The Guardian (UK)May 23, 2013.
What definition of the term includes this horrific act of violence but excludes the acts of the US, the UK and its allies?
A man appearing to be holding a knife following the Woolwich attack.
When I asked on Twitter this morning what specific attributes of this attack make it "terrorism" given that it was a soldier who was killed, the most frequent answer I received was that "terrorism" means any act of violence designed to achieve political change, or more specifically, to induce a civilian population to change their government or its policies of out fear of violence. Because, this line of reasoning went, one of the attackers here said that "the only reasons we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily" and warned that "you people will never be safe. Remove your government", the intent of the violence was to induce political change, thus making it "terrorism".Read the rest here.
That is at least a coherent definition. But doesn't that then encompass the vast majority of violent acts undertaken by the US and its allies over the last decade? What was the US/UK "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad if not a campaign to intimidate the population with a massive show of violence into submitting to the invading armies and ceasing their support for Saddam's regime? That was clearly its functional intent and even its stated intent. That definition would also immediately include the massive air bombings of German cities during World War II. It would include the Central American civilian-slaughtering militias supported, funded and armed by the Reagan administration throughout the 1980s, the Bangledeshi death squads trained and funded by the UK, and countless other groups supported by the west that used violence against civilians to achieve political ends.
The ongoing US drone attacks unquestionably have the effect, and one could reasonably argue the intent, of terrorizing the local populations so that they cease harboring or supporting those the west deems to be enemies. The brutal sanctions regime imposed by the west on Iraq and Iran, which kills large numbers of people, clearly has the intent of terrorizing the population into changing its governments' policies and even the government itself. How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners? Can that be done?
I know this vital caveat will fall on deaf ears for some, but nothing about this discussion has anything to do with justifiability. An act can be vile, evil, and devoid of justification without being "terrorism": indeed, most of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, from the Holocaust to the wanton slaughter of Stalin and Pol Pot and the massive destruction of human life in Vietnam, are not typically described as "terrorism". To question whether something qualifies as "terrorism" is not remotely to justify or even mitigate it. That should go without saying, though I know it doesn't.
The reason it's so crucial to ask this question is that there are few terms - if there are any - that pack the political, cultural and emotional punch that "terrorism" provides. When it comes to the actions of western governments, it is a conversation-stopper, justifying virtually anything those governments want to do. It's a term that is used to start wars, engage in sustained military action, send people to prison for decades or life, to target suspects for due-process-free execution, shield government actions behind a wall of secrecy, and instantly shape public perceptions around the world. It matters what the definition of the term is, or whether there is a consistent and coherent definition. It matters a great deal.
There is ample scholarship proving that the term has no such clear or consistently applied meaning (see the penultimate section here, and my interview with Remi Brulin here). It is very hard to escape the conclusion that, operationally, the term has no real definition at this point beyond "violence engaged in by Muslims in retaliation against western violence toward Muslims". When media reports yesterday began saying that "there are indications that this may be act of terror", it seems clear that what was really meant was: "there are indications that the perpetrators were Muslims driven by political grievances against the west" (earlier this month, an elderly British Muslim was stabbed to death in an apparent anti-Muslim hate crime and nobody called that "terrorism"). Put another way, the term at this point seems to have no function other than propagandistically and legally legitimizing the violence of western states against Muslims while delegitimizing any and all violence done in return to those states.
*****Comment: The terms of reference used to frame what is and what is not a terrorist attack have become pretty standard since the aftermath of 9/11.
As in the case of the recent Boston bombings, this incident became a terrorist act when it was apparent that the perpetrators were Muslim.
The framing of this brutal act as terrorism immediately set into motion the now standard interrogation and confirmation of Muslim motives, Muslim methods, and Muslim madness.
The outcome is hardly surprising. Western commonsense says Muslims are known terrorists and Islam is a pathological religion and ideology for terrorism.
The manner in which these forgone conclusions are operationalized is striking in its Orientalizing reach.
The Telegraph, for example, has already posted an opinion piece claiming that what we witnessed yesterday was a "beheading" without a shred of evidence that the victim was beheaded.
The article goes further to say that the killing was straight out of Al Qaeda's manual. This even before the names of the suspects were made public and any inference to a link to Al Qaeda confirmed.
But what about the speculative "beheading"?
If you read closely there is no confirmation of a "beheading". Even the woman who spoke to both suspects at the murder scene did not mention a "beheading".
In fact this is what she told reporters:
"I went over to the body where there was a lady sitting there and she said he was dead. She had comforted him by putting something under his back and a jacket over his head. I took his pulse and there was none. I couldn't see the man's face but I could see no evidence that suggested someone had tried to cut off his head. I could see nothing on him to suggest that he was a soldier.So it is a curious thing this assertion of a "beheading". It seems to me to be a sensationalized and deliberate appeal to racist Muslim stereotypes in which the practice of beheading is assumed to be indicative and commonplace.
It is a well-worn racist narrative that provides a historical context for the West despite its absolute manipulation - in effect it is propagandistic.
And yet if we are keeping score of who is most barbaric, hardly a day goes by without drone massacres that kill innocents in the now permanent theater of Western war on Muslim bodies and Islam.
These killings are rarely described in the terms that conjure barbaric behavior or barbarism even where young innocent children lay dead for no other reason but because the West sees it fit to kill them before they grow.
I do not condone what happened yesterday but I understand why it happened and I expect that in keeping with the notion of blowback it will happen again and again until the West stops it war on Muslims and Islam.
Still, no peace loving and justice seeking person, Muslim or not, can stand by what those two men did in Woolwich yesterday. It is inhumane and not in keeping with the Islam that raised me and mine.
But does it matter?
Already right-wing bigots are on the march to burn mosques and assault Muslims wherever they can be cornered. This reaction is telling of the jump-on-the-bandwagon and blame Muslims and Islam mindset that preoccupies the West - therein lies the real pathology that should be dissected if we are ever to move closer to a lasting peace for all.
But until then it matters little that me and mine have never killed innocents and never will; while all around us we live as suspects even while we sleep.