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Terror and tyranny

What powerful states call terrorism may be an inevitable response to injustice

Seumas Milne

Thursday October 25, 2001

For a war that, in the words of US Vice-President Dick Cheney, "may never end", the enemy is proving embarrassingly hard to define. Of course, we know all about Osama bin Laden, supposed mastermind of the twin towers attacks, and his Taliban protectors, and we have become ominously aware of the demands from within the US administration that Iraq be brought into the frame. But this campaign is intended to be something grander still. The bombs and missiles now raining down on Afghanistan have been proclaimed as the curtain-raiser of a war against terror itself, which will not cease until the scourge of political violence is dealt with once and for all. The days of toleration for any form of terrorism from Baghdad to Ballymurphy are, it is said, now over. British ministers may mutter that the war is aimed at al-Qaida and the Taliban alone - but then they are not in charge.

Yet for all the square-jawed resolution on display in western capitals about the prosecution of this war, there is little agreement even within the heart of the coalition about what terrorism actually means. Both the EU and the UN are struggling to come up with an acceptable definition. The European Commission has produced a formulation so broad it would include anti-globalisation protesters who smash McDonald's windows; while Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, warned wearily that reaching a consensus would be well-nigh impossible since "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". President Bush has pledged that the war will not cease so long as "anybody is terrorising established governments" and Britain's latest terrorism legislation outlaws support for groups opposing any regime, including an illegal one, with violence.

Pacifists apart, however, virtually everyone across the political spectrum supports terrorism in practice - or, rather, what passes for terrorism under the rubric being promulgated by western chancelleries. The transformation from terrorist to respected statesman has become a cliche of the international politics of the past 50 years, now being replayed in Northern Ireland. Almost every society, philosophy and religion has recognised the right to take up arms against tyranny or foreign occupation. In History Will Absolve Me, his 1953 trial speech after the abortive Moncada barracks attack, Fidel Castro reels off a string of thinkers and theologians - from Thomas Aquinas and John Salisbury to John Calvin and Thomas Paine - who defended the right to rebel against despots. In modern times, few would question the heroism or justice of the wartime resistance to the Nazis or of armed rebellions against British or French colonial rule, all damned as terrorists by those they fought.

More recently still, the US government trained and funded the armed contra rebellion against Nicaragua - ably assisted by John Negroponte, the current US ambassador to the UN and in defiance of the international court in the Hague. Along with its faithful British ally, the US also backed the Afghan mojahedin (even before the Soviet intervention), as it is now funding opposition groups waging bombing campaigns in Iraq. So the Bush administration's problem with terrorism is evidently not about breaking the state's monopoly of violence.

The right to resist occupation is in any case recognised under international law and the Geneva convention, which is one reason why routine western denunciations of Palestinian violence ring so utterly hollow. Having failed to dislodge the Israeli occupation after 34 years or implement the UN decision to create a Palestinian state after 54 years, there are few reasonable grounds to complain if those living under the occupation fight back. But the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, which last week assassinated Israel's racist tourism minister in response to the Israeli assassination of its leader in August, is officially regarded as a terrorist organisation by the US government, which has now successfully pressured the Palestinian leadership to ban its military wing.

The tendency in recent years, encouraged by the scale of last month's atrocity in New York, has been to define terrorism increasingly in terms of methods and tactics - particularly the targeting of civilians - rather than the status of those who carry it out. Such an approach has its own difficulties. Liberation movements which most would balk at branding terrorist, including the ANC and the Algerian FLN, attacked civilian targets - as so mesmerisingly portrayed in Pontecorvo's film Battle of Algiers. But more problematic for western governments is the way such arguments can be turned against them. The concept of modern terrorism derives, after all, from the French revolution, where terror was administered by the state - as it is today by scores of governments around the world.

If paramilitary groups become terrorists because they kill or injure civilians, what of those states which bomb television stations, bridges and power stations, train and arm death squads or authorise assassinations? After days when hundreds of Afghan civilians are reported to have died as a result of Anglo-American bombardment - while hundreds of thousands are fleeing for their lives - Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's remark that the aim was to "frighten" the other side couldn't have more sharply posed the paradox of terror.

In his City of God, Saint Augustine tells a story about an encounter between Alexander the Great (the last ruler successfully to garrison Afghanistan) and a pirate captain he had caught on the high seas. Ordering the pirate to heave to, Alexander demands: "How dare you molest the seas as a pirate?" "How dare you molest the whole world?" retorts the plucky pirate. "I have a small boat, so I am called a thief and a pirate. You have a great navy, so you are called an emperor, and can call other men pirates." Substitute terrorist or rogue state for pirate and the episode neatly encapsulates the morality of the new world order.

Political violence emerges when other avenues are closed. Where people suffer oppression, are denied a peaceful route to justice and social change and have exhausted all other tactics - the point the ANC reached in the early 1960s - they are surely entitled to use force. That does not apply to adventurist and socially disconnected groups like Baader Meinhof or the Red Brigades, nor does it deal with the question of whether such force is advisable or likely to be counter-productive. Islamist "jihad" groups, especially networks like al-Qaida with a "global reach" and a religious ideology impervious to accommodation, are considered by many to be beyond any normal calculus of repression and resistance. Certainly, the September 11 atrocity was an unprecedented act of non-state terror. But such groups are also unquestionably the product of conditions in the Arab and Muslim world for which both Britain and the US bear a heavy responsibility, through their unswerving support of despotic regimes for over half a century. It was precisely that blockage of democratic development that led to the failure of secular politics, which in turn paved the way for the growth of Islamist radicalism. Groups like al-Qaida offer no future to the Muslim world, but Bin Laden and his supporters have their boots sunk deep in a swamp of grievance. As the assault on Afghanistan continues, no one should delude themselves that cutting off al-Qaida's head or destroying its Afghan lair will put an end to this eruption.

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