Can we define terror, or should we let terrorism define us?
November 2, 2014 Leave a comment
In May 2013, the renowned International Institute for Counter Terrorism, the ICT, held a global workshop of legal scholars, experts, analysts, in order to work toward an international definition of terrorism. Without exception, all panelists worked against the effort led by Dr. Boaz Ganor. In his closing remarks, he lamented the frustrating and sterile experience. “We will never reach the level of counter terrorism efficiency and cooperation that is needed (…) without agreeing on the basic issue. What are we fighting? What is the common denominator? (…) The first issue is that it is a subjective term, and you can not use subjective tools to a subjective term.”
Dr. Ganor later outlines the fundamental issue: that any global cooperation in counter-terrorism is based around sanctions, blacklisting, arrests, detention, prosecution, extradition, and use of force around a concept no one has grasped, but perhaps most dangerously, has refused to grasp. Any international or transnational response to counter-terrorism is based on a loose definition, that is the lowest common denominator of all current legal translations of terrorism in domestic criminal systems. It is therefore unreliable and extensive to the point of creating crimes of terrorism where there are none, because of the Venn diagrams it forces upon an international or transnational arrest warrant, extradition treaty, or intelligence cooperation. Terrorism has become meaningless as a term, say political analysts, because if everything is terrorism, nothing is terrorism. It is a complete fallacy. It is not that everything is terrorism. It’s that everything is made to be terrorism.
In opposition to the exactitude that is required of criminal law, we have resorted to vague concepts denounced by human rights activists around the world. Terrorism creates and implements a system of criminal and state response that is beyond regular counter-criminal systems: it demands extensive human rights and civil rights derogations, sometimes suspensions; it automatically implements resolutions on wider and less restrictive intelligence and military intelligence sharing protocols; it extends and inflates the presence of law enforcement and special counter-terrorism units. The state response to terrorism being a constant state of emergency – called hyper-vigilance-, its use can only be restricted and restrictive. The trend, however, has been to extend it until everyone is under constant threat, at any given time. This is not threat assessment. This is threat permanence.
This essay is not aimed at defining terrorism; we are far from a consensus in what constitutes terrorism in our day and age, as the definitions are as fluctuant as the crimes themselves, and the battles around how a suspect is treated has just as much to do with pre-emptive action as it is immediate reactionary legislature. If terrorism is terror, it is so effective it has paralyzed any political movement in the face of its action; has the power to immediately shut down civil society debate; takes over the media by storm in a way that reinforces what it expresses, and silences what it in fact reflects. If each era had its own society-defining crime – from war to organised crime to arms trade – terrorism is the most modern criminal creation to date, and we have a part to play in its success.
Terrorism: the diktat of political ideology
Terrorism and self-determination
Terrorism is commonly understood as being political violence. But not all political violence instils fear in society and state authority. The target of the terrorist attack is just as much a red herring in whether the attack can be called terrorism as much as those referring to it as such. The now-cliché saying of “every man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is a sad idiom that has effectively been at the heart of many legal debates: is there a legal framework of considering political violence legitimate? It appears so: insurgency or rebellion against a colonial or tyrannical force, in order to promote the self-determination of peoples, is understood as legitimate violence. It targets an authority that can not be endorsed by principles of international human rights law and has been used to oppress. But because terrorism often targets civilians or civilian buildings, properties, or assets, it loses its legitimacy. Hardly has the history of the IRA in Northern Ireland been so embattled with the question of legitimacy as, perhaps, the case of Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories. If violence is to be understood as a last resort by a desperate group unable to reach towards political or judicial organs to achieve their goals, insurgency it is, but not terrorism.
A 2004 UN document titled “A More Secure World: A Shared Responsibility” addresses, in part, the threat of terrorism. Without defining what terrorism is, it defines what its consequences are: end of the rule of law, attacks on civilians. It also mentions that counter-terrorism as applied between 2001 and 2004 was already in violation of human rights law, specifically its fundamental part, the right to life. The UN panel in charge of suggesting how to secure said world talked about addressing the causes of terrorism. And in that, arose the concept of political violence in self-determination: occupation. Para. 148:
A thread that runs through all such concerns is the imperative to develop a global strategy of fighting terrorism that addresses root causes and strengthens responsible Stats and the rule of law and fundamental human rights. What is required is a comprehensive strategy that incorporates but is broader than coercive measures. The United Nations, with the Secretary-General taking a leading role, should promote such a comprehensive strategy, which includes:
Dissuasion, working to reverse the causes or facilitators of terrorism, including through promoting social and political rights, the rule of law and democratic reform; working to end occupations and address major political grievances; combating organized crime; reducing poverty and unemployment; and stopping State collapse.
Much has been written about the historically convenient and politically fluid concept of a national security threat. Recent FOIAs filed by MIT researcher Ryan Shapiro on the FBI’s assessment of Nelson Mandela and the ANC‘s role in defeating the apartheid government of South Africa have reminded the collective consciousness that Mandela,this beloved figure whose funeral was attended by the leaders of the free world, was once deemed a terrorist by those very governments, the ANC being removed from the State Department’s terrorist organisation list only in 2008. That Mandela later became a head of state in his own right, reaching the high office after a democratically held election changed the US vision – to the point of the FBI suspecting Mandela would then, in turn, be a victim of terrorism. Would anyone today consider Mandela’s fight less than honourable? Would anyone condemn sternly the actions of the ANC before his rise to power as a people oppressed under state authority based on race? Because the very concept of self-determination implies and involves a rejection of the authority in place, to the point of removing it by force if necessary to install a form of governance that pleases the population, acts of terrorism are often perceived as political violence against the state apparatus itself, the civilian casualties being collateral to the point being made that the authority itself isn’t legitimate. The necessity invoked by the state to protect itself from terrorism is in turn invoked by the fighters to express their will for freedom. The labeling of terrorism, therefore, is a political accusation of the state against which it is aimed: this authority isn’t legitimate and is oppressive. Considering Mandela a terrorist, at the time, meant supporting the apartheid regime of South Africa against an insurgency hell-bent on destroying the status quo.
Maintenance of the international standstill
Yet, despite this acknowledgement that crimes of occupation, crimes of aggression, and state corruption are causes of political violence, international bodies of law, by treaty or doctrine, never define terrorism. An interesting passage is the preface to the 1998 International Covenant on Terrorist Bombings recalling the UN General Assembly resolution 49/60 of 9 December 1994 on Measures to Eliminate Terrorism; Article I (3),
Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.
As the first UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin, explained in a 2006 report, this intentional vagueness on the part of international bodies not to define terrorism leaves it up to the states themselves to provide a definition according to what is the threat they perceive to their own apparatus. Inevitably, however, this leads a state-sponsored definition of terrorism not in regards to the fear it provokes in the population the state is supposed to protect, but within the authority itself, therefore opening the door to the legitimization of tyrannical regimes labeling their opposition “terrorism”, as opposed to the right to self-determination under oppression.
Calls by the international community to combat terrorism, without defining the term, can be understood as leaving it to individual States to define what is meant by the term. This carries the potential for unintended human rights abuses and even the deliberate misuse of the term. Besides situations where some States resort to the deliberate misuse of the term, the Special Rapporteur is also concerned about the more frequent adoption in domestic anti-terrorism legislation of terminology that is not properly confined to the countering of terrorism. Furthermore, there is a risk that the international community’s use of the notion of “terrorism”, without defining the term, results in the unintentional international legitimization of conduct undertaken by oppressive regimes, through delivering the message that the international community wants strong action against “terrorism” however defined.
The rest of the report addresses the key issue: we know what terrorism is not. We are not sure exactly what it is. Proscription of terrorism conduct refers to the act itself, and led to a partially satisfying treaty – the 1998 Covenant on Terrorist Bombings. This is only part of what terrorism can represent to a nation or a region. But if we do not know what it is, it is difficult to legally justify that terrorism is set apart from the rest of criminal offences within domestic law.
Why terrorism is saved a special place in criminal justice is often justified by the risk it poses: it is an existential threat to the nation as a whole, its stability, and the freedoms it guarantees. After 9/11, the United Kingdom derogated from its obligations under Article 5 ECHR – protection against abusive detention – as a response to “a public emergency threatening the life of the nation”. No other member of the Council of Europe deemed it necessary. However, the decision was respected, both by political allies and by the ECtHR itself. But the conflation of a political threat and the existence of protection against it is legitimate and legal. The state can’t be surprised by an act of terrorism, and therefore should act pre-emptively. David Anderson QC, the Independent Terrorism Legislation Reviewer, wrote in 2013:
… It cannot be suggested that the general run of anti-terrorism laws is justified only in the case of a public emergency or the threat to the nation’s life. A permanent emergency would be a contradiction in terms; permanent anti-terrorism law, as we have seen since 2000, is not.
Later, referring to the named specifics of modern terrorism – international networks, suicide attacks, mass civilian casualties – Anderson concludes:
To take an understanding of terrorism that is derived from history or social science, and allow it to serve as a justification for any number of specific legal powers, is a dangerous course. However serious or unique the problem of “terrorism”, it does not follow merely from its seriousness or uniqueness that special powers are necessary to combat it. If special powers are to be justified, it must be by reference to the particular demands of policing and prosecuting terrorism.
But the permanent emergency to which Anderson refers to is very much present. The constant of anti-terrorism legislation in itself is not representative of the political discourse around which it is centered. The permanent threat is highlighted with the constant, painful, reminder of violence and victimhood past, as well as everything done since in order to prevent it from happening again. Being efficient in the fight against terrorism has become more of a litmus test in leadership than, say, social upheaval or economic stability.
Global counter-terrorism efforts and the lowest common denominator: salus rei publicae suprema lex?
The only way nations brought together not in the name of a common interest – initially – but of a common enemy work alongside one another around a concept they refuse to communally define can only be done once they reach common ground. The definition of terrorism as applied to international or transnational protocols can not possibly accommodate every intrinsic mechanism of domestic law, especially human rights safeguards. To that effect, collaborating in counter-terrorism means working around the lowest common denominator of what constitutes terrorism. In doing so, the effects of making anything a threat – pre-emptively, hypothetically, and retroactively – contaminates the hyper-vigilance of one given state to all of its allies. This is what happened when the United States sought global counter terrorism partnerships with EU states bound to the Convention on Human Rights and their own domestic applications, hereby making the counter terrorism partnership at odds with a culture of preserving habeas rights even in cases of serious crimes. The UK, having already experienced the dangers of overreaching counter-terrorism legislation with the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (PTAs) in the 1970s made efforts, in 2000, to create a framework specific to terrorism; but as of today, compliance with the Convention is now purely theoretical. In fact, it has become a topic of high contention in the UK as to whether human rights law could still be applied in an “adequate” fight against terrorism.
To explain how EU member states, and specifically the UK, have aligned their own counter-terrorism policies to that of the US’, even after being at the center of a human rights debate in the application of their former legislation, one needs to take a look at transatlantic cooperation and how it drastically evolved between 2001 and 2008. A 2011 research paper authored by Annegret Bendiek for the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik German Institute frames it:
To make matters worse, all past attempts to work out a universal definition of terrorism within the framework of the United Nations have failed. The United States still claims the right t act unilaterally and to use the military means in cases in which the UN refuses to support it. The United States justified its military actions in Pakistan and Yemen by pointing to its right to self defense and id not even try to get formal authorization from the Security Council. In sum, US counter terrorism policy will be characterized by an instrumental use of multilateral structures also under President Obama. The essential difference between the United States and the EU remains that the US combats terrorism by military means, whereas the EU and its member states concentrate on policing and intelligence measures.
If the UN repeatedly asked for cooperation among states in the fight against terrorism, this has led to various international and transnational abuses, due to the necessity to stoop down to the lowest common denominator in the fight against terrorism. In international law enforcement, the blacklisting and surveillance of terrorist suspects – through Interpol’s Orange notices, the Schengen’s Article 99 system and so forth – has to abide by a definition of a criminal conduct all states can adhere to. Although the United States, as stated above, will not shy from using lethal force, the transatlantic cooperation in counter-terrorism has made the strengths of both “visions” of counter-terrorism – militarisation and intelligence – mutually beneficial for US counter terrorism partners. It strengthened existing intelligence sharing agreements, it reinforced military cooperation on already existing bases, and helped disseminate massive defense spending in the name of the war on terror.
It is a testament to the power of terrorism that contradictory perceptions of the threat as seen by the US and by the EU have found a way to reconcile within international security cooperation. The historical experience of the EU – specifically France and the UK – differs from the US, relatively “new” to its status of victim of political violence. If US national security demands are violent in their response and unwavering in their commitment to wage war, the EU sees it as a long-haul, cooperative and interdisciplinary method to combat the threat, from deradicalisation to international deployment of intelligence operations. After 9/11, it becomes obvious in the European Security Strategy that the EU saw it fit to align with the US, specifically the UK, upping the ante in terms of legislation, force, and, namely, surveillance. Because of EU safeguards in terms of data protection, judicial review and the supranational power of the Convention on Human Rights, the pooling intelligence information with the US presented many civil rights and human rights challenges. In so, US-EU counter terrorism agreements are intergovernmental rather than at European level. Wyn Rees, studying the effects of transatlantic counter-terrorism cooperation in 2006, explains:
Bilateralism, rather than multilateralism, has been the watchword for post-war intelligence sharing. Information can be shared with one country, but not with another, thereby rendering difficult to build up broader patterns of dissemination. The US has recognized the value of sharing information, but it has done so through close bilateral relationships with allies. Certain EU countries have established a privileged intelligence relationship, namely the UK, France, and Germany, and this has given them a vested interest in ensuring that the relationship continues (…) The challenge for the transatlantic relationship has been to find a framework in which intelligence can be shared multilaterally. There are enormous advantages for both sides if they can obtain information from single, central sources rather than engage in cross-cutting bilateral contacts. This need not mean that all information be shared with all parties(…) Trust is something that takes a long time to foster, and the transatlantic allies have wrestled with the problem that there is no obvious framework in which to share information.
Following the Snowden documents, which welcome release have inevitably strained the bilateral and multilateral relationships cultivated by the US under the pretense that the necessity to counter terrorism could still be compliant with the legal framework of the countries in which it operated, data sharing and intelligence sharing agreements are put back into question, and observed through a transparency prism that had seemingly never been requested of counter-terrorism partnerships before. These are, namely, the actions of Europol and the European Arrest Warrant; the collection of flight passenger data under the EU-US PNR agreement, and the extensive retention of names and information under US counter terrorism protocols; and negotiations around the EU-US TFTP agreement, a tracking system implemented in order to identify and block any financing of terrorism activities. Those, however, are negotiated at EU level, under EU safeguards. It is necessary for EU member states to individually denounce the human rights violations of their own bilateral agreements, which is unlikely to happen under this new new war against ISIS. Not defining terrorism allows for terrorism-specific arrangements and agreements to remain in place for as long as a threat is identified – a threat, not the threat.
One system that has inflated rather than deflated even in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations was the system of terror blacklisting, already decried by Bendiek in 2011 for not being transparent enough so blacklisted individual can seek redress. In a world where terrorism isn’t defined, supporting terrorism, associating with terrorists, or promulgating terrorist material can mean anything – and many of the systems in place to block supporters of terrorism fail the most basic human rights standards. In fact, the UNSC Res 2178 against foreign fighters, passed hastily in September under unanimous consent, demands of UN member states to not only cooperate further in terms of intelligence-sharing, but to also stop the flow of foreign fighters to the twin conflicts of Iraq and Syria, and ensure that their financial resources are dried up. It would be impossible to track unless, of course, the blacklisting system incrementally upgraded and increased to meet this unprecedented threat. Bendiek, in 2011, concludes that the EU is well ahead of the US in developing judicial safeguards against blacklisting following the Kadi I decision. It might be correct on paper: there is no blacklisting case brought against the Council of Europe that the executive body has won. However, the issue of transparency remains for the blacklisted individuals, still unable to bring their case before a court unless they are notified that they have been placed under surveillance, blacklisting, or a no-fly list. All instances of invalidation of a blacklisting, except one, have been made on grounds that there was no information available to the appellant or the Court to motivate and justify the blacklisting – the information remains classified in the name of national security. The one exception, the Nada case, displayed a fundamental flaw in the multilateral blacklisting system: Nada, blacklisted by the UN, was found exonerated in Switzerland (!) as the 1267 UN blacklist was found in breach of the ECHR/ ICCPR.
The more cases of blacklisting, even blacklisting under UN Security Council resolutions, come before courts, the more it appears it is unconstitutional and unlawful under international law, despite being extended by the same international body that promulgated these laws in the first place. The case of A, K, M, Q and G v HM Treasury, before the UK Supreme Court in 2010, found that the necessity to blacklist an individual under the provision of the 1267 UN blacklist was in violation of the individual’s fundamental rights. A document provided by the ECCHR authored by Gavin Sullivan and Ben Hayes details the specific situation of Muhamad al-Ghabra (G):
He was first informed by the UK Treasury that his funds were to be frozen and a few days later told that the reason why was that he had been included on the 1267 list, which UK authorities were bound to implement. What he was not told at that time was that it was the UK authorities themselves that had nominated him for inclusion on the 1267 list. Thus, instead of freezing G’s assets directly under national law (by making a decision which would have been liable to judicial review), the UK government froze G’s assets indirectly, using the mechanism of the UN Sanctions Committee (through a procedure outside the scope of judicial review). G’s experience highlights the ways that the Security Council has been transparently and strategically used as “a venue through wish to wash national executive decisions which would otherwise be subject to judicial control of their vulnerability to court supervision of the interests of the individual.”
And if the UNSC can be used as a tool to further the counter-terrorism purposes of a given state, multilateral agreements outside the scope of judicial review through classification can be just as well, if not worse.
If terrorism is commonly understood as being political violence, it isn’t simply political violence. Terrorism, or the climate of terror it provokes or creates, is the social paralysis. It’s the political impossibility to act within a frame of normalcy. It’s hysteria. The political violence in itself becomes as destructive as the threat of violence. A nation or a region living under the threat of terrorism is holding its breath permanently. When terrorism is not defined, it allows the fear to permeate every organ of society. Unless the devil is placed back in the box, it will be impossible to return to normalcy: the state is in fight or flight mode. Counter-terrorism partnerships install this climate and work toward destroying it, on paper. Instead, because those intelligence sharing protocols inflate the powers of the state to the point of little to no judicial or legislative review, they become extremely beneficial to state organs that would otherwise be restricted in their scope of action. The state of hyper-vigilance caused by terrorism becomes, in itself, self-perpetuating, and turns the state into a body that has allowed itself to work the concept of necessity to the extent it can, if needed be according to self-imposed rules, impose terror in return.
Terrorism as state violence
Journalist Glenn Greenwald, on MSNBC’s The Last Word from October 29, 2014:
… the problem that Israel and the US have is that it is impossible to get a definition that excludes their own behavior, while including those they want to include. So, there never has been a definition. It really is a fearmongering term. If you want to call it ‘killing of civilians to change policy’, we have to apply it to ourselves as well.
It would be irresponsible to only attempt to define terrorism as a challenge to state authority and sovereignty while forgoing the fact that other nation-states apply it to their perceived and defined “enemies” as well. Terrorism as state violence has very much been an unmissable, and hopefully unforgettable feature of the War on Terror: all means necessary to achieve something as unruly and vague as the terms defined in the Authorization of the Use of Military Force: defeat the militant enemy. In fact, the War on Terror could very much be the epitome of terrorism as state violence. From extending attacks to undeclared battlefields to pre-emptive strikes, to the killing of citizens abroad and the thick coat of secrecy surrounding every operation, the War on Terror is the image of terror itself.
On October 29, 2013, relatives of drone strikes victims from Waziristan, the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the location of the most intensive displays of the drone warfare, testified before Congress. Their words, which brought their translator to tears, were only heard by five members of Congress. If the relevance of their testimony did not hit legislature then – or was too embarrassing to attend – it caught the eye of the international community, increasingly alarmed by the lack of regulation with which drone strikes are conducted. Operated by the CIA, the attacks in Waziristan operate completely outside the realm of review, and were qualified recently by the Pakistani Interior Minister as a violation of their sovereignty. This testimony reflects how drone warfare makes ordinary civilians feel, how it affects their daily life, and how it profoundly modifies their behavior, to the point of making them afraid of their environment, so much that what was once friendly and familiar becomes strange and lethal. This is how terrorism affects the society it is perpetrated in, and is applied in this instance to the US-led war on terror:
As I helped my grandmother in the field, I could see and hear the drone hovering overhead, but I didn’t worry” he said. “Why would I worry? Neither my grandmother nor I were militants. (…) When the drone fired the first time, the whole ground shook and black smoke rose up. The air smelled poisonous. We ran, but several minutes later the drone fired again. People from the village came to our aid and took us to hospital. We spent the night in great agony in at the hospital and the next morning I was operated on. That is how we spent Eid. (…) Now I prefer cloudy days when the drones don’t fly. When the sky brightens and becomes blue, the drones return and so does the fear.
The efficiency of drone warfare has been recently put into question. If anything, the lack of legitimacy and the backdoor legality has helped radicalise a demographic that would otherwise not become so – the word here being use purposefully – militant. Projects on accountability are rare, but make incredible strides, especially given the secretive nature of the CIA side of the war on terror, and the difficulty of collecting data on the ground, so unreliable is the environment and the sources. Naming The Dead, a project hosted by The Investigative Bureau of Journalism, has identified that only 4% of the drone strikes victims in Pakistan can be factually identified as members of Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organisation blacklisted by two successive UN Security Council Resolutions – the motive behind the war on terror, the ubiquitous enemy combatant, the enemy which must be defeated to restore peace and freedom in the western world. The remaining 96% can be militants from other organisations; soldiers from unidentified factions; but in the absence of an actual identification of a given individual or group as hostile, per international humanitarian law: they are civilians.
In Yemen, a country ruled by tribal elders and rife with corruption, the incursion of the US drones created not only a climate of fear, but established political instability as a permanence. The millions of dollars lavished upon Yemeni leaders as “counter terrorism aid” is funneled elsewhere. There are a lot of winners of the war on terror in Yemen, but most certainly not regular people, least of them children, living their lives in the mountainous regions. In Yemen, anyone who isn’t aggressively demonstrating its allegiance to the United States is a potential threat. Journalist Gregory Johnsen, specialist of the Arabian Peninsula, researched the circumstances of a December 12, 2013 drone strike that hit the members of a wedding party. The scene he paints is startling and horrifying.
Clustered around them in a sweaty, jostling circle, dozens of men bumped up against one another as they struggled for position and a peek at the remains. Above the crowd, swaying out over the row of bodies as he hung onto what appeared to be the back of a truck with one hand, a leathery old Yemeni screamed into the crowd. “This is a massacre,” he shouted, his arm slicing through the air. “They were a wedding party.” Dressed in a gray jacket and a dusty beige robe with prayer beads draped over his dagger, the man was shaking with fury as his voice faltered under the strain. “An American drone killed them,” he croaked with another wild gesture from his one free hand. “Look at them.”
It’s no contest that Yemen plays a double game. It supposedly agrees to the roaring sound of drones hovering in its skies, but has to calm and quiet the angry voices of the local leaders and families seeing their loved ones being turned into charred human remains. On June 14, 2013, President Obama released a message to Congress consistent with the War Powers Resolution addressing the situation of operations in Yemen under “Military Operations Against al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, and Associated Forces and in Support of Related U.S. Counterterrorism Objectives” in such concise terms it could hardly reflect the situation on the ground:
The U.S. military has also been working closely with the Yemeni government to dismantle operationally and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous affiliate of al-Qa’ida today. Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in Yemen who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.
That is all. Johnsen, however, sees more in the conflict in Yemen. Specifically, he sees the manipulation of unrecorded civilian casualties and the financial corruption that, in fine, benefit AQAP more than anything else. In the end, in a war waged against an enemy without an army, without borders, and without identifiable messages, easily replaced leaders and transnational networks of financing, who isn’t a potential enemy anymore? Johnsen asks:
For much of the past century, the United States has gone to war with lawyers, men and women who follow the fighting, adjudicating claims of civilian casualties and dispensing cash for errors. They write reports and interview survivors. But what happens when there are no boots on the ground? When the lawyers are thousands of miles away and dependent on aerial footage that is as ambiguous as it is inconclusive? How do you determine innocence or guilt from a pre-strike video? When everyone has beards and guns, like they do in rural Yemen, can you tell the good guys from the bad? Is it even possible? And when the U.S. gets it wrong, when it kills the wrong man: What happens then? Who is accountable when a drone does the killing?
Terrorism: the manipulation of the manipulative
Working towards an international definition of terrorism, what appears most appalling to the researching eye is not the lack of willpower or strength of intent of legal workers and experts calling for a definition of it, but rather the strength of a refusal to create, in a legally binding treaty, a definition all would adhere to without the possibility of tweaking it according to current events and political necessity. All crimes evolve; all technology evolves; and if laws can become obsolete as time changes and borders move, so can a definition of terrorism beyond the pyramidal, insurgency-like structure the United Kingdom has known since the first Irish rebellion. It’s not the structure, ever so changing, that has to be defined. From lone wolf terrorism to internationally funded tree-like power organisations, it’s not only the action, but the intent behind the action that differentiates an action belonging to criminal justice and one fitting the terrorism definition. It’s the willingness not just to create pain and suffering among a specifically targeted group, it’s to bring all turning wheels to a screeching halt: the political system, in order to create chaos and instability; the social order, paralysed by fear of the randomness of the attack; and the judicial system, derogating power and oversight to the executive in an emergency.
In that, terrorism is manipulative. But one can only manipulate what it knows so well. That the concept of ‘homegrown terrorism’ seems so foreign and incomprehensible to political elites is truly baffling. Terrorism’s randomness itself is calculated. It will strike whenever is least expected and will touch on what is likely to provoke an overhyped emotional reaction. It is not just seeking blood and warfare, it is seeking fear. It looks toward what a population is cherishing the most, either because its future is dependent on it, or because its symbolism is too strong to ever thought vulnerable. Terrorism is the criminal achievement of a long internal study of the target of the crime. Because no society can survive, let alone thrive, by being impenetrable from the outside, terrorism needs to be understood as an eventuality. It must be taken into account when addressing criminality. A society, a government, a power structure must be prepared to face the threat. But this threat can never override any daily mechanism of the social and political structure. Yet this is what 9/11 derailed. From the fear of London over three decades of uncertainty in pubs, train stations, and any innocent trash can, came a world order of fear, a domination of a perceived necessity of addressing something that does not exist.
Thus was born the modern security state, not out of an avowed thirst for control, but of an insecurity so blatant and so overpowering it has permeated even the most supposedly critical and adversarial of its structure, the media. The fortress that has become the West in the wake of a terrorism threat it knew of but couldn’t exactly fight is transparent in how it lets its own fear control it, to the point that surrendering to the notion of a permanent failure to guarantee the safety of its population gives rise to a use of force beyond limits, beyond borders, beyond carefully crafted rule of international law that was based on political normalcy, not hysteria.
And so began the permanent war.