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Terrorism is the topic of international debate among philosophers, historians, and politicians, as well as a subject of personal contemplation by its perpetrators and victims. As it is often said, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. However, an accepted definition of terrorism has yet to be determined by international law, allowing states to define it subjectively based on their interests rather than on an analysis of the situation that encapsulates all viewpoints.
But, terrorism possesses attributes that are difficult to debate, mainly the use of violence to strike fear into the hearts and minds of a specific audience and advance a particular cause or message; whether politically, economically, or religiously motivated, terrorism has long been a tool of states and sub-state groups and its successes and failures leaves doubt whether its ends have ever justified its means. One of the most active and feared “terrorist” organizations today is Al-Qaeda, which incurred the wrath of the world’s lone superpower for its attacks on September 11, 2001.
While most of the Western world agrees that Al-Qaeda is a terrorist organization, they were virtually spawned through the efforts of the United States and fight for the freedom of their region and belief system, proving the true subjectivity of terrorism as a method of acceptable and justified warfare. The proliferation of terrorism in the modern world reached its zenith with the dramatic coordinated attacks on the United States on 9/11.
With the world watching as the events unfolded, symbols of economic success and American power were obliterated in brazen acts of a small group of Islamic suicide attackers associated with Al-Qaeda. However, much of Osama Bin Laden’s influence and military education came at the expense of American taxpayers. To fight a holy war against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan in the early 1980s, the Central Intelligence Agency trained, armed, and organized Islamic warriors, including Bin Laden (Chomsky).
While they were instrumental in driving out the Russian invaders, they likewise sought to drive all foreign powers from the region, which included the United States, who set up permanent bases in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. These same CIA-trained terrorist networks soon attacked foreign interest in Lebanon and Egypt, and eventually attacked American interests in Africa as the organized terrorist network, Al-Qaeda. While they may have believed to be fighting a war of attrition against their enemies, their techniques and lack of government sanction garnered them the classification as a terrorist organization.
While sub-state groups like Al-Qaeda, which had long declared holy war on Western culture, target their enemies, they fight their war by choosing symbolic targets designed at instilling fear in the populace they oppose. The surprise attacks of 9/11 were not viewed in the same context as the devastatingly destructive Allied carpet-bombing of cities during World War II, which were also devised for the purposes of instilling fear in the enemy populace. While each act targeted symbolic, civilian populations, one is considered the tragedy of war, while the other is consider a morally reprehensible act of evil.
However, according to a suicide bomber in his letter to posterity, their classification as terrorists is nothing more than a study in semantics by their enemies: “They call us ‘terrorists’ but it is an absurdity to think that they, who hold the power of life and death over our entire people each and every day, could be terrorized by us. We have nothing but our determination and our willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice… When they have all the technology that this new century holds, who is the real terrorist in Palestine or indeed, throughout the world?
” (al ‘Arabi). Though terrorist organizations, their methods, and the causes for which they fight have changed over the years, the intent and effect of terrorism remain the same: to inflict violence on a target to send a message to a certain audience. This can also include the threat to use violence given that the person or group of persons who threatens violence are capable of carrying it out. Another aspect of terrorism is that the act or threat of violence has to be carried out intentionally.
This characteristic of terrorism, the fact that the damage does not occur accidentally but is calculated as part of a tactic, is one reason that most hold terrorism is so morally appalling. Publicity is also a necessity to communicate terrorist’s message to their audience: “Any act of violence is certain to attract television coverage, which brings the event directly into millions of homes and exposes its victims to the terrorists’ demands, grievances, or political goals.
Modern terrorism differs from that of the past because its victims are frequently innocent civilians who are picked at random or who merely happen into terrorist situations” (Edwards “Terrorism in the 20th Century”). While violence of any kind to achieve gains is fundamentally wrong, the attacks of 9/11 should be considered yet another battle in an ongoing ideological war, rather than an act of terrorism.
Just because Al-Qaeda had no official sanction by an organized state, their cause was widely supported by people in their region. To call this act “terrorism” dismisses the seriousness of the threat as well as the greater ideological problems faced. According to some experts, “Probably the most contested cause of terrorism is an aggrieved group resorting to violence for nationalist or separatist reasons; depending on one’s point of view, this can be considered as resistance against an (external) oppressor” (Reich and Laqueur).
For Islamic “terrorists,” their plight is merely to protect their government and religion, and the modern era of “terrorism” has been perpetrated mostly by Islamic jihadists that wish to remove Western influence from its region. Rather than dismissing the 9/11 attacks as acts of evil men or a small group of evil men, it would better serve American purposes to recognize that it has been at war with jihadists for the better part of a century.
Just because American citizens were largely ignorant to this does not absolve them from responsibility; there is a difference between innocence and ignorance, and as a democratic country, the population must assume responsibility for the actions of its government and its international dealings. As the United States refuses to negotiate with “terrorists,” its only option against groups like Al-Qaeda is to perpetrate its own kind of organized terrorism.
By declaring a “War on Terror,” it showed that the new world order was one that used semantics to pursue its goals. States like Iraq and Afghanistan, believed to have provided support to Al-Qaeda, that are accused of being involved in terrorism may become politically isolated, economically damaged, or toppled. Fighting terror with terror will not eliminate future attacks from jihadists, and the suffering that ensues from the wide scale war in these regions does little but create higher death tolls on both sides and much more animosity towards America.
And, while many Americans view themselves as liberators bringing freedom to the oppressed people of the Middle East, one can only imagine the reaction of average Americans if a foreign army invaded to “liberate” them from its government. This truly proves that one man’s freedom fighter is indeed another man’s terrorist, and while the results are mixed at best, terrorists continue to be heard with every bullet and bomb blast.
‘Arabi, Hujayra. “Confessions of a human bomb from Palestine. ” Free Arab Voice. 8 Jul 2006. 3 Aug 2008.<http://www. freearabvoice. org/articles/ ConfessionsOfAHumanNombFromPalestine. htm>. Chomsky, Noam and David Barsamian. “America Is a Serious Terrorist Threat. ” Terrorism. Ed. Laura K. Egendorf. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2004. Edwards, Cliff. “Terrorism in the 20th Century. ” Terrorismfiles. org. 2002. 3 Aug 2008. <http://www. terrorismfiles. org/encyclopaedia/terrorism_20th_century. html>. Reich, Walter, and Walter Laquer. Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998.