Outlaw History #7

Terrorism Is as Terrorism Does
Published: 2004-11-06

Dear Bradley: I just went on your web site and read newsletter no. 2 (9/29/04). I enjoyed it and it made some effective points, but it also raised in my mind the following caution: any discussion of "terrorism" is apt to get out of focus by sliding away from a clear definition of the word. For example, you compare American soldiers in Iraq (whose actions have resulted in the deaths of a lot of innocent Iraqi civilians) with Arab terrorists (who, among other things, are beheading civilians of various nationalities in Iraq).

Now, as I understand it, "terrorism" is the deliberate targeting and killing of innocent civilians, as opposed to enemy combatants, in order to achieve one's political goals. Based on this understanding, the killing of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers is not terrorism. It's unfortunate, but civilian deaths have always been a by-product of any warfare that was not a set-piece on a battlefield. I think everyone understands that. It's not the same thing as the fire-bombing of Dresden during Holy Week in 1945 or the napalming of Tokyo. Failure to make this distinction may give your audiences the impression that you are a bit of a terrorist yourself, a verbal terrorist who attacks the innocent in order to make his political points. And it will weaken your arguments.

There are good arguments to be made against the American war in Iraq, of course. I was opposed to the war myself on numerous grounds. And it may be legitimate to compare the war with the German invasion of Poland in 1939. But the German invasion was not an act of terrorism.

There were acts of German terrorism, of course. The krauts are no better than we are. For example, their policy, whenever local resistance fighters – not terrorists – would kill German officers or administrators, was to round up 100 or so of the local villagers and kill them. I believe the Germans even had a word they used for some of their actions that translates more or less as "terror warfare."

So the Iraqi insurgents, insofar as they target coalition forces, are not terrorists, though they do become terrorists when they target (as they often do) innocent civilians. Granted, it's not always easy to distinguish with a bright line just who is an enemy combatant and who is an innocent civilian, but we have to keep and use the distinction, as it is valid and vital in a general way.

Otherwise, we sink into the concept of total war: the extermination of men, women, children, and animals – everything that breathes.


Rollin Stearns

With regard to defining "terrorism" we agree that it is primarily the intentional killing of unarmed civilians.

The matter of comparing individual Iraqi terrorists who behead defenseless, unarmed hostages with individual American soldiers, who "accidentally" kill defenseless, unarmed civilians in the routine of battle, is a difficult issue to sort out. While the individual US soldier kills unarmed civilians accidentally (we will posit that), individual Iraq terrorists behead unarmed civilians intentionally.

But here is the slippery moral issue. The US Government initiated a preemptive war against Iraq, knowing full well that for every Iraqi solider we kill, we will kill five, ten, or more defenseless, unarmed Iraqi civilians. All those who administer the State, any State, understand that that is the fact of the matter. American State policy in the Iraq war is "terrorist" by definition. It is absolutely understood by all concerned that tens, and probably hundreds of thousands of defenseless, unarmed Iraqi civilians will be, already have been, slaughtered.

A new report from London, based on on-the-ground surveys, suggests that we have killed upwards of 100,000 Iraqi civilians. This suggests that we have wounded and maimed from one-half million to one million innocent, unarmed Iraqi civilians. The individual US solider is caught in the middle. So are we. We are all implicated in the slaughter, as we democratically "choose" those who will govern us and see to the killing of the others.

What to do? I don't know. We can argue against the right of the State to initiate preemptive wars. We can choose to not participate in them as soldiers or taxpayers. It won't matter. There are not enough of us to make any difference, not enough willing to sacrifice what will have to be sacrificed to change the course of a history that is in its third century. Who are we kidding?

We can argue that the unintentional killing of unarmed civilians during military combat is not the same as the intentional murder of the civilian populations of Japanese and German cities during WWII. Still, they are both the result of State policy, each created via the same traditions and bi-partisan cooperation. It was State policy to intentionally burn alive the civilian populations of Nagasaki and Hamburg. It is State policy today to kill as many defenseless, unarmed civilians in Iraq as is necessary to accomplish the goals of the State.

I am not suggesting that US policy is any "worse" than the State policies of other powerful and not-so-powerful nations and peoples around the world. The mix of power and historical context rules us all. It isn't going to change. The only benefit, perhaps, of recognizing how we behave, is that we might be encouraged to not see the other as someone to be demonized. Brings to mind the advice of a well-known Jew. "Love thy enemy."

As a matter of fact that pithy, difficult, and in the end indecipherable phrase might be the beginning of an answer. If we were disinclined to participate in the demonization of those whom the State designates as "evil," we might find ourselves unable to raise the necessary energy to follow our bi-partisan governments from one war to another, generation after generation after generation. Works for me. At the moment.

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Author(s): Bradley R. Smith
Title: Outlaw History #7, Terrorism Is as Terrorism Does
Published: 2004-11-06
First posted on CODOH: July 2, 2012, 7 p.m.
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