliens — any heinous monster that the West finds to hand or can conjure up.
What is really going on is a form of self-definition by using another as proxy. This habit has a long history. For Machiavelli, the image of ‘oriental despotism’ was necessary to the method of his much-celebrated treatise on politics. The medieval Catholic Church needed images of ‘Muslim depravity’ as a way to define the imagined purity of Christianity. Enlightenment secularists needed negative constructs of Islam in order to discredit religion in general. During the Victorian era, when Europeans were nervous about human sexuality, artists and painters discovered the Turkish ‘harem’ and the ‘seraglio’ as imaginary places of desire and lust that they could portray in paintings. The distance of the ‘other’ allowed a certain acceptance of nudity in those times, as it was not ‘our’ nudity but that of those barbarous and depraved Turks. In this and other ways Islam had real utility to the West, and still has. The list of these usefulnesses is long and interesting, but the theme remains the same: Western civilization constructed its self-image using the opposing mirror of Islam. The Western perception of this mirror was not based on any reality of Islam or of the way Muslims lived it at the time; those things were irrelevant. What mattered was that there was another civilization out there that most people were vaguely aware of but few bothered to find out about, so it could be pressed into the service of many cultural and political ends. Once one begins to examine Western history critically, Islam appears everywhere. Violence plays a central role in this self-definition. The West has an unbelievably violent heritage (one hundred million people killed in the twentieth century alone), yet it cannot come to grips with that legacy, so we see a projection of Western guilt and insecurity about violence onto others, who often turn out to be Muslim ‘terrorists.’
Some people have offered definitions of terrorism that are less contradictory and hypocritical. One such definition is that terrorism is "killing or intimidating civilians for some political or military gain". However, that definition is dangerous to the West, since one could then point to the bombing of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the bombing of Dresden, or of Vietnam and Cambodia, and call them all terrorism. One could also mention the American sponsorship of various regimes in the ‘third world’ that terrorise their own peoples to make way for things like ‘progress’ and ‘development.’ So that definition is not used in the mainstream media: it is more useful to those in power to keep a fuzzy, unclear, ever-shifting definition, and sell it daily via the media, from all of which alternative voices are almost completely excluded.
Terrorism has become a necessity for the Western world in this period of late modernity. Terrorists are necessary to provide an ‘evil other’ with which to oppose the Western self. Such terrorists wait in the wings to intimidate citizen-consumers into all sorts of political schemes to ‘protect freedom’: they can hit the city streets and storm villages in the service of state power, at which time they will become ‘police’ or ‘freedom fighters’; they can even provide an inexhaustible stream of villains and ‘bad guys’ as foils for the heroes adulated by the entertainment industries. Finally, terrorists have become especially necessary to keep ‘cold war’ warriors in their jobs, and even reinvigorate the ‘national security’ organs and the various arms and munitions industries, not to mention distracting citizen-consumers from real-world problems that affect everybody. These include the current global economic recession and the impending environmental and climate crises.
In order to solve the terrorism problem properly, the West will have to examine itself and the way it relates to other peoples and cultures, and America in particular will have to take a long, hard look at the ways in which its self-proclaimed leadership of the "new world order" has made terrorism a necessity in other ways than serving the West’s self-importance.