Terrorist and terrorism are probably the most often used words in today’s media, making an inquiry into their definition and use long overdue. Having shifted the role of watchdog to whistle-blowers as part of its new mission to propagate the government’s views, journalists mindlessly apply the word “terrorist” to any group or individual engaging in activities that governments do not like.

Protesters on a march, some dressed in black bloc or as clowns

Terrorists?

Although it has no legally binding definition under international criminal law, according to Wikipedia, “Terrorism is the systematic use of terror, often violent, especially as a means of coercion.” Common definitions tend to ignore the crucial notion of coercion, referring only to violent acts intended to create fear (terror), perpetrated for a religious, political or, ideological goal that deliberately targets or disregards the safety of civilians (otherwise known as non-combatants). Both these definitions enable governments to designate anyone who disagrees with them — regardless of how they manifest that disagreement — as a terrorist.

Under these definitions, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attack can rightly be defined as terrorists.  Clearly however, groups and individuals whose aspirations and beliefs are simply in conflict with those of governments cannot. This makes it imperative to deconstruct the method used by power and its enablers to reverse engineer the “civilized world’s” sacred rights of citizenship into offenses punishable by detention and death.

Government begins by labeling ideas that deviate from its own as “extremist,” then it dubs those holding such views as extremists; then it moves on to alternating the word “extremist” with that of “terrorist.” Finally, like seasoning on a botched recipe, it equates both words with the term “anarchist,” scrubbing the word’s philosophical meaning to leave only actions of crowd violence perpetrated by individuals, as indelibly memorialized by Sacco and Vanzetti in the early twentieth century.

While the two Italian anarchists were being condemned to death for a crime they probably did not commit, Zionists fighting to free Mandate Palestine from British rule were setting up two terrorist organizations. The motto of the Haganah and the Irgun, “only thus” was inscribed beneath a hand holding a rifle superimposed on a map of Mandatory Palestine, implying that force was the only way to “liberate the homeland.” Although they were at odds with official Jewish policies, these groups are never referred to as “terrorists,” but as “paramiltary organizations.” Similarly, European underground fighters that thwarted German occupations during the Second World War are never referred to as terrorist organizations but are correctly labelled as “resistance fighters.”

Why then are Palestinians fighting to free their land from Israeli occupation referred to as “terrorists” rather than as “resistance fighters?” The long and bloody resistance of the Palestinian people to occupation, using the same methods as those employed by Irgun and Haganah, played a key role in the West’s gradual banalization of the word “terrorist,” with successive Israeli governments, along with the United States, Canada, the European Union, Turkey and Japan, designating Hamas as a terrorist organization. Unbeknownst to most Americans, Arab nations are not the only ones to disagree with this label: Iran, Russia, Norway, Switzerland, the United Nations and most Latin American countries hold firm to their dictionaries.

Never mind: the Palestinian precedent — as well as that of Syria’s civil war, in which government supporters are referred to as terrorists while Islamists seeking to establish a Caliphate receive American weapons — prepared the terrain for Ukrainians opposing a government that came to power through a bloody coup to be labelled as terrorists — or at best ‘rebels’. Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act, signed into law by President Bush on October 26, 2011, is applied urbi et orbi.

The September 11th attack on the United States gave the word “terrorist” its noble colors. Gradually, other governments realized its usefullness, and began to apply it indiscriminately to any person or group that challenged their power in any way. In Ukraine,  politicians who overthrew an elected president with the help of five billion American dollars and openly fascistic organizations indulging in “acts dangerous to human life, intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population” have labeled citizens who reject that coup as terrorists. Like a veritable ‘open sesame,’ this single word is all that is needed to justify the use of air strikes by the military and ground campaigns by fascist thugs officially belonging to the government’s security apparatus but free to burn people alive, hack body parts and race tanks through city streets shooting at will.

The American Patriot Act expands the definition of terrorism that originally came to be associated with the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by foreign nationals, to include “domestic” terrorism. A person engages in domestic terrorism if, within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, he/she commits an act “dangerous to human life,” (…) that “appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”

Thanks to this series of linguistic manipulations, almost any activity that the United States and its allies do not condone is today labelled as terrorism, whether it’s anti-bankster Occupiers or Ukrainians who don’t want to be governed by fascists out to reverse their World War II defeat.

And yet, the use of this label on a European population to justify what is fast becoming a full-fledged civil war appears to have gone unnoticed by activists. Even intellectuals who are suing the American government over anti-terrorist legislation have failed to identify the subtle means being used to ensure public acceptance of the government violence that is engulfing the world.

Photo by Alexis Gravel released under a Creative Commons No Derivatives license.