The Meaning of Words II: Terrorist

terrorist1Terrorist! The word is meant to strike fear into your very soul. In fact its root word is terror, which is defined as “intense, sharp, overmastering fear” (source). The suffix –ist refers to “One that performs a specified action” or “An adherent or advocate of a specified doctrine” (source). Therefore, based on this breakdown and analysis of the word, we can define a terrorist as one that performs an action that causes people to feel intense fear. We could also define a terrorist as one who adheres to or advocates a doctrine of fear or one who uses fear as a political tool.

These definitions leave the observer a lot of wiggle room. They are quite broad. There is any number of people that I could claim to be terrorists and based on these somewhat loose, but clearly accurate definitions I may have a sound argument. Many of these people would not be ones who would automatically jump to mind when considering the evolution of the term over the last decade or two. When we think of a terrorist we are most likely thinking of a political or religious terrorist. We are thinking a person who straps bombs to their chest and blows themselves up in the middle of a crowded market. We think of bombs being planted on buses and inside of federal buildings. We think of attacking civilians and innocent bystanders. We think of people who are rogues, not associated with any nation or legitimate military, using illegal methods of war to attack rightfully established governments and societies. Usually, although not always and even if we should not, we think of Arabs or Islam.

What we do not usually think of is a murderer or serial killer, a rapist, an abusive family member, or a school bully who so scares a poor child that they are afraid to walk to school. However, based on the definition presented above all of these, perhaps even our own President and military can be deemed terrorist. The point of this article though is not to declare George W. Bush or the U.S. military as terrorist, although compelling arguments have been made by others. Rather, the purpose is to show how the word terrorist is a political term used throughout the 20th and 21st centuries to justify wars and constantly shifting alliances. As we will see, if you are our friend or ally you are called a freedom fighter. If you are our enemy, with no change other than a shift in that simple friend versus enemy dichotomy, you become a terrorist.


Osama bin Laden

One of the most relevant examples of this is the relationship between the U.S. and Al-Qaeda and its leaders such as Osama bin Laden. In the mid-1980s Osama bin Laden went to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen, the Afghan resistance movement against the occupying Soviet military force (source). The Soviet Union had invaded in 1979 and the war would last until the Soviet withdraw in 1989. Throughout the Soviet-Afghan war the U.S. provided extensive and covert support by way of weapons, money, and training for the resistance, of which Osama bin Laden was a part. By the end of the war we had given the mujahideen some $2 billion dollars and a host of lethal weapons including heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-tank grenade launchers, and rocket launchers with a range of eight kilometers (source). But it was okay. They were fighting against the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union. These mujahideen were freedom fighters, they were our allies. Who would question our assistance to them?

Of course, we are well aware of how the rest of this story goes, at least up until the present day. The mujahideen will eventually morph into groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In 1991 the U.S. invaded Kuwait by way of Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden’s place of birth and the birth place of Islam as well. Osama bin Laden saw the U.S. stationing troops this most holy of Islamic nations, as well as U.S. support for Israel, as an abomination. By the next year, 1992, bin Laden was claiming responsibility for attacks on U.S. soldiers abroad and would claim responsibility for a number of attacks on U.S. soldiers, ships, and embassies over the next decade and a half leading up to 9/11. Over that time period Osama bin Laden, former friend and ally of the world’s most powerful nation, would become known as a terrorist as he made the shift from ally to enemy. Libya was the first nation to issue a warrant for his arrest through Interpol in March of 1998 and a few months later the U.S. would indict him for seven deaths in a 1995 truck bombing that took place in Riyadh at a U.S. run Saudi Arabian National Guard training center. The following year bin Laden was placed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and in October of 2001 bin Laden appeared on the U.S.’s first Most Wanted Terrorists list (source), though it would not be until the next month that he would be pushed to the top of that list as result of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was and is now a household name in the inimical sense. He has made the shift from freedom fighter to terrorist, not because he changed his tactics or his overall outlook on the world, rather because he chose to be our enemy.


Saddam Hussein

Another example that is relevant to current events is Saddam Hussein. Like Osama bin Laden, it was during the 1980s that the U.S. befriended Saddam Hussein, who had recently become the leader of Iraq in July of 1979 and was engaged it what would be a decades long war with neighboring Iran. Our alliance with Iran had run its course and that country’s new revolutionary, Islamic government, also taking power in 1979, had declared the Shah’s puppet master (The U.S. government) to be the Great Satan. The U.S. government, looking for new ally against anti-American, Islamic government in Iran, was more than happy to supply Saddam’s regime with weapons, including biological and chemical weapons. These weapons were then used by Saddam Hussein not only against Iran, but against his own citizens (source). These were the Kurds living in north who, in conjunction with Kurdish citizens of southern Turkey, were seeking to break away from these two nations to the form a new and independent Kurdistan. Saddam Hussein was officially a friend and ally, one whom the U.S. government would prop up and help stay in power amidst his own people’s growing hunger and dissatisfaction (source).

Today, the end of this tale is well known. In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S., feeling its oil supplies potentially threatened, began Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia which was a build up of troops near the Saudi border with Kuwait. In January of 1991 the air raids, followed by a U.S. ground invasion of Kuwait began. As we have seen, This was followed by a decade of economic sanctions in Iraq which, when added to death toll of the Gulf War, aided in the death of over 1 million Iraqis and estimates place the number of child deaths as high as 500,000 (source). Once George W. Bush was in office and 9/11 was very recent history, accusations began flying against Saddam Hussein.

Suddenly he was a terrorist. He supported terrorism, trained terrorists, supplied them with WMDs, and probably even help plan 9/11 We know now that these claims were not only false, but were lies (see my article “The Liar or The Denier: How Will History Judge President George W. Bush?” for proof that these claims were not only false, but that the Bush administration knew they were false and still presented the claims as factual evidence to the American people in making the case for a new war with Iraq). However, the nation was on the move and before long Saddam Hussein was behind bars and Iraq was thrown into chaos with the occupying U.S. military at the helm.

Saddam Hussein after being captured in 2003

Saddam Hussein after being captured in 2003

As with Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein was our friend and ally so long as he cooperated with us and towed the American line. Once that cooperation ended the U.S. government decided he was a threat to our national security (read oil supply) and over the ensuing decade the shift in which he went from being labeled ally to enemy and terrorist was made. Again, during that decade Saddam Hussein did not become a different person. He was a ruthless dictator during the 1980s when he was our ally and he continued to be so during the 1990s and early 2000s while the shift to terrorist was taking place. As with bin Laden, the only thing that changed was Saddam’s standing via that same friend versus enemy dichotomy. As he was now our enemy, it was clearly only a matter of time before it would impossible to see his name without the title Terrorist following right behind.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin

Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin

The final example I wish to present of this use of the term terrorist as a political tool is the example of various leaders of Israel including Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and perhaps even David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader. Surely they are not terrorists. Israel is our friend, our ally, a stalwart democracy in the midst of a sea of Middle Eastern dictatorship and Islamic terrorism and these men are the founding leaders of that nation! That is the point. Once friendly to the west they were just that, a friend and ally aiding in the fight against despotism and Islamic extremism. However, this was not always the case.

In the 1940s Begin was commander of an underground military organization called Irgun Tzva’i Leumi (ETZEL). Benjamin Netanyahu, who would also be a future Israeli Prime Minister and western ally, was also a member. This military organization, with Begin at its head, declared war on the British Empire, which at the time occupied Palestine, and carried out attacks against the British in the land that Zionists hoped to make their home once again after some 2000 years of living in the Diaspora. The British, in response to this guerrilla war being waged against them, declared Begin and others like him terrorists and a reward of £10,000 for Begins capture, dead or alive, was announced (source). There are even accusations that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and the man who publicly declared Israel an independent nation in 1948, was involved with Irgun terrorism in the 1940s. The accusation is that as head of the Jewish Agency, Ben-Gurion personally approved of the Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946. The attack killed 92 Britons, Arabs, and Jews (source) and was only one of many attacks carried out by the organization.

Mug shot of Menachem Begin, 1940

Mug shot of Menachem Begin, 1940

Whether or not this particular accusation against Ben-Gurion is correct, the point is clear. Various future leaders of Israel, men who would be deemed staunch western friends and allies in war on terrorism, were at one point in their own history considered terrorists. Why? Because they were enemies of powerful western nations, in this case Great Britain. Just like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein when their friendships with the United States turned cold, these Jewish leaders found themselves labeled as terrorists when opposed to powerful western nations, and they found themselves labeled as allies and freedom fighters when they towed the line of western political civilization.

Clearly the term terrorist is not a word with a clean and static definition. Who will be declared a terrorist is not dependent upon whether or not a particular individual fits some dictionary definition of the term. One is deemed a friend or an enemy, a freedom fighter or a terrorist not based on particular tactics, doctrines, or definitions, but rather based on the nature of their relationship to those nations whose military might places them at the top of the global political and military food chain. Play nice with us and we’ll make you a friend and patronize your leadership regardless of whether you are kind or ruthless. Posture against us or turn your back on us and you will be vilified and eventually forced into war, arrest, and perhaps even execution as Saddam Hussein so poignantly learned.


One Response to “The Meaning of Words II: Terrorist”

  1. I once heard a liberal talk radio host explain that terrorism isn’t a group or an organization, it is a tactic. Terrorists aren’t a particular army or nationality or a religion, they are people who engage in a TACTIC – one that is random, sporadic, destructive, unpredictable, covert and seeks to plant FEAR in a society more than just destruction.

    The fear ends up destroying the target of the terrorist more than the terrorist’s actions themselves. Look at the tragic deaths of thousands of people due to the direct terrorist attacks of 9-11. Now, look at how many hundreds of thousands more were unnecessarily killed due to the FEAR-BASED response of our people to that initial attack. If you ask me, the terrorists won – the accomplished their task: to uproot and perturb their target’s culture, plant the seeds of fear and watch them destroy themselves as a consequence thereof.

    As Margaret Cho once said, “I will not be fucking terrorized!” The best way to counter terrorism is to not succumb to your own terror, and to continue to support freedom, safety and liberty. Terrorism is a tactic, but the Neo-Cons turned it around into a boogey-man label for anyone they are displeased with including (as you cited) our former allies turned antagonists.

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