Common Ground: Definition of Terrorism

President George W. Bush has told us time and again that we do not negotiate with terrorists. Rarely do we consider the inverse: that it is the terrorists who refuse to negotiate with us. Admitting such a possibility would grant the terrorists agency, and thus, some measure of legitimacy as political actors. And in an arena where the word “terrorist”
itself is laden with policy implications, even rhetorical power shifts matter.

Rather than launch into an abstract debate about the definition of terrorism, let us focus on the real-world consequences of its
application, examining the politics that surround “those big words,” as Joyce famously wrote, “which make us so unhappy.”

The process of problem definition is inherently political because
it cedes control. To define is to take a side; to identify is to make a judgment. Whoever has the power to define terrorism also defines the alternatives — and the means to achieve those alternatives.

The State Department’s definition of terrorism — “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” — is not without its flaws. As Mark Burgess notes, “Such a state-centric reading is Western in outlook, and would probably be questioned by those non-state actors who consider themselves politically disenfranchised.” Regardless, when the United States labels a group as terrorist, it effectively rules out negotiation as a policy option.

Not surprisingly, none of the State Department’s 42 designated
foreign terrorist organisations identify themselves as such. Most have adopted banners of national unity, resistance or religious purpose, but a group’s professed motives and causes do not change their standing as a terrorist organisation. Indeed, in the mid-1980s, the United States categorized Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress as terrorists for forming an anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

As Michael Ignatieff writes in The Lesser Evil, groups which view their cause as legitimate can find a moral justification for terrorism — that is, violent attacks on civilian populations — by resorting to moral relativism. “The weak must have the right to fight dirty; otherwise the strong will always win,” he explains. “If you oblige the weak to fight clean, injustice will always triumph.” From this point of view, terrorism is only a step away from civil disobedience.

Distinguishing between terrorists and legitimate resistance groups remains notoriously difficult in the international arena. Witness the United Nations’ ongoing effort to define the term without neglecting “the legitimate right of peoples under occupation to struggle for their independence and in defen(se) of their right to self-determination.”

Further complications arise for the United States when its
designated foreign terrorist groups — such as the ANC in 1980s South Africa, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories — come to be accepted as legitimate political actors by both their domestic constituents and international players.

Due to the scope of its victory and particular regional
circumstances, Hamas’s recent sweep of the Palestinian parliament is especially problematic for American policymakers. The United States has treated Hamas, which was formed as an armed Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, as a terrorist organization for over a decade. Hamas, however, considers itself an Islamic resistance movement; its members are commonly referred to in Arab news stories as freedom fighters and, occasionally, as martyrs.

These conflicting definitions represent more than a problem of
semantics — they reflect decades of struggle, bloodshed and humiliation. History itself imbues these words with layers of sometimes conflicting meanings, and there is little reason to believe a resolution acceptable to all will be reached soon.

However, Hamas’s absorption into parliament will force radical
changes to their strategy, orientation and, likely, rhetoric. Serving for the first time in an official capacity, Hamas must be able to compromise, or else risk political and economic isolation. The Bush administration is right to question how Hamas will be able to govern when it refuses to recognize Israel, and states in its charter that “there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except by jihad.” But at the same time, Hamas’s record of legitimate electoral victories presents a serious challenge to the West’s perception of it as a terrorist group.

On the most basic level, the Palestinian Territories and the United States are both imperfect democracies, each enjoying legitimately acquired power, but who are both now struggling to bridge the distance between their principles and their actions, their words and deeds. For power is actualized, in Hannah Arendt’s perfectly chosen words, “only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and
deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

Neither Hamas nor the Bush administration has managed to amend the respective disconnects between their public philosophies and actual policies. Most Americans know Hamas as a terrorist organization and cannot imagine according them legitimacy as international actors. Many in the Arab world see the United States as supremely hypocritical — a self-designated apostle of freedom which is responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Iraqis, a superpower that claims benevolence but condones torture.

The future of U.S.-Palestinian relations depends on a number of variables, including Hamas’s performance and parliament’s relationship with President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah’s future role in the political arena, Hamas’s position on using force against civilians, greater U.S. Middle East policy and the outcome of Israeli elections. Hamas seems destined to remain on the State Department terrorist list for the foreseeable future, but with so many real-world challenges approaching, policymakers can no longer rely on abstractions that only obscure and constrain
their choices.

It would be all too easy for the United States and its European
allies to allow the Palestinian Territories to lapse into utter
hopelessness and poverty by labelling them a terrorist state; it would be just as easy for Hamas to consolidate its hold on power by allowing them to do so, given that such a step would further enhance its legitimacy as the only true defender of the Palestinian people. Such a step would neither secure statehood for the Palestinians, nor enhance Israel’s security, nor strengthen the legitimacy of the United States’ push for democracy in the Middle East.

Compromise and a return to negotiations that are more than
opportunities for rhetoric is not only the best solution — it is now the only solution, and the only way forward.

(Jennie Kim ([email protected]) is a graduate student at the George Washington University.)