The Wrong War

Courtesy Reuters


Wars have typically been fought against proper nouns (Germany, say) for the good reason that proper nouns can surrender and promise not to do it again. Wars against common nouns (poverty, crime, drugs) have been less successful. Such opponents never give up. The war on terrorism, unfortunately, falls into the second category. Victory is possible only if the United States confines itself to fighting individual terrorists rather than the tactic of terrorism itself. Yet defining who is a terrorist is more complicated than it might seem -- and even if it were not, choosing one's enemies on the basis of their tactics alone has little to recommend it.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that a terrorist is someone who "attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation. ... The term now usually refers to a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects." This definition is fine as far as it goes, but in practice the use of the term is more problematic. The dictionary's citations describe the following "terrorists" or groups involved in "terrorism": the Russian government of Tsar Alexander III, the French Resistance during World War II, the Zionist Irgun in Palestine, the Kenyan "Mau Mau" independence movement, the African National Congress (ANC), Irish nationalists, and Greek Cypriots. At least some of these groups are widely admired, and it is telling that the citations referring to the Greek Cypriots and the ANC raise questions as to whether the "terrorist" label was properly applied. Like beauty, it would seem, terrorism is in the eye of the beholder.

Terrorists, it is usually agreed, are defined not by their goals but by how they elect to pursue them. If terrorism is never to be countenanced, terrorists must employ some means that no end can justify. But how exactly are unjustifiable means to be identified?

One school favors a legal approach. Both domestic

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