Terrorism in Context

The strange alchemy of public discourse has unexpectedly thrust notions of terrorism into the forefront of current public controversy. Republicans castigated the Obama administration for underestimating the role of “terrorists” in the September 11, 2012 slayings of four American officials in Benghazi, Libya. This is no minor indictment. In the mindset that has taken over foreign policy discussion since September 11, 2001, it rivals the seriousness of Cold War charges of being “soft on Communism.”

Terrorism, and the campaign against it, have emerged as the anti-matter of America’s international stance—the master evil against which our key strivings are directed, and our identity defined. While de-emphasizing the language of George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” the Obama administration has refined and extended its practice. This new approach has meant far-reaching changes in application of American coercion abroad. The United States now carries out automated air strikes, assassinations, and kidnappings around the world—actions not aimed at states, but at “terrorists” and their supporters located on the territory of ostensible allies. Al Qaeda is of course identified as the master enemy, but America’s violent sallies extend as well to “free-lancers,” providers of “material support,” and kindred jihadists—all bracketed under the damning catch-all of terrorism.

Long before terrorism metastasized into a slogan, students of political violence had fashioned a precise definition for it: violence directed against noncombatant civilians in efforts to intimidate them, and particularly to undermine support for their rulers. While guerrilla fighters target military objectives, terrorists “attack ‘soft’ civilian targets in order to paralyze society.” Thus “…[t]he Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995 is terrorist, whereas the suicide attack…on American and French U.N. troops in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983, killing 241 marines, is an act of guerrilla warfare,” according to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, second edition.

No thoughtful observer doubts that terrorism can represent an effective strategy for achieving political ends. Civilians who lose confidence in the ability of rulers to provide protection from grave physical harm are apt to reconsider their allegiances, just as terrorists hope they will. But few ethicists or other informed commentators offer reasoned justifications for terror as an instrument of political action. Even when the goals of a political movement are beyond reproach—like the removal of an obviously repressive regime—plundering innocent lives, or threatening to do so, is simply an unacceptable cost.

Applying notions of terrorism in precise terms requires redefinition of some highly charged events. The 2001 attack on Manhattan’s twin towers, with its thousands of civilian casualties, certainly counts as a terrorist act—but not the parallel attack on the Pentagon, which is nothing if not a military operations center. Similarly, it is very difficult to classify the fatal attack against American officials in Benghazi on September 11 of this year as a terrorist action. The slain U.S. ambassador and the officials who died in the same action were not attacked in order to undermine civilian support for any government. They were targeted, from all available evidence, because of their role in a geopolitical struggle against this country’s Islamist adversaries.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose the enemies of democracy and personal liberty in Libya and elsewhere. But it does not help matters to blur the distinction between our enemies’ actions in Benghazi and terrorism. American policy-makers have orchestrated a violent campaign against militant Islamists all over the world. What defines this country’s enemies in this struggle is not their terrorist credentials so much as their direct challenge to Washington in a global contest for power and influence. It is hard to believe that American policy-makers would be any more willing to make peace with Islamist fighters if the latter credibly renounced targeting civilians as a means for attaining their strategic ends.

For Washington’s purposes, terrorism—cast as cowardly, devious action against innocent civilians—makes the perfect nemesis. True, the fight against those bracketed as terrorists is bound to entail “collateral damage”—several hundred civilians have been killed in American air strikes under the Obama administration, according to some reports. And the intimidation of civilian populations facing demonstrated threats of mayhem-without-warning from America could well shake their loyalty to those who govern them. But still, American violence is fundamentally different: the civilian casualties are not the real objective.

Without direct access to the minds of the planners, it is very difficult for any outsider to pass judgment on such claims. And for those on the receiving ends of these horrific exchanges, the distinction may not hold much interest.