By Paddy Woodworth
Terrorism is a very highly charged, and very problematic, term, but nevertheless I think its essential characteristic can be defined quite simply:
Terrorism is the use of violence for political ends, in a context where the essential democratic liberties – the rule of law and the freedoms of speech, association and representation – are, however imperfectly, in operation.
Everyone except pacifists accepts that the use of violence can be justified when such liberties are suppressed by the state. If you reject the pacifist position (which should not be dismissed out of hand), the debate about whether or not to use violence when democratic liberties are suppressed is not an ethical one, but a tactical or strategic one.
The question that advocates of violence against dictatorships have to answer is whether violent actions are likely to bring about the advent of democracy in a significantly shorter period than the use of exclusively peaceful resistance, or whether such actions may actually enable undemocratic regimes to consolidate and maintain their position.
And of course the best answer to this question may vary over time under the same regime. The Russian Left under Tsarism, for example, was often deeply divided on this issue, with the same organisations taking different positions depending on the precise political conjuncture. And it is not unusual for one leftist group to accuse another of ‘terrorism’ when it uses violence at a moment, or in a manner, that the first group considers counter-productive.
This brings us to another facet of the definition: the manner of violence used, and especially the willingness to risk, or even deliberately inflict, civilian casualties. Indiscriminate actions often call forth credible accusations of terrorism against the perpetrators. For many observers, the distinction between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ targets is the frontier between justified political violence and terrorism, even when the violence is employed in pursuit of impeccable causes. The end does not justify the means.
Let’s take the case of apartheid South Africa. The violence of the African National Congress (ANC) under such supremely undemocratic conditions can no more be properly called terrorism than could the actions of the Résistance in Nazi-occupied France. Nevertheless, while a selective ANC attack on apartheid armed forces personnel would not be termed terrorism, an indiscriminate bomb attack by the same organisation on a bar crowded with civilians might well merit this tricky label. The assassination of a civilian political or economic supporter of apartheid falls into a more ambiguous area between these two fairly clear instances.
Likewise, in the case of Francoist Spain, while one might disagree with ETA’s decision to launch an armed campaign against the dictatorship on tactical or strategic grounds, the assassination of Carrero Blanco, Franco’s prime minister and designated successor, should not be labelled a terrorist act. But the attack on the Cafetería Rolando in Madrid in the same period, which killed and wounded many civilians, was widely rejected even among ETA’s support base. This is probably why ETA never acknowledged responsibility for this action, though it was almost certainly the author, or at least the co-author, of it. The group could have argued that the bar was frequented by Francoist police including known torturers. (To be clear, under the definition advanced above, those elements of ETA who continued to use violence after Spain became a democracy, however imperfect, can indeed legitimately be called terrorists.)
We must stress though, that the view that inflicting civilian casualties is a qualifying mark of terrorism creates a very uncomfortable dilemma for democratic governments prepared to engage in modern warfare. In the 19th century, European states had, with considerable success, attempted to limit civilian casualties in war (at least when fighting among themselves; what they did in their colonies was often completely indiscriminate). But with the invention of aerial bombing, and especially following the development of nuclear weapons, civilians became the main targets, and made up the majority of victims, in wars even between ‘civilised’ states. This recalls the ironic observation made by the Irish writer (and 1940s IRA child soldier and bomber) Brendan Behan: “the man with a big bomb is a statesman, while the man with a small bomb is a terrorist.”
Users and potential users of all weapons of mass destruction, great and small, could be legitimately labelled terrorists today, if inflicting civilian casualties forms part of the essential definition of the term. And indeed, this point is implicitly conceded in the term the Cold War nuclear-armed states, at least in the West, used to describe their strategy: a “balance of terror”. Even if the aim of this strategy was ideally to avoid nuclear war through the certainty of “mutually assured destruction” (yes, they called it MAD), the strategy was based on real-life willingness to use such ghastly weapons.
Another point needs to be made: it is also true than many politicians, ideologues and analysts are highly selective and self-interested in their application of the term terrorist. For example, for significant elements of the American establishment (including Dick Cheney), Nelson Mandela was a terrorist. So were all the many varieties of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation. Here the cliché is that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” – or vice versa.
Moreover, some politicians apply the term retrospectively where they would not have used it decades earlier: many Spanish politicians on the left shifted from considering ETA an ally (however uncomfortable) in the anti-Franco resistance, to labelling it a terrorist organisation from its origins, when they found from the 1980s that the group now represented a dangerous threat to Spain’s fledgling democracy.
And there is a related phenomenon where organisations and individuals who share the same aspiration as a terrorist organisation become tarred with the terrorist brush. Thus those who supported Basque self-determination from the 1980s onwards were axiomatically considered, by much of the Spanish media and political establishment, and even the judiciary, as fellow travellers with terrorism, regardless of their position on violence. This ‘el entorno de ETA es ETA’ theory found its most absurd expression in the harsh prison sentences imposed in the early 2000s on members of a Basque pacifist collective. Their crime was to advocate civil disobedience methods in pursuit of Basque sovereignty, specifically the use of a Basque identity card, but they were convicted under anti-terrorism legislation.
And if the mirror is turned in the other direction, towards the actions of the State, including democratic states, against terrorism, myopia often applies. I experienced this frequently while researching the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL), a series of death squads established by very senior elements in the Spanish government, military and police in the 1980s to target ETA. It seemed evident to me that these squads, and their political bosses, fully merited the label of ‘state terrorists’.
I interviewed Rafael Vera, a former deputy government minister, who would later be convicted of helping to organise a GAL kidnapping. He told me I was quite wrong to describe policemen, already convicted of GAL crimes, in this fashion. “These men are not state terrorists,” he told me, “though they may have fought against terrorism using the wrong methods.” Curiously, after I had then described to him a GAL operation in which two young children were deliberately fired upon, and severely injured, he shifted his position, though he must have already know this story very well. “OK,” he said, “you are right in this case. This is terrorism without any question whatsoever.”
Grant Wardlaw, an Australian academic specialist in terrorism theory, argues that writers should “apply the term terrorism even-handedly to governments, groups and individuals”. I think he is right.
On the other hand, there is undoubtedly a case for not using the word ‘terrorism’ at all: “If all sorts of murders, kidnappings, threats, civil wars, government crimes, killings by secret or underground organisations, paramilitary executions, and so on, were simply called by those names, without ever using the word ‘terrorism’, would there be something missing in the description of the real world?” This question is asked by Joseba Zulaika and William A. Douglass in Terror and Taboo. It is provocatively put, but the answer may lie in the fact that these authors use the word repeatedly, though always with careful qualifications, throughout their own book.
This entry is an adaptation and development of points originally made in:
Woodworth, Paddy (2003-01-10T22:58:59). Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy, Second Edition (Yale Nota Bene) . Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.