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Sunday 20 January 2002

One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter

A story in the Washington Times complains about a 1998 U.S. Army training video that dealt, in part, with terrorism. The Times story says, in part:

The Army video also puts forth the notion that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, pointing out that French resistance fighters in World War II were terrorists because they blew up bridges during Nazi occupation. The analogy is upsetting because the U.S. Army provided assistance to the French fighters, and bridges are legitimate military targets in military operations.

Of course, the Times and other conservative news outlets are up in arms about this: about the whole terrorist-vs.-freedom-fighter idea, and about the fact that this video was produced during the Clinton administration (which most of these organizations are still bitter about).

I don’t understand this. One man’s terrorist is another’s “freedom fighter”. The Boston Tea Party, for example, is easily a terrorist act, if you owned the tea. If the American Revolution had failed, Jefferson et al. would have been hanged and remembered as traitors and terrorists, not unlike Guy Fawkes.

The difference between terrorism and “freedom fighting” is one of perspective. When the actions are in my interest, it’s insurgency; against me, it’s terrorism.

I think that the conservative war against these words is a struggle — “freedom fight”, if you will — against moral relativism. Trouble is, the crucial difference is in the motivation and the purpose of the movement behind the terrorism/insurgency, not the actions. People who are fighting in certain ways for bad causes are terrorists; for good causes, guerillas or what-have-you.

The error that people and organizations like Reuters and the BBC have been making recently — the error that’s so infuriating — is to either be too stupid or too intent on appearing “cosmopolitan” to know what is in their own interest (or that they have an interest in the matter at hand at all). Accepting that other people have different opinions is a requirement of being an adult, and is nothing that the Army (or Clinton) should be ashamed of. Believing that other people’s incorrect opinions are valid is the error to avoid.

Posted by tino at 14:58 20.01.02
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This is a deeply immoral view of the ptactice of terrorism. Terrorism is violence against unarmed people and cannot be defended even if it is in your interests - it is always in someone’s interest!

Posted by: Alex Morrison at December 11, 2002 09:44 AM

How can you ever call killing of innocent people as fighting for your freedom.Terrorism is aimed at civilians-not at military targets so it is in no way a freedom fight.

Posted by: PRACHI SAHNI at December 14, 2002 01:35 AM

I seem not to have made myself clear here, judging from these comments. The point is that two people can have differing opinions of the same act.

A lot of people have called the USA’s recent action in Afghanistan a “terrorist” act; I take the view that that bombing had a lot to do with freedom for the people of Afghanistan. In this case, the soldier I consider a “freedom fighter” is another person’s — let’s say Noam Chomsky’s — “terrorist”. Ipso facto one man’s freedom fighter is, at least in this case, another’s terrorist, and another’s terrorist is one’s freedom fighter.

This doesn’t mean that Noam Chomsky is correct. It just means that the person I consider a “freedom fighter”, he considers a terrorist.

I am still trying to come up with a definition of terrorism that I’m happy with. The best I’ve been able to do so far is that, in order for an act to be terrorism, two things must generally be true:

  • The goal must be to create general disorder, panic, and uncertainty, rather than to reasonably further some specific strategy.
  • The terrorist combatants must not plainly identify themselves as such.
  • Posted by: Tino at December 15, 2002 08:41 PM

    In response to Alex Morrison,

    Was Hiroshima a terrorist attack?

    Was the attempted assasination of Castro unjustified and wrong?

    Is it justified to torture suspected terrorists to extract information?

    It seems that there is an unfair distinction between state actions and group actions. After all, what is a state if not a large group?

    Fundamentally, the question comes down to the distinction between Good and Evil. Al Qaeda don’t see themselves as Evil, and who are we to say that they are? I’m British, and, luckily, we share many of the ideals as you, the US, the current global hegemon. What we perceive as Good and Right are just that - OUR perceptions. I’m sure that if we were in the minority, we would be taking similar actions as terrorists, but, of course, we’d call ourselves freedom fighters, and we’d preach that the ends justify the means.

    Posted by: Jack at March 17, 2004 04:02 PM

    Sorry, that was meant to be in response to PRACHI SAHNI. Whoops!

    Posted by: Jack at March 17, 2004 04:04 PM