Archive for December, 2002

Terrorists and freedom fighters

[Originally published in the Rutland Herald.]

Is a terrorist always a terrorist? Will you always know one when you see one? During the first round of international terrorism in the ’70s, we constantly struggled with the premise that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Like it or not, that conundrum still exists today.

In the fall of 2001, the FBI listed the following definition of terrorism on its official Web site: “Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Looking back on our own Minutemen who “fired the shot heard round the world,” it would appear that under the FBI’s definition they were terrorists.

In our anger over the horrors of 9/11 and in our yearning for safety, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that there are legitimate and non-legitimate “terrorists” in the world. Real terrorists are not simply people you dislike or disagree with. They are violent people who are intent on creating havoc in your essentially benevolent society.

Al Qaida qualifies. Timothy McVeigh and the Ku Klux Klan qualify. The Japanese Red Army, the Baader-Meinhoff gang, the Red Brigades and many other organizations of the 1970s qualified.

Those who do not qualify as terrorists are people who have a legitimate complaint against the repressive rulers under whom they live and who then take up arms with the purpose of redressing those complaints. We used to call such people insurgents, revolutionaries or freedom fighters, never “terrorists.” A Muslim Uighur in western China, a Shiite in southern Iraq, a Kurd in Turkey, Iraq or Iran, the people of Kashmir, Chechens, the discontented people of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as well as many others, have such legitimate complaints. In our own rush to simplify the issue, we have made it possible to have them all labeled as “terrorists.” Some, like the Chechen and Uzbek insurgents, already have been so labeled.

This new reality will simply turn more people around the world against us. As a country that is constantly talking about “bringing democracy” to the world, we are already viewed as hypocritical in our support of non-elected, anti-democratic governments, particularly in the Muslim world. As we stand by and do nothing when freedom fighters are labeled “terrorists,” we will lose even more credibility and further radicalize those Muslim populations. We will do this because as a nation we don’t take the time to understand foreign realities and because once labeled by our government as “terrorists,” those people simply have to be bad.

Important U.S. foreign policy decisions are often based on the internal political needs of the administration involved, not necessarily on objective facts. This business of labeling terrorists is an area in which the Bush administration has acted in what it considers its own internal political interest. Having so defined terrorism, we stand the very real risk of having our foreign policy and status in the world negatively affected by our administration’s perceived internal political needs. This will vastly complicate our responsibilities in the world today.

In broadening the definition of “terrorist” to cover just about anyone we or our friends of the moment don’t like, we have made it impossible to act or even to disapprove when a foreign government defines a legitimate national liberation movement as a terrorist organization and then attacks it.

Our moral authority, which we have used so well since the Second World War, is being degraded to the point where we will be hard put to exercise it in any meaningful way against the activities of any repressive regime that decides to go after a group that it sees as an internal problem. This fact will enable any such government to crush them without a whimper from the United States. This has recently happened with the Chechens in Russia and in other countries in Central Asia where we have agreed with Russian President Putin’s labeling them as “terrorists.” It will happen again elsewhere in the world. After all, they are terrorists by U.S. definition, and therefore they are evil. If we want to be supported in our war on terrorism, we will have to support theirs, even if we believe our war is morally correct and know that theirs is not.

Foreign policy is more often than not very complicated, particularly so when it involves the “Muslim world.” The rather simplistic policy of the Bush administration will invariably cause major problems for the United States in the future.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Europe and the Middle East and later as chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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