War of Words: Tinker, Tailor, Terrorist, Freedom Fighter

Events of recent weeks have reignited the discussion over just what constitutes 'terror.' Sometimes the moral distinctions become blurry, but terror does have a definition.

Gideon Aran
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Islamic militant
Islamic militantCredit: Getty Images
Gideon Aran

After a welcome hiatus, the subject of terrorism is back in the headlines. The kidnapping and murder of three yeshiva students in the territories, and afterward the burning alive of a Palestinian youth from East Jerusalem, generated pain, frustration, anger and protest on both sides. The human tragedy that unleashed waves of violence on either side of the border was accompanied by a public scandal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that those responsible for the death of the three are terrorists. Arab-Israeli MK Haneen Zoabi stated in response that they were not terrorists.

An analysis of the controversy, which inflamed passions, offers an opportunity for conceptual clarification and for the correction of common mistakes that dominate the local and world discourse when it comes to terrorism. Netanyahu and Zoabi, with their respective followers and critics, are guided by the same prevalent bias, which has an ethical dimension and bears political implications.

A straightforward translation of the two seemingly opposed statements says the following: Either the kidnapping and murder are terrorism, hence illegitimate, immoral and deserving of condemnation; or, this deadly violence is not terrorism, meaning that it is legitimate, moral and deserving of understanding if not praise. Implicit in both statements is an identical assumption, which defines and examines terrorism in terms of its rightness and its justification.

But terrorism has to be evaluated analytically, not normatively. It is difficult to blame politicians for espousing a mistaken conception, as it follows logically and has long since taken root. Journalists and even military and security experts disseminate it. In recent weeks, terrorism experts in Israel, the Middle East and beyond have again been quoting the shopworn truism about the subjectivity of the definition of terrorism and its moral relativity: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In this connection, one vexing question always arises: Were former Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, the leaders of the pre-state undergrounds Irgun and Lehi, terrorists?

It is natural for the victim of a particular act of violence to perceive it as a terrorist act. The assailant will generally avoid calling himself a terrorist, preferring positive terms such as “fighter” (for homeland, democracy, equality and also, lately, “fighter against terrorism”). The very comparison and contradistinction between terrorist and freedom fighter is foolish, as the terms reside on two substantially different planes.

Defining someone as a freedom fighter refers solely to the goals of his activity and ignores its other dimensions, notably its methods. Defining someone as a terrorist refers to his mode of action and not to his objective. It follows that one can be both a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Likewise, a person can fight violently in the underground for a cause we find unacceptable, without our being able to term him a terrorist.

Terror carries a negative connotation. Those who control public discourse – particularly the state, through the media – attach the term to the acts of their violent adversaries as part of their effort to legitimize the struggle against them. The latter, for their part, will try to shed the title of terrorist and foist it on the opposing side. Categorizing a social group or an organization as terrorists can be a brutish, self-interested manipulation within a conflict framework.

Just how fraught and volatile the debate over terrorism is can be seen in its multiple definitions and in the intensiveness of the disagreements over them. I will not offer a comprehensive definition of terror here, but rather will put forward a number of arguments that relate to the surging public controversy and influence events on the ground. I will touch partially on only two or three motifs that are directly connected to the events of these dark days, but which are constantly misunderstood and thus hamper a resolution of the harsh reality.

Violating the rules

Terrorism must be distinguished from war, which is an organized armed conflict between political entities such as tribes, peoples and states, to which certain norms generally apply, and which nowadays is supposed to be subordinated in principle to legal definitions. Terrorism violates the rules of the game of war. Terrorism’s legitimacy is assailed not because it violates conciliation, tranquility and security, but because it violates jus in bello – meaning, primarily, that it harms civilians. Indeed, international law is not unequivocal about harming civilians, but it categorically prohibits targeting them deliberately.

Terrorism ignores norms and values that constitute the moral foundation of the culture to which both this writer and his readers certainly purport to belong. For terrorism attacks people considered innocent. Of course, this trait is not exclusive to terrorism, nor is it its only trait. Innocent people are also hurt in war and sometimes even without planned, organized violence, such as in road accidents. For terrorists, however, the harm inflicted on innocent people is desirable and deliberate, bearing intrinsic positive value, as distinct from being a by-product, an entirely foreseen result, or at most a method that is considered fundamentally negative but essential to achieve a noble goal.

The contradistinction between terror and war became meaningful only when war was codified and became supposedly “clean.” Typical manifestations of terrorism appeared long before they were defined as such. According to one critical approach, terror inflicted by recognized states – and implemented under cover of war – is not counted as such. Some well-known definitions of terrorism do not include state-fomented terror.

It can be argued that terrorism is outlawed because it operates outside the international arena. Alternatively, it is claimed that state-fomented violence is called war, while violence fomented against states is called terrorism. Legalists and moralists say that terrorism, simply, is a form of war that declines to subject itself to the ethics of warfare (which, cynics add, are inherently self-righteous and self-interested) set forth by the superpowers only a few decades ago in order to enhance their ability to cope with rival forces, one of which – terrorism itself – will later rear its head. It follows that the definition of terrorism in our time is prone to relativity and moral standards.

A touchstone for the distinct nature of terror is seen where the infringement of war’s humanitarian codes – however oxymoronic – is the preferred and principal political strategy, and not the exception that prompts explanations and excuses.

Terrorism does not so much appear alone as it is a parallel adjunct to war. In practice, the rules of war have frequently been breached in both the past and the present. Nevertheless, terrorism should be seen as an analytically sui generis phenomenon. Even if some question the ideological justification for perceiving terrorism as a unique phenomenon, this is at least a basic condition for clear thinking.

Void of innocence

The violence of terrorism is aimed primarily at civilians. Terrorism does not target fighters or any other part of the security apparatuses – police and intelligence agents, for example – and its intended victims are not part of the government or its branches, but subordinate to it. True, terrorists will always emphasize that their victims are in any case partners to the evil and crime against which they are struggling, by consenting to them, even tacitly, and thus benefit from or contribute to them, even indirectly. For the terrorist, the public that is targeted, including women and children, is void of innocence. The former, they will argue, bring fighters into the world, and the latter will grow up to be fighters.

Civilians are harmed in war, too, but this is not the core of bellicose violence and is not its be-all and end-all. Even if we may sometimes suspect that attacks on civilians are taken into account or taken for granted in war – and even if more than a bit of intentionality is involved – the aggressor side will always explain them as an unfortunate result of an accident or as carelessness, or in a more apologetic and hairsplitting form, as “collateral damage.”

In terrorism, civilians are killed by explicit intention and not only as an unfortunate if tolerable result. Uninhibited use of violent means, or indiscriminate choice of targets, however wanton, is not a satisfactory description of terrorist violence, which systematically targets civilians who do not expect to be attacked, are incapable of defending themselves and are unable to retaliate. Accordingly, terrorism is often seen as an indirect strategy – albeit cowardly and base, under an ethical code of knights and gentlemen – that evades a frontal confrontation between the fomenters of violence and those on the opposite side.

Implicit here is an important distinction between terrorism and a similar form of unconventional combat: guerrilla warfare. It is no accident that people often confuse the two modes, both of which operate in the twilight zone where the distinction between combatants and noncombatants on both sides becomes hazy. Guerrilla warfare is in fact a type of (limited) war, which at least purports to uphold rules that are considered admissible, if not just. Its major declared aim is not to harm civilians. Its aim, or at least the principal means it employs, lies in doing battle against army forces and government agents, even if this sometimes spills over into attacks on civilians through the use of terrorism as a secondary tactic.

Even though guerrilla organizations generally avoid direct confrontation, they emphasize that their targets are regular troops, thereby seeking to avoid the possibility of being treated as terrorists. The guerrillas’ adversaries tend to depict them as terrorists in order to delegitimize them and tarnish their image (which sometimes has a heroic, romantic aura). The Shi’ite organization Hezbollah, which operated in Lebanon against French paratroops, U.S. Marines, the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces is, thus, not a terrorist organization but a guerrilla group, even though Israel and the West, in their desperate effort to crush it, have labeled it terrorist.

The violence perpetrated by terrorism is self-aware and fully grasps its consequences. It is, after all, a strategic choice, a preferred method from a range of possible modes of action. Like these, it is not inevitable, the only possible outcome of a harsh reality, but an option whose advantages and disadvantages are weighed. Contrary to the claims of terrorists of all varieties, terrorism is not a preordained, deterministic or inexorable outcome of a situation for which no alternative exists. Its violence derives from a political decision. The best proof of this is that in some cases, in the wake of a reevaluation, terrorists decide to revamp their policy, and the violence ceases abruptly or is directed into other strategic channels.

Terrorism homes in on conceptual limits and on boundaries between basic categories in our consciousness. Thus, terrorism does not so much wield force against force as it undermines the foundations of the social order. More than threatening physical security, it erodes ontological security. By crossing and blurring basic boundaries, it challenges our conceptual world. A striking example of this is terrorism’s contribution to the crisis of binary distinctions, notably the traditional trinity of contrasts: front – rear; war – peace; military – civilian. From the Israeli point of view, was the Park Hotel in Netanya, where dozens of people were killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in 2002, front or rear? And so on.

Terrorism’s subversive effect is revealed in the bewilderment and hesitation that mark attempts to cope with it. An example is the dilemma of whether to categorize terrorist attacks as events relating to security or to “internal security”; that is, as an external assault to be dealt with by the military establishment, or as a “law and order” issue for the police to handle. The interim solutions often contain an internal contradiction that attests well to terrorism’s hybrid, liminal nature, such as the fact that it affects the “home front” in the United States and the “rear fighters” in Israel.

Difficulties in digesting the terror phenomenon are manifested in peculiar ways, such as the bitter debate in Israel about the status of the terror victims. Their families have formed a lobby that is pressing for them to be honored in burial and memorial ceremonies like those of soldiers who fell in combat, but the security establishment balks at these initiatives.

These elements of terrorism posit it as the opposite of traditional conventional warfare. Wars are fought far from home and depart from the daily routine. War is a separate planet, its place different, its time different, its rules different, even if more or less known and accepted. War is both remote and framed within its various dimensions. Culture has succeeded in protecting itself from organized violence – and simultaneously validating it – by marking it as a separate, ostensibly autonomous entity.

War’s containment in a designated enclave set apart for organized violence – civilizing it, in a certain sense – goes some way toward facilitating the ability to bear it, despite the immeasurably greater bloodshed. In terrorism, organized violence overflows its recognized boundaries. Terrorism threatens the home, the place where we are supposed to feel most secure, the place of the self-evident. When the rate of road accidents in Israel soared to a point that impinged on the routine of life, the media termed them “terror.”

As suggested at the start, terrorism also foists itself on another crucial binary definition: between the legitimate and the illegitimate. There is hardly any discussion of terrorism that does not refer to its morality. According to a prevalent argument, terrorism violates not only the laws of the state and international rules, but violates, above all, universal humanitarian conventions. As a result, those who are identified with terrorism are usually pushed into taking an apologetic stance. In the light of external and domestic opposition, even the perpetrators of terror and those who dispatched them must come up with ethical excuses to account for their actions, and will almost always explain that they have exhausted all the alternatives, and that terrorism it their last resort. Often they will reinforce their apologetic explanation by arguing that the methods employed by their adversaries are also actually terrorism.

Gideon Aran is a professor of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism