Some thoughts about “terrorism”

Terrorism, or at least “terrorism”, is in the news a lot this week. Where to start? Well, let’s start with the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, and specifically the thoughts of my friend and colleague Guy Rundle, who observed in Monday’s Crikey that

To decide that the dead of MH17 are victims of terror is to decide the legitimacy of the war they got tangled up in. They were more like tourists killed in a hotel during a civil war than victims of a suicide hijacking or a targeted bombing, which is what the NATO/EU push would like to construct them as.

… Some goose in Fairfax suggested that this was “part of a new and dangerous” world, one of those phrases that tired centrist commentators should set up as shift-F3 on their keyboards. New and dangerous? Jaysus, in the 1970s air crashes and hijackings were such regular events that they were all but scheduled on the click-clack boards at the airport.

Rundle is right. There is no new Cold War, or if there is, it is but a pale shadow of the last one. Air travel is safer than it has ever been, and the sort of terrorism that once bedevilled international affairs attracts attention precisely because it is so rare.

Of course it makes sense for the Ukrainian government, trying to delegitimise its opponents, to describe the missile attack as an act of “terrorism”. But the reality is that no-one shoots down a civilian airliner on purpose. No doubt it was an act of criminal negligence, but there is no sign of the deliberate targeting of the innocent that surely is the mark of terrorism.

Then turn to Juan Cole, trying to draw a lesson about counter-terrorism from the American experience in Iraq:

The US misunderstood the Sunni resistance as narrow, as consisting of a few small terrorist groups. Washington thought it knew where they were based (Falluja) and was convinced that invading that city would allow them to inflict substantial attrition on the military and organizational capacity of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. …

[But] the 2004 invasion of Falluja not only did not root out “terrorism,” it paved the way very possibly for Iraq to lose Falluja and other major Iraq Sunni Arab population centers.

His moral, though, is about something even more topical than Iraq:

Likewise, the Israeli military profoundly misunderstands Hamas. It is ridiculous to dismiss it as a terrorist organization. it is broadly based and has an important political wing.

For this reason, the Israel ground invasion of northern Gaza will be no more successful than the US invasion of Falluja. The Israelis cannot actually destroy Hamas or its capabilities as long as significant numbers of Palestinians in Gaza support it. That support is political, having to do with the organization’s role in at least trying to stand up to Israeli oppression, occupation and blockade.

The point is not that Hamas doesn’t engage in terrorist tactics: clearly it does, as Cole concedes up front. “Such groups may deploy terror (…), but they aren’t actually just terrorist groups. They are insurgencies.” In other words, thinking of them as the sort of group for whom terrorism is fundamental to their existence – like an al-Qa’eda, or a latter-day Baader-Meinhof gang – misunderstands what is going on and leads to completely inappropriate tactics.

The idea of pursuing even a medium-term truce with a Baader-Meinhof gang is absurd. And because Likud thinks of Hamas the same way, it places no importance on negotiation or even on keeping to the terms of agreements it has already negotiated.

If Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu were dealing with an ordinary state or state-like actor, he would realise the need to act with at least a basic minimum of good faith: recognising that the other party has interests of its own that it will try (perhaps badly) to promote, and that any agreement has to address the concerns of both sides. But he simply doesn’t see Hamas in those terms.

The notion of “terrorism”, even though not unfairly applied, blinds him and his supporters to the reality of what can and cannot be achieved.

Both in eastern Ukraine and in Gaza there are armed conflicts going on. Even if they are ended by purely military means, the underlying grievances will remain and will one day have to be addressed by diplomacy. Relying on the label of “terrorism” as a substitute for thought just makes that task harder.



3 thoughts on “Some thoughts about “terrorism”

  1. “But the reality is that no-one shoots down a civilian airliner on purpose.”

    Unless they wish to blame someone else.

    Notice how quite the US has gone about blame after Russia put up its video of air traffic control screens at the time.

    Russia has been out-maneuvered here and Ukraine will survive a bit longer.


  2. Thanks Emile. I don’t think there’s realistically any room for doubt that the plane was shot down by the rebels, although I’m quite sure they didn’t realise it was a civilian jet. (For one thing, there’s no reason for the Ukrainian government to be using anti-aircraft weaponry, since the rebels don’t have any planes.) I think a united Ukraine (minus Crimea, of course) will survive, since recent events (and this one in particular) have discredited the pro-Russian cause, but at some point the government will have to address the grievances of the Russian-speakers in the east, perhaps with some sort of special autonomy provision.


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