Monday, September 26, 2005


An individual with harsh words to say against war, should be able to spare a few moments for some harsh words against terrorism.

Why are there no protests against terrorism or the people who use this tactic?

We see people gathering in large numbers throughout the world to protest a war, but I have not noticed a similar movement to protest terrorism.

Are there too few of us who think that terrorism deserves our condemnation? Does everybody else (or almost everybody else) think that the terrorists are the 'good guys'?

Definitions of Terms

On the issue of terrorism, I want to define my terms. A terrorist is somebody who targets civilians. Their goal is to instill terror in the population by making common people fear for their lives and well-being. Terrorists target the student learning to become a biologist or engineer, the office worker trying to support her family, the gardener, the waiter, the computer programmer, the lawyer, and the gas-station attendant. In short, they target us.

If somebody attacks a military convoy, an army base, a destroyer -- these people are not terrorists. They are rebels, or insurgents, mercenaries, or enemy combatants, but not terrorists. This does not imply that the actions of these people are justified. It only implies that we can communicate better if writers and readers are on the same page.

I am talking about people who target civilians; and I will be using the word terrorist.


There are those who want to call individuals who target military installations and troops 'terrorists'. I suspect that this is because of the usefulness that this type of claim has for propaganda. In the drive to generate stronger hatred and less sympathy for the enemy, political leaders want to put them in the least favorable light. Calling all enemy combatants ‘terrorists’ may accomplish this objective for a short period of time.

However, in the long run the effect will be to blur the concept of a ‘terrorist’. While the original effect is to cast enemy combatants in the worst possible light, the long-term effect is to give terrorists a veneer of legitimacy. They are, after all, nothing more or less than enemy combatants, and attacking a public shopping mall is no different than attacking a military convoy. A possible effect of blurring this distinction is to make it psychologically easier to attack civilians.

This type of propaganda makes it more difficult to say, "I do not care how legitimate you think your cause is or which side you are fighting on, targeting civilians is not acceptable." It becomes harder to make this type of statement because our language loses a term specifically for identifying those who target civilians – a role once played by the term ‘terrorist’. This term gets drafted for other uses, and those who target civilians can then hide in the confusion and obscurity this creates.

So, if we are going to target those who attack civilians with special condemnation, as they deserve, then let's keep a term in our language that is specifically used to identify those who target civilians. Let's reserve the word 'terrorism' for this purpose so that we can know exactly the type of person we are talking about.

So, is it the case that "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter?"

Answer: No. One person's terrorist is another person's terrorist. If he targets civilians, then he is a terrorist. If not, then the term does not apply.

Now, why do we not see protests against terrorism and those that support it?


Perhaps one of the reasons that people do not protest terrorists is that one fears that it will be confusing. "If I were to protest terrorism, this might be taken as a sign that I support the war against terrorism. I do not support the war, and I do not wish to be thought of as somebody who does support the war, so I will not condemn the terrorists."

It's not that such a person actually supports the terrorist. She just does not know how to express disapproval in a way that will not be misinterpreted.

She fears that protesting terrorism might be taken as support for the war. Yet, she does not worry that protesting the war might be seen as support for terrorism. For some reason, she thinks that people are smart enough to recognize the distinction when it goes one way, but too stupid to see the distinction when it goes the other way.

The 'confusion' argument is a smoke screen. There is something else sitting at the core, motivating the decision not to protest terrorism and those who support it.

What Is There to Protest?

Perhaps the reason there are no protests against terrorists is because the target is just too obvious. There are no protests against people who hold up convenience stores. This is because there is no need. Everybody already knows that these people are worthy of condemnation. There is no need to protest the obvious.

However, each night is filled with news that somebody does not think that the moral prohibition against killing civilians is all that obvious. If it were so obvious, then why are so many people targeting civilians?

Where are they finding the support they need to carry out their activities, and to hide from those trying to stop them?

Terrorist organizations, unlike convenience-store robbers, survive on a network of support. There are people out there, people walking among us with money and contacts and prestige, who write checks and give other aid to terrorist organizations. These are the people who need to be told that supporting terrorism is intolerable. These co-conspirators deserve no less contempt than the terrorists themselves.

Who are these co-conspirators?

From whom are these people getting the message that it is morally permissible to attack civilians?

In too many cases, this message comes from religious leaders. It comes from people who say that all true morality comes from God, and God not only accepts but demands that his subjects target civilians. In this case, the source is an evil religion.

We can and should tolerate a great many views in our pluralistic world. The view that it is permissible to target civilians – particularly children – is no more to be tolerated than a religion that thinks it is permissible to offer children as religious sacrifice to any God.

These protests should target those who defend this type of view and those who support such groups. We should be seeking to socially, financially, and politically ostracize these groups, taking away their power to harm civilians and promoting a culture in which people do not accept these types of actions.

There is a great deal of good that a public protest could accomplish -- identifying and publishing the identities of those who refuse to renounce attacks on civilians, and solidifying a public determination to show the public discontent with those who think this way.

The way to start this public protest is simply to ask people to make a public and unequivocal statement about their attitudes regarding attacks on civilians and those who support them, and find out who is not willing to condemn these types of actions.

Why Not?

Perhaps it is too obvious to say. However, I think it is important to take the time to say that it is worth the effort to target those who would target civilians. The ideology that says that this is permissible threatens us all. It is in our interest to bring the weapons of social condemnation to bear against those who practice it, and those who support it, even if that support comes merely through the implied acceptance of silence.

This is my statement, that I offer no support and wish to see no victory handed to those who would target civilians. I condemn them and think that it is worth while to ensure their defeat. “Defeat”, in this case, does not mean just stopping the people. It means defeating the ideology that fails to recognize the moral depravity of showing such disregard for civilian lives.

If we are going to raise our voices to protest the wrongs that people do, let us not forget to protest the acts of the terrorists and those who support them as well.


Anonymous said...

Obviously, this post made an impression, as it was the firt thing I thought of when I saw this story:

"A leading international human rights group has accused Iraq's insurgent groups of committing war crimes.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said rebels were breaking the laws of war by deliberately targeting civilians...."

Anonymous said...

Also, would you make exceptions for the fire bombing of Dresden, or the atomic weapons dropped on Japan in WWII? Or would you condemn those acts as terrorist acts as well? How about conventional bombing of infrastructure targets (factories, railways, etc.) where civilians work? Or, for that matter, the World Trade Center, as Ward Churchill might contend?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Marty: Each act needs to be judged on its own merits. Furthermore, I believe that only somebody who has studied an issue in detail can offer an informed opinion.

I do happen to have an interest in World War II. From what I know of the attack on Dresden, it was a terrorist act. Its purpose was to kill women and children for the sake of weaking German morale.

I view the British night-time firebombing attacks against Germany to be similarly wrong (though I am less certain of this -- I may not have all of the relevant facts).

I do not see the use of nuclear weapons in Japan to be any different than the firebombing of Japanese cities. The destruction was the same, it just took fewer planes to do it. The 'wrong' in this case is countered by the fact that Japan had decentralized its manufacturing. Military equipment was being manufactured in peoples' homes (than gathered and brought to the assembly plants).

Attacks on infrastructure where civilians work is not wrong, though care must be taken where possible to reduce civilian casualties. This is not the sole consideration, but this is a consideration.

In World War II, in Yugoslavia, the Germans would fasted Yugoslav citizens to their tanks to prevent the Partisans from attacking the tanks. I would still say that it is okay to shoot the tank. The innocent life lost is charged to the NAZI moral account, not the Partisans.

Regarding the World Trade Center attacks...

First, it was an agressive act, not an act of national defense.

Second, it targeted civilians for the purpose of killing as many civilians as possible. It aimed for a "status symbol", not a military target, and did so at a time to cause maximum civilian casualties.