February 18, 2004
International Herald Tribune

'Terrorism': A World Ensnared by a Word

The low-technology violence of the weak is such an abomination that there are no limits on the high-technology violence of the strong that can be deployed against it

by John V. Whitbeck

In his televised "Meet the Press" interview Feb. 8, President George W. Bush was never asked a question about "terrorism." Yet he used the word (or a variant) 22 times. The word explained, and justified, everything - past, present and future.

Few American politicians or commentators dare to question the conventional wisdom that "terrorism" is the greatest threat facing America and the world. If so, the real threat lies not in the behavior to which this word is applied but in the word itself.

It is no accident that there is no agreed definition of terrorism, since the word is so subjective as to be devoid of any inherent meaning.

. . . precise formulations do not carry the overwhelming, demonizing and thought-deadening impact of the word "terrorism," which is, of course, precisely the charm of the word for its more cynical and unprincipled users and abusers. If someone commits "politically motivated mass murder," people might be curious as to the cause or grievance which inspired such a crime, but no cause or grievance can justify (or even explain) "terrorism," which, all right-thinking people must agree, is an ultimate evil.

Most acts to which the word "terrorism" is applied (at least in the West) are tactics of the weak, usually (although not always) against the strong. Such acts are not a tactic of choice but of last resort.

The poor, the weak and the oppressed rarely complain about "terrorism." The rich, the strong and the oppressors constantly do. While most of mankind has more reason to fear the high-technology violence of the strong than the low-technology violence of the weak, the fundamental mind-trick employed by the abusers of the word "terrorism" is essentially this: The low-technology violence of the weak is such an abomination that there are no limits on the high-technology violence of the strong that can be deployed against it. . . .


[The writer is an international lawyer based in Saudi Arabia]

"Realpolitik and Terrorism," The Wisdom Fund

"What's Wrong With 'Suicide' Bombing," The Wisdom Fund, May 9, 2002

Standard Schaeffer, "Al Qaeda Itself Does Not Exist," CounterPunch, June 21, 2003

Patrick J. Buchanan, "No End to War: The Frum-Perle prescription would ensnare America in endless conflict," CounterPunch, March 1, 2004

[The first part is for the Muslim world to shun militancy and extremism and adopt the path of socioeconomic uplift. The second is for the West, and the United States in particular, to seek to resolve all political disputes with justice and to aid in the socioeconomic betterment of the deprived Muslim world.--Parvez Musharraf, "A Plea for Enlightened Moderation," The Washington Post, June 1, 2004]

[If the leaders of the Western world want to do our security a favour, they could adopt a New Year resolution to economise on the use of the word 'terrorist' in their rhetoric. . . .

Conventional armed forces kill far more 'innocent civilians' in the course of pursuing their purposes than any terrorist group has contrived, . . .

Terrorism is simply one means of applying force in pursuit of political ends. It is traditionally adopted by the weak, who cannot hope to prevail in a conventional contest.--Max Hastings, "Phoney war," The Spectator (UK), January 8, 2005]

Cynthia Banham, "Brigadier shocks and awes: there is no war on terrorism," Sydney Morning Herald, April 27, 2005

Glenn Greenwald, "The real definition of Terrorism,", December 10, 2011

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