Defining Terrorism

Among the problems involved in the “War on Terror” is trying to define exactly what constitutes terrorism. Some have claimed that “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” a definition which egregiously neglects a consideration of methods and means (though one to which President Reagan apparently subscribed when he compared the CIA supported Nicaraguan Contras to the U.S. “Founding Fathers.”). In prosecuting the “War on Terror,” this administration has promoted a definition in which terrorists are separated from lawful combatants by their choice of targets. Terrorists deliberately target civilians in order to create a climate of fear. The United States are the bulwark against terrorism and barbarism. This distinction separates Us, a morally upright nation, from Them, craven cowards and underhanded evil bastards. We do not stoop to such deplorable tactics.

Or do we?

Lets put aside such deplorable mistakes as My Lai, which can plausibly be ascribed to a breakdown in communication and command rather than the implementation of conscious strategy. We can also put aside, for the sake of argument, the astoundingly high rate of “collateral damage” in U.S. military operations throughout the last century, as well as the chillingly casual acceptance of those unintentional civilian casualties. And we’ll ignore for now the regular slaughter of American Indian populations in the first century of our nation’s existence; we can hypothetically assume that our nation has grown morally since they committed those atrocities.

Even if we give the benefit of the doubt in all those cases, I am still left with two words.

Nagasaki. Hiroshima.

Neither city was a military target. Both were chosen explicitly for their civilian populations. With bombing of those two cities, approximately 220,000 were killed—most instantly, though a number died slow, lingering deaths as a result of the radiation poisoning.

No one—not the military, not the civilian leadership, not the scientists and engineers involved—realized the unprecedented destructive power they were about to unleash. But ignorance is rarely a valid excuse, nor does it change the fact that they intended to use a powerful weapon against the civilian population.

(the fact that they were willing to use incendiary bombs to such devastating effect on Tokyo indicates that our leaders were less than deeply concerned with civilian casualties; though I am not including the Tokyo firebombings as terrorism because it was the seat of leadership in Japan, and therefore arguably a valid military target).

Accumulated evidence has lead some to make the case that the use of nuclear warfare was entirely unnecessary. These people, such Robert Freeman in his essay “Was the Atomic Bombing of Japan Necessary?“, argue that the Japanese were on the verge of absolute collapse, that they had already proposed to surrender, and that the Truman administration chose to use the atomic bomb in order to intimidate the Soviet Union.

But we can, for the sake of argument, accept conventional wisdom regarding the necessity of using atomic weapons. How different is that claim that we needed to deliberately target civilians in order to achieve our goal any different from that of the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist?

This is not some far distant past event having nothing to do with us today. People alive in 1945 are still among us. Our leaders still refer to and claim lessons of World War II. But apparently not in this.

Is the difference scale? Violence committed with a few pounds of explosive is more terrorist than that committed with the equivalent of multiple thousands of tons of conventional explosives? Does the fact that the atomic bombs were delivered by an official nation mitigate any act of terrorism?

Necessary or not, the only rational conclusion based on the definition established by this administration is that our nation was the perpetrator of the two greatest single instances of terrorism in the entirety of world history.

No, this does not justify the terrorism of others, nor does it oblige us to endure terrorist attacks against us without resistance in atonement. Our nation has the right to legitimate self-defense against direct violence in whatever form. But it does suggest we might be careful to avoid self-righteousness in our condemnation of those who engage in terrorism.

This week has the dubious distinction of containing the anniversaries of both attacks. It is a good time to reflect on what might be in our own eye rather than obsessing on what is in the eye of others; to consider how we can promote peace instead of violence and destruction in any of its forms.

Recommended Reading:
The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Gar Alperovitz

7 Responses to “Defining Terrorism”

  1. Aaron Orgill Says:

    That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. Yes, I would agree that what we did to those cities qualifies as terrorism under that definition. It would be hard to honestly argue otherwise. However, let’s be sure to put this in proper context. On July 26, 1945, the U.S. government issued the Potsdam Declaration, which declared in no uncertain terms that if Japan failed to surrender immediately, the total destruction of not only their armed forces but their homeland would result. Both Prime Minister Suzuki and the Emperor rejected it. The culture of Japan (and other Far East countries) is such that humiliation is widely considered worse than death, and the war likely would have continued until Japan was (possibly) decimated even worse than what ended up happening. The U.S. military was by then hanging on by a thread financially, and after 3 1/2 years of war and the defeat of Germany, America was eager to see it end.

    Which brings me to after the bombing. America helped Japan pick itself back up, an act that has no known equal in world history. Today it is a thriving country with one of the world’s top economies, wide political influence, and highly educated people, to the point that we can’t keep up with their ability to refine and perfect new technology.

    I don’t mean to say, “so it all turned out great in the end,” or that it wasn’t ugly, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that war is ever anything but ugly. And let’s not try to look for moral equivalency between what happened in 1945 and what is happening today with suicide bombers murdering dozens of people every day in churches and wedding celebrations. What President Truman did was a strategy to win and end a war. What is going on today is pure hate. So, terrorism? Yes. But I don’t feel self-righteous in condemning it, nor should anyone willing to look at history.

  2. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Yes, that is the conventional justification for the bombing. Whether it is more accurate than the alternative interpretation to which I referred and linked is debatable.

    I find it ironic that almost every enemy the U.S. ever engages just happens to be described as monomaniacal fanatics so dedicated to our destruction that we can justify any level of destructive or immoral behavior.

    Yes, war is nothing but ugly. And as the U.S. willingness to adopt the slaughter of innocent civilians indicates, no participant can claim to escape from that ugliness. So for this president and so many citizens to portray the confrontation in such stark and morally polar terms is a gross mischaracterization. Both sides have rolled around in the same mud.

  3. Aaron Orgill Says:

    It is not the same mud. And in this case, it is not debatable. History speaks for itself. We committed a horrible, unspeakable act which inflicted pain and destruction on innocent civilians, not once but twice, in order to end a war which threatened to rage on for God only knows how many more years. If you don’t see a difference between that and blowing oneself up to kill as many Jews or Americans as you can, you’re a fool. This is the area where I just can’t reconcile with the far left. Largely they refuse to see anything good about history, and when there is a problem or controversy, it is America’s fault. I suspect you will accuse me of looking through rose-colored glasses and overlooking our flaws, but I am not the jingoistic wingnut that many right-wingers are. If you could just dispense with the negativity and for once acknowledge that our actions in the world have been overwhelmingly good, I think people could digest the criticism so much more readily. It is a real headache for people to have to wade through all the second-guessing. Self-reflection and analysis of what could be done better is only good to the extent that you come to an understanding of what is already working and good and admirable in yourself. Your beliefs will never be mainstream as long as your focus is on hand-wringing and the excrement that is inevitably found in the bowels of history.

  4. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Pray tell, how is trying to blow up as many Israelis or Americans for a cause any different from trying to blow up as many Japanese for a cause any different, particularly from the perspective of a follower of a God who cannot look upon ANY sin with the least degree of tolerance?

    Just because the official line makes certain claims about the alternative length and cost of war and the other sides intractability doesn’t make it so.

    As long as the mainstream is unwilling to deal with the “excrement” we excrete, instead preferring to rationalize, justify, and otherwise propogate the concept of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny, we will be doomed to make decisions which will result in tragic consequences for others and ourselves.

  5. Aaron Orgill Says:

    You’re a nut. We are not talking about Manifest Destiny here. Good grief, you like to paint with a broad brush, don’t you? My sense is that you look down on others who don’t understand politics, the gospel, or anything else, because you’re the only one smart enough to really get it. You’re SO smart that on occasion you get caught up and set out to prove that black is white.

    Even in war, you can try to take a higher road in an ugly situation. We took it when we rebuilt Japan, and no matter how much sputtering you do about blowing up as many people as you can for a cause being all the same thing, what cause you are fighting for makes a great difference. In WWII, were we out trying to convert the world to Christianity? No. We were pulled in after years of isolationism. Compare that to the knee-jerk reaction of Vietnam or the current war, which started off well in Afghanistan but has completely derailed now that we’re in a country that we jumped into pre-emptively without doing our homework on it first.

    I’ve enjoyed your columns. You are intelligent, well-read, and you have made me take a long hard look at my beliefs on at least a couple of different topics. But honest to goodness, some of your posts are just downright depressing. You suggest despair, which comes from the devil. I don’t know if that’s accurate in how you are in your interpersonal relations, but it’s certainly what comes across. Liberalism, at its core, is pessimistic. People aren’t good enough to be generous, or to have empathy for others, so we’ll just force it on them. Only problem is, they won’t grow unless it’s done freely. We are commanded to be of good cheer, and I wish you and other liberals would take that to heart, and I think you could get a great deal done in this country. You wouldn’t even have to change your beliefs, only your approach. And recognize America for what it is, not Exceptionalism, but a truly exceptional place.

  6. Derek Staffanson Says:

    Broad brush? I do like to look at the big picture and the broad themes that often get hidden in the minutia, rationalizations, and sophistry. When you look at things from the broader perspective, you might be surprised how similar the U.S. claim that they had to use any means necessary to force the Japanese into unconditional surrender is to the earlier concept of Manifest Destiny.

    It seems amusing to consider the use of an unmatched act of terrorism in war as “the high road.” Whether or not we did something good afterwards in no way scrubs that stain from our nation.

  7. Aaron Orgill Says:

    We aren’t going to agree on this, and that’s okay. In war, you try to win. The fact that we put such limitations on ourselves in every single war says a lot about us. That we haven’t resorted to blowing ourselves up in Iraqi mosques should tell you who is taking the high road. You’re being blind. Doing good afterwards makes no difference? The hell it doesn’t. It goes a long way, and that we did has enabled us to have a strong relationship with Japan in the sixty years since. Even if we were acting in self-interest, it only matters so far as the practical effect it had on people’s lives. This was one rare moment when a country stained by war really got it. If they lose, we lose. When possibility dies, people start blowing themselves up (or, to use a recent local example, they start shooting up Trolley Square). Someone failed that kid, and therefore, we all did, and paid a price for it.

    You’re ignoring the more important point, in my opinion. Appreciate what you’ve got, and acknowledge the good that surrounds you, and stop being such a doomsdayer, feeding off negative energy. It doesn’t serve you or anyone you present it to. Harness it into love or whatever inspires you, and I think you can make a real difference for good in the world.

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