Friday, November 23, 2001

Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?

Since September 11, 2001 the news media have been full of news about terrorism. There is however a debate waiting to take place, which both the protagonists in the war that struck USA on September 11 as well as bystanders such as India have so far avoided. This is the debate inherent in the statement that, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s Freedom Fighter.” One response to this issue is that “I know a terrorist when I see one.” This response may be adequate while the memories of September 11 are still fresh in everyone’s mind, but will be quite inadequate when fresh horrors overlay some memories but not others. Another response is to sweep the issue under the carpet because it may affect the view of the so-called “Coalition against terrorism” in a direction that is unfavourable to India on Kashmir. As I try to show below, it is in our interest to start laying down the terms of the debate by trying to define what such terms mean in the 21st century.
Who or what is a terrorist? Though the exercise may appear at first like peeling an onion it is an exercise worth carrying out. Let us start with the simplest and most obvious definition: A terrorist organisation (or individual) is one that targets civilians (with the purpose of maiming or killing) for the purported purpose of achieving any professed goal or ideology. The purpose of killing civilians may be to proclaim the terrorists existence or to “terrorise” the population. In any case the pre-meditated killing of civilians clearly and unambiguously defines an organisation as terrorist. Even if the primary objective is to terrorise civilians by blowing up a civilian facility in which a few civilian workers are known to be present, counts in my view as a premeditated killing of civilians.
A murderer also targets civilians, but his/her motives are very personal (revenge against a well specified individual or group, money etc.). A broader goal, objective or ideology than the purely personal is a fundamental element of any terrorist organisation. Even an individual terrorist such as the Unabomber had an ideology – anti-technology (modern version of Luddism) even though he did not publicise it. Anti-abortion extremists that blow up abortion facilities in the USA and environmental fundamentalists who blow up polluting factories and kill people present in them or passers by have a well-defined objective & professed ideology.
Can a State be a “terrorist” State? If we think of examples such as such as Chile, Argentina & other Latin American States under their right wing generals, Cultural Revolution China under Mao, Russia under Stalin, the answer seems obvious. We must move from emotionally charged examples to rigorous definition that is logical & consistent, so that difficult grey areas can also be addressed. Applying our earlier definition, a dictatorship (or oligarchy) that as a matter of sanctioned policy kills its own civilians to terrorise its population into docility and acceptance of its dictatorial rule can logically be classified as a terrorist state. A State that sponsors, supports or shelters terrorist groups, whether domestic or foreign, can by the same logic be called a terrorist state if it helps in the killing of civilians abroad.
Can groups of citizens who are trying to liberate their own country from such a “terrorist dictatorship” use terrorism without loosing their right to be called “freedom fighters?” The logical answer has to be an unambiguous no; the premeditated killing of innocent civilians must logically remain a terrorist act no matter who the perpetrator. The tag of “freedom fighter” does not save one from being labelled a “terrorist.” There are, however, grey areas in practice; The precise definition of “innocent civilian” becomes a little ambiguous. All those in the full knowledge of and participating in the administration of the policy of state sponsored killing of civilians are no longer innocent civilians and can in principle be targeted by genuine “freedom fighters.”
The distinction between dictatorship (oligarchy) and democracy is critical. In a true 21st century democracy it is impossible to imagine a democratically sanctioned policy of killing of innocent civilians so as to terrorise even a part of the population. The most fundamental right of every citizen is the right to life. A true democracy must have laws & institutions that protect this right against occasional abuses by organs of the State. Besides intellectual & media freedom, the right to criticise the leaders and the system, and elections that can change government, minority rights are an important component of true democracy. The majority does not have the right to deny to a minority the same rights that it enjoys (e.g. basic education, religious freedom). By the same token a minority has no inherent right to things that the majority does not enjoy (like special subsidies). Every one has the right to convince others of their own viewpoint and thus change a policy that they do not like. A minority (e.g. the “Black Panthers” in the USA) does not have the right to impose its own views on the majority by force and killing just as the majority does not have the right to use the organs of state to terrorise the minority.
Foreigners entering a democratic country for the purpose of killing anyone (civilian, policy or army) can unambiguously be classified either as terrorists or as invaders. A State cannot be classified as terrorist if it hunts down and kills such hostile foreigners. Citizens do not have the right to shelter such foreigners and are criminally liable if they do so. Thus most of the grey areas found in a dictatorship disappear in a true democracy where the minority enjoys full democratic rights. Killing of not only civilians but also the police and armed forces is a terrorist act in a true democracy.
The only grey area is a situation in which domestic terrorists have managed to operate in an area for some time and managed to terrorise the population. Can democratic rights be abridged to fight this terrorism? In my view a true democracy can and should pass laws that can temporarily and in a well specified area or ambit abridge democratic rights for a limited period of time. Given the general problem of deteriorating governance in developing countries there is strong danger of lazy administrators using such laws well beyond their intended orbit. Adequate safeguards must be built in to any such act. In such a fight against terrorists, some innocent civilian lives are inevitably lost. Such actions by the state and its organs cannot be classified as “State terrorism.” If there is individual malafide action (such as settling personal scores) outside the ambit of the special anti-terrorism law such malafide must be punished by the democratic state.
To conclude, any one who engages in, supports or protects the killers of innocent civilians is a terrorist no matter how elevated the professed objective. In a democratic country with adequate safeguards against aberrant behaviour by the organs of state, even those who kill policemen and soldiers who have not violated the law and are engaged in their normal peacetime activities classify as terrorists.

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