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When Semantics Matter: Just Exactly What IS a Terrorist Group?

Recently, the Obama Administration, frantically trying to deflect right wing criticism for negotiating with terrorists following the prisoner exchange that resulted in an American soldier held by the Taliban in Afghanistan coming home, tried to have it both ways. They claimed that the Taliban are an “armed insurgency,” and “not necessarily a terrorist group.”  If you go to the link, you’ll see that the argument is so lame that even Fox News could pick it apart just by using basic logic.

Congresscritter Duncan Hunter(R-Fascist, California) dismissed the whole thing by saying “It’s all semantics.”

Yes, it is, ignorant Fascist swine, but I’m going to take this exercise in semantics a little further, and maybe demonstrate that when it comes to government policy and deciding whether or not to go to war, semantics is simply too important to just be summarily dismissed.

Wikipedia defines terrorism as “violent acts (or threat of violent acts) intended to create fear (terror), perpetrated for a religious, political, or ideological goal, and which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (e.g., neutral military personnel or civilians)”, or “political, ideological or religious violence by non-state actors,” with all sorts of little blue links that I left in place. I suppose that almost any government that ever uses any kind of force in order to maintain law and order or to protect the majority of its people against the depredations of a few, or which engages in war, even defensive war, could be described as “terrorist” because it does things that inspire terror in its enemies, hence the “non-state actors” proviso.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to leave that one in my initial definition, since to do otherwise would be to label the majority of human groups as “terrorist” in one way or the other. This defines a “terrorist group” as a group of people who are not acting on the behalf of a government who use terrorist tactics to achieve their goals.

This means groups such as the old Baader-Meinhof gang and Al-Qaeda are clearly terrorist groups, but it  also means that not only the Taliban, but the old Palestine Liberation Organization(PLO), the Jewish Zionists in Palestine before 1948, the American colonists at Lexington and Concord, and also all of the Resistance movements against the Germans and Japanese in World War II,  were also terrorist groups, not to mention the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria(ISIS.) Definitional and policy problems immediately arise.

Most people certainly don’t think of the American revolutionaries as terrorists, the PLO now runs a state recognized as such by the United Nations, Israel is an established fact, the Taliban were once(and probably will be again) the actual government of Afghanistan, and the French  and Vietnamese resistance movements became governments after World War II. This is where the Obama Administration is coming from; once an armed group controls territory, it’s no longer a terrorist group but an armed insurgency.

Unfortunately for Obama, this definition also makes ISIS an armed insurgency, since they in fact control about a third of Iraqi and Syrian territory. It also means that the Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine can no longer be called “terrorist.” It would appear that a group of people who use terrorist tactics morph into an armed insurgency once they are successful enough to control territory and then into at least a de facto government if they actually win, as what happened in America and Israel. This means that the old adage, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” holds true. It also means something else.

Terrorism is a tactic, just like surprise attacks at dawn, aerial bombing, naval bombardment, drone strikes, or blitzkrieg warfare are tactics. It just so happens to be an extremely inexpensive tactic that requires minimal training in order for an attack to succeed, which is why established governments hate it when it is used against them, and do their best to propagandize against those who use it.

Of course, governments routinely use terrorist tactics themselves. Did the Inquisition not inspire terror in its enemies? Did Native American tribal confederacies not do the same with their raids, or the European settlers in their conquest of the New World? The Nazi and Stalinist regimes routinely used terror as a means of social control, as did all of the old colonial empires. The Romans would have cheerfully described Spartacus and his followers as terrorists, but their response–mass crucifixion–could certainly be labeled a terrorist tactic.

I think THE most successful terrorist attacks in history took place in August, 1945, with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not only did they achieve their goal of persuading the Japanese to unconditionally surrender, but they so terrorized the human race as a whole that nuclear weapons have never been used again, which to my mind is actually an unforeseen benefit. The problem for every American administration since then is that they all look somewhat hypocritical to the rest of the world whenever they prate about the need to subdue one group or the other in the name of “fighting terrorism,” and rightly so.

In the final analysis, a “terrorist group” is simply a propaganda tool used against the members of said group by its political enemies. Once they are no longer enemies, or once their enemies who proclaim that they will never negotiate with terrorists want to negotiate with them, they are no longer a “terrorist group,” but something else that sounds at least a little more legitimate. On the other hand, an actual government that does things that makes it an opponent of another government  can be labeled a “terrorist regime” quite easily by the latter, which can make diplomacy rather dicey and outright war more likely.

So Congressman Hunter is correct: It IS all a matter of semantics, after all, and propaganda semantics, to boot. From a policy perspective, it is also extremely counterproductive. When a government habitually labels all of its opponents as “terrorists” the word loses its meaning over time and the government itself eventually loses credibility even with its own people, so that sooner or later the “Boy who cried wolf” lesson applies, where most people don’t believe it even when it is telling the truth. This is precisely what has happened every single year to the American government for a long time, but has dramatically escalated since September 11, 2001.

For over 13 years, the American government has labeled almost every group that either opposes its policies or threatens the vested interests of its wealthy backers “terrorists” or “terrorist groups” or “terrorist regimes.”  Hackers become “cyber-terrorists;” Occupy Wall Street and unions at least  potential “terrorist groups,” and ISIS an actual one; the Taliban, Iran, Libya, North Korea and even Russia “terrorist regimes” that can justifiably be subdued by force of arms.

When government policy is predicated by the use of a term of which the meaning can change at the whim of the policymakers, be that term Fascist or Communist,  terrorist or criminal, instead of careful deliberation of what is just or practical, the results are often disastrous for all concerned. It makes excessive use of force, be it by police departments or national governments, all too easy.

And I’m pretty sure that a lot of the people who wrote the Magna Carta, the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, would agree with me here.

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Ohio Barbarian

Ohio Barbarian

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