I think a part of the answer is in the words that we use. Particularly the word ‘terrorist’.
The current ‘war on terror’, basically permits any action against a terrorist or terrorist organisation; in today’s political arena phrases such as ‘do whatever is necessary’ or ‘take any possible measure’ don’t sound uncommon. Calling someone a terrorist can depersonalise a human being to the extent that one could commit all kinds of atrocities and torture against them without our collective conscience batting an eyelid. Everything that is carried out within an environment of alert due to terrorism is somehow treated as an exception to the rules, quite literally. We have seen examples of countries creating altogether new rules and laws in response to a state of alert due to terrorism threats or fears. Here in Britain, along with America, people can be arrested and held without charge or trial which goes against a fundamental principle that our government has upheld for decades. Guantanamo bay is another obvious example, where acts of torture are committed against people who have not had a proper trial which would, in any other case be unthinkable in American prisons. So it’s all nice and clear cut that we can deal with terrorism with whatever means necessary, even if it goes outside of the usual system of rules. All that’s left to do, then, is work out who is a terrorist. For as long as we can be sure that a given person is a terrorist, our conscience can rest unmoved in the face of any measure of brutality or atrocity carried out against them. This however, raises a whole host of grey issues.
No one definition of ‘terrorism’ has ever been universally accepted but people certainly have ideas about what or who qualifies. I decided, however, that a good place to begin at least would be the Oxford English dictionary. The definition given here is: ‘an organised system of violence and intimidation esp. for political ends; the state of fear and submission caused by this’. At least two of the factors mentioned in the above definition would probably be universally accepted; firstly, that terrorism involves violence; and secondly that it is driven by political motives. America, however, seems to have developed its own definition of terrorism, (which in fact seems to be in a constant state of flux) which includes a third fundamental premise perhaps not specified in any other definition and that is that terrorism is something which is not carried out by internationally recognised states. Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d) contains the following definition:
“The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant* targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience…”
*for purposes of this definition the term ‘noncombatant’ is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty.
*We also consider as acts of terrorism attacks on military installations or on armed military personel when a state of military hostilities does not exist at the site, such as bombings against US bases.
Well rocket fire into civilian areas coming from a stateless organisation certainly counts as terrorism, even rocket fire into military bases would, so long as it can be argued that either the soldiers are unarmed or off duty or that ‘a state of military hostilities does not exist’. This definition demarcates organisations such as Hamas as terrorist without a doubt. Would this be the same if the Palestinians had a state and Hamas an official army? Since it is impossible for Palestinians, being stateless, to enter into a legitimate ‘war’ with Israel on an even footing, any military operation or violent activity that a Palestinian authority may enter into can only be defined, according to the US, as terrorism; something that, by definition, the state of Israel is incapable of committing. Ehud Olmert reiterates this as he addresses the Palestinian people at the time of the first of the recent air attacks “Citizens of Gaza, you are not our enemies, and the terrorist organisations are your enemies as they are ours”. So technically, the Palestinian people in general are not the enemies of Israel, but Hamas as an organisation is. But the question is; where does one end and the other begin in the mind of the Israeli government?
When it comes, then, to how we can identify the enemy of Israel, an Israeli military spokesman sheds some light on the matter saying “anything that has a relationship with Hamas is a legitimate target”. Exactly where this leaves the majority of the Palestinian people who lawfully and democratically elected Hamas as their leaders is concerning to say the least. In fact, a spokesman for the IDF clarified further that “our definition is that any person involved in terrorism inside Hamas is a legitimate target. This includes military financial establishments along with political establishments that offer logistical support and funding and human resources to the terrorist wing”. This definition is just as alarming, leaving interpretation open to the extent that any establishment that supports Hamas even if it is not directly military is a legitimate target. In practice, however, this definition seems to have stretched even further to include any establishment founded by Hamas, who lets not forget, have set up schools, hospitals, universities etc…
Hamas argue that the fact that it is compulsory for every Israeli to serve in the army serves as a justification for hitting civilian targets. I am not sure that this logic only works one way. How is Hamas seen in the Israeli psyche? Going back to the fact that the Palestinians are not a state, they cannot therefore have an officially recognised army to which soldiers can join or be conscribed. For this reason, any one who enters in to resistance activity of any kind is going to have no official label other than ‘civilian’. Anyone who fights with Hamas, apart from their direct leaders, is going to be simply an average Palestinian Jo, as it were. This fact can allow the Israelis to read it in reverse; that every average Palestinian Jo is a potential combatant and therefore terrorist. Of course this mentality holds a fundamental philosophical flaw. In parallel: even if one could say that all pigs are pink, for example, this certainly wouldn’t mean that all pink things were pigs! However, looking in from the outside, one can’t help but wonder if this is what is going on inside that soldier’s mind as he points the gun at a child’s head, or throws a Palestinian woman to the floor at a check point.
Language is an extremely powerful instrument, not to be underestimated. Think about how our reactions change when words relating to statehood are contrasted with words that do not accompany a state: an army becomes a militia group; soldiers and troops are transformed into armed militants or gunmen; a government becomes Islamist leadership. These are just a few of the terms that struck me as I scanned through the pages of Ha-Aretz, a leading Israeli newspaper. If we can carefully construct the attitude that really most Palestinians are hostile in some way and subtly use language that gradually dehumanises the individual and eventually the entire nation, we can use words such as ‘terrorist’ to mask our actions and avoid facing a sense of guilt or shame for how we are dealing with such people. Once the whole nation is being subtly referred to as less than official, less than recognised, less than human, it is easy to lose all sense of public conscience about how you treat those people. We have seen it before in history (I need not mention which example stands out above the rest). Can it be justified, then, to use the terms ‘terrorists’ or ‘war on terror’ as a mask of our guilt? Or to use them as an excuse to avoid more constructive means to solve the problem?
Sadly this process of dehumanising the ‘other’ is happening both ways round in this crisis. Unfortunately for Israel, the recent air strikes against Gaza has simply further transformed their country into a faceless iron fist. This will only fan the flames of extremism; the sense of desperation to step up and do something; and the further alienation of all human interaction and feeling. I found that the film ‘Promises’ sheds some light on this very issue and lays out an interesting challenge. The documentary introduces us to a group of Palestinian children and then a group of Israeli children. As they speak about the other side there is no glimmer of understanding that there are any real people the other side of the barrier. They speak from the plastic hatred they have been brought up to feel. When they actually come together and have a game of football, however, there is a moment of promise when they realise that this enigmatic ‘other’ is simply made up of kids and their families who are just like themselves.
I see the Obama Administration’s decision to drop the phrase ‘war on terror’ as a very positive step. This phrase has been used as a mask to cover up horrific acts of violence and aggression. It has been brandished about as an excuse for inaction and the justification for the horrendous consequences of this. It provides a pretext for the torture and ill treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo bay without charge. It validated a brutal attack on Iraq under false motives and on spurious evidence, the results of which are still tearing the country apart. It is time to let drop the thin veil that the West tries to hide behind. It is time that phrases such as ‘enemy combatant’, which strip another human being of all human value, were thrown out. By dropping such phrases and closing down Guantanamo Bay, Obama is clearly distancing himself from the Bush administration and its raison d’etre. In terms of international relations and particularly relationships with the Arab world, such moves have come not a moment too soon.
I find it interesting that in the Oxford dictionary definition of the word ‘terrorism’, the perpetrator is ‘an organised system of violence’ which sounds to me as though it could be a state as well as any other organisation. I think Zeib Boin, the deputy defence minister of Israel, described it remarkably well when he said “terror is terror is terror, what is important is not the definition or the sources of the terror but the results”.