Thursday, October 11, 2007

A war of definitions: full text

A war of definitions

Terrorism means what we say it means: no more, no less.
Ian Williams

from Comment is Free
October 10, 2007 2:00 PM | Printable version

Watching the US senate and the Iranian parliament in operation really does reinforce the point that "terrorism" and "terrorist" are in no way precise legal terms. They are pejoratives that you throw at your enemies.

But weighed in the balance, I would say the US senate is far more wanting than its Iranian counterpart. Their decision to brand Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a "terrorist" organisation has consequences, while the Iranian parliament's adoption of a similar resolution about the CIA and the US Army is fundamentally onanistic - satisfying but meaningless.

The senate resolution may well be the legal excuse that the Bush administration wields, capping all the other presidential pronunciamentos, to attack Iran, in yet another extension of the war on terror.

So, while it is easy to laugh at the Iranian legislators, except for those rendered apoplectic by their presumption, in fact they have the right of it.

The closest the UN got to a working definition of terrorism was: "Any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act."

There was much Western derision at non-aligned countries who tried to get the freedom fighter exclusion clause in, and indeed some of them certainly went beyond any acceptable limits in their defence of bombings of civilians. But there was more than a little squirming on the Western side, as well. If blowing up a pizza parlour is wrong, then how do you defend the massacre at Qana, or the gratuitous bombings in Iraqi villages, or the assassinations of suspected "terrorists" along with anyone else in the vicinity?

Frankly, one would have thought the deed itself of killing or maiming would be culpable and actionable enough without fretting too much about the motivation. In fact unconfirmed US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton tried to make it a completely circular definition by inserting, "by terrorists" after "actions." It makes sense of sorts. "Terrorists are people who practice terrorism. Terrorism is what terrorists do. And I decide who they are."

Bolton said that actions by governments were covered by war crimes and the Geneva Conventions, which is true. But actions by non-governments are are covered by criminal law as well, so we are left with the Humpty Dumpty apologia: "When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean - no more nor less." And as Ambassador Dumpty explained: "The question is, which is to be the master - that's all".

And so now not an American sparrow falls without Washington suggesting that Iran and "terrorism" was behind its untimely demise.

In fact if the Iranian parliament had cut down on the rhetoric, missed out the US army and stressed the CIA's own exposed "Family Jewels" they would have been able to send a well targeted painful kick at them.

Most people would agree that the CIA's own, albeit bowdlerised confessions of assassinations of foreign leaders, fomentation of military coups, mining the harbours of countries that you were not at war with, kidnapping innocent civilians and flying them round the world to be tortured, and so do shape up to anyone's definition of terrorism. Of course, if one of your own elected governments had been overthrown, like Iran's Mossadeg by the CIA your complaint would be even more pointed.

But the Iranians have lost the game simply by playing it. There is murder, there are war crimes, there are crimes against the Geneva Conventions, and the use of "terrorism" just bloodies the water.

People who use it almost invariably mean that it is what our enemies do. Luckily, the Iranian parliament is not going to invade anyone else. In fact Iran has not invaded anyone else since the Shah was deposed. But the United States senate, which applauded as it was conned into chasing al-Qaida into an Iraq where it previously had zero support clearly has deep philosophic and semantic problems with reality which is, after all why the concept of the "war on terror" was invented.

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