John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who writes frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The greatest threat to world peace today is clearly "terrorism"--not the behavior to which the word is applied, but the word itself.
For years, people have recited the truisms that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" and that "Terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder." With the world's sole superpower declaring an open-ended, worldwide "war on terrorism," however, the notorious subjectivity of this word is no longer a joke.
It is no accident that there is no agreed definition of "terrorism," since the word is so subjective as to be devoid of any inherent meaning. At the same time, the word is extremely dangerous, because people tend to believe that it does have meaning and to use and abuse the word by applying it to whatever they hate as a way of avoiding rational thought and discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behavior.
There is no shortage of precise verbal formulations for the diverse acts to which the word "terrorism" often is applied. "Mass murder," "assassination," "arson" and "sabotage" are available (to all of which the phrase "politically motivated" can be added if appropriate). Such crimes, moreover, are already on the statute books, rendering specific criminal legislation for "terrorism" unnecessary. Such precise formulations, however, do not carry the overwhelming, demonizing and thought-deadening impact of the word "terrorism," which is, of course, precisely the charm of the word for its more cynical and unprincipled users and abusers. If someone commits "politically motivated mass murder," people might be curious as to the cause or grievances which inspired such a crime, but no cause or grievance can justify (or even explain) "terrorism," which, all right-thinking people agree, is the ultimate evil.
Most acts to which the word "terrorism" is applied (at least in the West) are tactics of the weak, usually (although not always) against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort. To cite one example, the Palestinians certainly would prefer to be able to fight for their freedom by "respectable" means, using F-16s, Apache attack helicopters and laser-guided missiles such as those the United States provides to Israel. If the U.S. provided such weapons to Palestine as well, the problem of suicide bombers would be solved. Until it does, and for so long as the Palestinians can see no hope for a decent future, no one should be surprised or shocked that Palestinians use the "delivery systems" available to them--their own bodies. Genuine hope for something better than a life worse than death is the only cure for the despair which inspires such gruesome violence.
In this regard, it is worth noting that the poor, the weak and the oppressed rarely complain about "terrorism." The rich, the strong and the oppressors constantly do. While most of mankind has more reason to fear the high-technology violence of the strong than the low-technology violence of the weak, the fundamental mind-trick employed by the abusers of the epithet "terrorism" (no doubt, in some cases, unconsciously) is essentially this: The low-technology violence of the weak is such an abomination that there are no limits on the high-technology violence of the strong which can be deployed against it.
Not surprisingly, since Sept. 11, virtually every recognized state confronting an insurgency or separatist movement has eagerly jumped on the "war on terrorism" bandwagon, branding its domestic opponents (if it had not already done so) "terrorists" and, at least implicitly, taking the position that, since no one dares to criticize the United States for doing whatever it deems necessary in its "war on terrorism," no one should criticize whatever they now do to suppress their own "terrorists." Even while accepting that many people labeled …