Another day, another meaningless declaration against terrorism. This one came from Euromed, a group made up of the 25 members of the European Union plus 10 states from the South Mediterranean. Representatives for these states convened in Barcelona for the weekend summit, and after much deliberation, they released a last-minute statement on Monday condemning something called “terrorism,” whatever that is.
Many news outlets could barely contain their euphoria. “EU-Mediterranean anti-terror code backed,” said CNN.com. Not to be outdone, the ABC News website gushed “Euromed summit clinches deal on terrorism code.” Wow,! Never mind backing a code, they clinched a deal! This deal may even have ended the entire Middle East conflict. “Israel, Arabs agree to EU terror code.” That’s right! Europe, the Palestinian Authority, Israel and Syria all agreed that “terrorism can never be justified” and promised to “condemn terrorism in all its manifestations without qualification.” Hell froze over! Pigs flew!
Well, not exactly. You’d have to read a few stories right till the end to learn the limitations of the so-called “deal.” First off, the E.U. made it clear in the run-up to the summit that they would push for an unequivocal condemnation of terrorism in all its forms. As a result, of the 10 non-European countries who were invited, only the leaders of the Palestinian Authority and Turkey showed up, the first to push for his position on the Mideast roadmap, and the second to push for his country’s admission into the E.U. The remaining countries sent delegates.
With this less than auspicious beginning, co-chairs Tony Blair and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero then began the uphill battle of trying to get the assembled delegates to unite in a condemnation of terrorism. This is where these summits always break down: The countries could not agree on what constitutes “terrorism.”
But this is not so much a disagreement as an evasion, because anyone with an ounce of common sense has no trouble defining terrorism: It’s deliberate attacks on civilians to achieve political ends. While many people split hairs over that definition, their arguments are disingenuous and only serve to muddy the waters and enable terrorism. This is easily demonstrated with a few examples.
Is the Iraq war “state terrorism” on the part of the United States, as many self-described peace activists have proclaimed? Well, did the U.S. Army deliberately target civilians? Remember, collateral damage alone cannot constitute terrorism. If that were the case, every single act of war in history was terrorism, as no war has every killed no civilians. By any historical measure, the Iraq war killed far fewer civilians than any military operation of its size in history and this was because the United States Army did everything in their power to minimize civilian casualties. Most of those who oppose the war manage to do so without engaging in idiotic distortions of simple English for shock value. Anyone who maintains that the Iraq war was “terrorism” might as well call the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib “genocide” while they’re at it. War is hell, but terrorism it ain’t.
What about when armies engaged in fighting a war commit serious, deliberate abuses against civilians? That’s a very bad thing, and if it’s very bad, it must be terrorism, right? Wrong. Just as someone with whom we disagree isn’t a fascist by definition, not all attacks on civilians constitute terrorism. There’s a perfectly good expression for crimes committed by an army during wartime: “War crimes.” That’s what Slobodan Milosevic is on trial for in The Hague. War crimes are monstrous, but they aren’t terrorism either.
These kinds of deliberate distortions aren’t only used to label whatever we don’t like as terrorism. They also work in the other direction, mislabeling actual terrorism as something else. Once again, applying the simple dictionary definition shows these misrepresentations as the hollow justifications of terrorism that they are.
How about the insurgency in Iraq? Aren’t they fighting a foreign occupation? That’s not terrorism, right? Not so fast. Who do these so-called “insurgents” attack and what are their goals? They focus on bombing mosques, schools, markets and restaurants, killing as many civilians as possible in an effort to destabilize the Iraqi government. They do not limit their attacks to soldiers or even police and government workers. Instead, they go after soft targets, the softer the better. Hmmm. Deliberate mass-murder of men, women and children to achieve a political end. That fits the plain English definition of terrorism to a T. The fact that they hate Americans isn’t enough to elevate them to soldier status. Just as someone who fights against your side isn’t automatically a terrorist, not everyone attacking your perceived enemy is a freedom fighter.
Most reasonable people can easily agree on a straightforward definition of terrorism. The ones who equivocate and dance around the subject are only justifying and enabling it. This is why countries that harbor and fund terrorists have such a hard time figuring out just what that pesky t-word actually means.
So it’s no surprise that the foreign minister of Syria insisted on adding an exception to the definition of terrorism for “the right of peoples under foreign occupation to resistance,” as if a condemnation of terrorism would somehow negate the rights of oh, say, the Lebanese to resist Syrian occupation with the strikes, civil disobedience and mass protests that ultimately drove the Syrian army from their country. A real declaration against terrorism wouldn’t even preclude civil war, militias, attacks on army bases or many other forms of violent military resistance. The only thing it would outlaw is the deliberate mass-murder of innocent civilians; clearly, that was too much to expect from countries like Syria.
In the end, no formal agreement was reached, and the chairs of the Euromed summit had to issue a “Chairman’s Statement,” which is basically what Blair and Zapatero would like to believe they’ve agreed on. That’s the “deal” they managed to get, which pledges to fight something without saying just what that something is.
Javier Solana, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, glossed over this minor detail. “We all know what we mean by fighting terrorism,” he said.
No doubt. And that’s exactly why countries that use terrorism to achieve their goals can’t afford to ever define it.