What Exactly Is Terrorism?

by Patrick J. Buchanan – July 17, 2002

“The American government sure is easily baffled. An extremist Egyptian Muslim chooses July Fourth to murder Americans and Israelis who are flying from an American airport on Israel’s national airline – and the official line is we can’t call this terror …”

Adds exasperated columnist Dennis Prager, “This country’s officials are in a state of denial and confusion that is almost as frightening as the terrorists they are supposed to be fighting.”

But there is reason for this confusion. Though President Bush has declared that we are fighting a “war on terrorism,” he has yet to define what terrorism is, or tell us who exactly our enemies are. Where in the U.S. military or criminal code is terrorism defined?

Traditionally, terrorism has meant the slaughter of innocents for political ends. But what was the political end of the atrocity at LAX? To get Israel off the West Bank? And if it was terrorism, should such a killer be transferred to Guantanamo Bay and denied the full protections of the Bill of Rights, like the rest?

The assassinations of JFK by a Castroite, of Robert Kennedy by a Palestinian, of Dr. King and Medgar Evers by racists, of Malcolm X by black Muslims, of George Lincoln Rockwell by a fellow Nazi were all “political” assassinations. But which ones were “terrorist” acts?

The assassination of Lincoln in John Wilkes Booth’s plot to decapitate the Union government, to re-ignite the Southern rebellion, seems to qualify as terrorism, and the assassins were tried in a military court. But, again, they were not hanged for terrorism.

The confusion as to what to call the LAX atrocity stems from a confusion of thought in Washington and a failure to follow the U.S. Constitution, declare war and identify precisely who our enemies are. When Bush says we are fighting terrorism, does he mean the IRA, the Basque ETA, the Tamil Tigers, FARC, Hezbollah?

None of the above. The president is authorized by Congress only to take down the Taliban and al-Qaida, and any other nation-state that helped or harbored the mass murderers of 9-11. Yet, no other nation, not even the “axis-of-evil” nations, seems to have been involved.

Why not then declare war on al-Qaida? Because that would tie the president’s hands and give legitimacy to al-Qaida. For there are rules of war we would then have to observe. And what would we do if al-Qaida offered to negotiate an end to their attacks in return for U.S. withdrawal from Saudi Arabia? Negotiate? We would confront the same problem Ariel Sharon has. Because he doesn’t want to negotiate with Arafat, he de-legitimizes Arafat by calling him a terrorist.

We are in a new era, though few recognize it. One who does is William Lind, who calls today’s conflicts Fourth Generation Warfare – a feature of our new world in which nation-states are losing their legitimacy, the first loyalty of their peoples and the monopoly on warfare they have held since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.

As nations crumble, loyalties are transferred to cults, gangs, tribes, races, cartels, religions and causes, from FARC to the Cali Cartel, to Crips and Bloods, Hutu and Pashtun, Islamists, anti-globalists, enviro-terrorists and Branch Davidians.

These “non-state actors” cannot hope to defeat nation-states in conventional war. The Taliban’s try proved suicidal. But now that the Taliban no longer have a state we can smash, and al-Qaida is no longer concentrated where smart bombs can strike it, the odds have shifted. Recall: Fourth-generation warfare drove the Marines out of Beirut, the United States out of Somalia, the Israelis out of Lebanon and the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

Non-state actors have adopted their own rules of warfare to justify what they do, even as we justified Nagasaki. To us, Timothy McVeigh is a mass-murderer and a terrorist. To McVeigh, the United States was the enemy on which he had declared war, and he attacked a U.S. command post with unfortunate “collateral damage” – i.e., the kids in that daycare center. Seeing himself as a soldier, McVeigh was no more remorseful than the British bomber pilots who did Dresden.

Of Nagasaki and Dresden, we say, “That was war!” But Osama bin Laden declared war on us, and al-Qaida says it is waging war to drive Americans out of their region, as we once drove the British out of ours. We reply, “You are terrorists!” They reply: Before 9-11, our targets were U.S. embassies, Marine barracks, the USS Cole and Khobar Towers – all political or military command sites.

If Congress will not force our War Cabinet to tell us exactly who we are fighting and what the expectations are of the war’s duration and the war dead, it will leave us in this dangerous limbo of confusion columnist Prager rightly deplores.

If we do not do this, this war on terrorism could end like the war on drugs, in a twilight struggle in which Americans soon lose interest, that results only in a steady loss of our freedom to the true enemy of American liberty: The Leviathan State.