Thursday, August 12, 2004


Defining Terror

There is an insightful article in today's Ha'aretz by Meron Benvenisti about how "terrorism" is defined by a society, specifically looking at Israeli society. I think that this article is important not simply for those who are interested in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but in better understanding how the US is waging its own 'war on terrorism' with no established definition of what is meant by 'terror'. In essence Benvenisti points to how Palestinian terror has been defined in Israel not by methods, but by beliefs, goals, and ideology. Thus, "the concept that terror is any Palestinian activity aimed against the Israeli rule in the occupied territories."
This general definition, which no doubt entrenched itself in the wake of acts of murder and terror against innocent people, is accepted by the overwhelming majority. A small minority, which distinguishes between terror and legitimate resistance to the occupation, does not dare open its mouth lest it immediately be accused of justifying the Palestinian murders and be crucified in the city square.

The head of MI and the head of the Shin Bet did not invent the general definition of "terror." It has been accompanying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict going back to its roots, and serving the Israeli "battle mythos" well. More than characterizing the acts, it defines their cause: since the Palestinians' goals are illegitimate to the Israelis, then the means they use are also illegitimate. Violence intended to obtain improper goals is a crime whose perpetrator is a terrorist and murderer, destined to die. The MI and Shin Bet heads do not doubt for a moment their absolute right to decide when the use of violence is legitimate, and certainly think they have a monopoly on the legitimate violence.

Any attempt to rebel against this monopoly on the Palestinians' part is harshly punished. The frightened Israeli public, eager for revenge for its hundreds of casualties, stands as one behind the quest to the bottom of the barrel. This is a quest involving violence in the guise of enforcing law and order, but combines a cynical use of the enforcement power to realize national goals, which have nothing to do with vanquishing terror.
I think that it is hardly a stretch to apply this analysis to the United States. For example, Iraq, and before that Afghanistan, has been repeatedly couched in official language (and in the news, etc.) as part of the broader 'war on terror'. The idea that terror extends beyond methodology, since it can hardly be argued that the Iraqi government or Iraqi military used terrorist tactics against the US before or during the war, into ideology is reaffirmed in this sense. Iraq is part of the 'war on terror' because Saddam Hussein opposed the US ideologically, he sympathized with anti-US and anti-Israel terrorist organizations, etc. And of course, there is the situation with the "detainees" and "enemy combatants." They are afforded the rights of neither prisoners of war nor of criminals. Benvenisti adroitly addresses this same vaguity in Israeli society's treatment of Palestinians.
The Israelis cannot define, when it suits them, the situation as "war" - which enables massive use of force but grants the other side the status of a fighting side - and at other times define the situation as "disorder" requiring police measures against rioters and terrorists.
By refusing to set clear definitions, the state is allowed to exercise its monopoly on 'legitimate' violence (as percieved by the average citizen) almost without question. Allowing terror to be defined largely by ideology (especially now that the phrase used more and more - including in the 9/11 commission's report - is Islamist terror) sets the end of this war in a distant utopia with a long, hard road in between. The anti-communist zealots in this country have always criticized the naive, utopian bent of communism's appeal. I only with the same people would apply the same scrutiny to the 'war on terrorism'.

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