Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

What's Your Definition of Terrorism?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

What's Your Definition of Terrorism?

Article excerpt

In case you have not noticed, we are at war! And it is a global, cosmic, open-ended, potentially eternal war. This war is on terror, but what are we doing about it?


Before you and I can do anything, we ought to know what terror is. Alas, there is no agreed definition. We are at war against a miasma. So long as terror is undefined, our leaders can claim indiscriminate authority and we have no way of determining whether their tactics or targets are well chosen. And there are two other problems. First, we have no real way of telling if the war is going well; and second, we lack the means to judge when, if or how this war will come to an end.

Terror is all about fear and coercion. In which case, the war against terror, with the permanent, pervasive war psychosis it has caused, is itself a form of terrorism. It instils unending fear of the threat. This fear coerces whole societies to curtail liberties defended for centuries as the true bastions of their freedom and security. This is what you get for lack of a sensible definition.

But surely we all know terrorism when we see it? It leaves the blood of innocent bystanders on the floor and, as I have witnessed myself, spatters bits of what were once human beings on walls and ceilings. But my point is, any use of violence leads to such carnage. Indeed, when it comes to violence, our dark instincts have never been short of ways to inflict pain and suffering that are cruel and unusual. To demean, humiliate and strip people of their common humanity is a form of violence. We have an agreed definition of this violence: we call it torture.

The recognition of torture as illegal is part of international law. This definition of principles beyond national law is a proof of our commitment to bettering humanity's lot, a demonstration that we have matured as moral beings. …

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