It's time we talked about stamping out 'terrorism'. I don't mean the concept, I refer to the word. Does it really advance the wholly welcome goal of ending violence aimed at the innocent if we persist in being promiscuous with our terminology.
In short, it's wrong and dangerous to label almost every act of violence in an insurgency or rebellion as terrorism. Are Nepal's Maoists, for example, terrorists just because the government, army and media label them as such? I
think not. They are rebels to be sure, insurgents, occasionally they are murderers. But as far as they and their supporters are concerned, they are involved in a battle to change society and history may just dictate that calling them 'terrorists' does more harm than good.
The term has already been cheapened well beyond usefulness. When Israel came into being in 1948, its founders were viewed by many as terrorists. They had used terror tactics to drive home their demands for a homeland for Jewish people. In July of 1946, about 20 Jewish men dressed as local Arabs and milkmen entered the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Britain was the colonial power in Palestine and it used the hotel as military and police headquarters.
The 'milkmen' planted bombs in the basement of the hotel and the resulting explosion killed more than 90 people, most of them civilians. The attack was denounced as 'dastardly and criminal' and its perpetrators and planners were called 'cowards'. Two of those 'cowards' who planted bombs and planned the assault later became future prime ministers of Israel, welcome in London, Washington and other world capitals that routinely denounce terrorism and refuse to negotiate with those who use violence as an instrument of political coercion.
The Irish Republican Army fought British rule for more than a century, winning independence for 26 southern counties and power-sharing with London and local opponents of home rule in the North. They used bullets, bombs, fear, bloodshed and yes, 'terrorism' to achieve their goals. Irish leaders travel the world now too, welcome everywhere and admired for their achievements. Yet the British government once went so far as to ban the broadcast of actual statements from IRA leaders and supporters, allowing their words to be pronounced only by actors. The aim, according to the thinking of the time, was to 'deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity'.
Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers now cooperate with Colombo in various ways to govern the north of the island. The African National Congress, routinely denounced as a terrorist and communist organisation, governs South Africa as a capitalist democracy and wins elections with a broad mandate. The pattern is repeated around the world. Rebels begin as terrorists and end as statesmen.
Iraq's insurgents are a particularly poignant illustration of my point. They fight American forces and kill many of their own people. They kidnap foreigners to frighten their countries into leaving occupied Iraq. It's widely agreed in Washington and London that they are terrorists.
But someday soon, today's insurgents will be wearing business suits and addressing the United Nations and possibly even the US Congress.
Some might say, a lot might say, that al Qaeda and its various elements are glaring exceptions to my argument. The men who crashed airliners into buildings on 11 September are pure terrorists. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants plan attacks on the innocent from safe havens in forgotten corners of a faraway land. Bombing nightclubs full of young Australians in Bali is an unacceptable way to make a political point. Yes, it is, and there can be no countenancing of 9/11-style tactics. But that doesn't mean that the men behind this campaign might someday not be considered acceptable partners in a political process.
Unthinkable now but the present lasts barely an instant. The future keeps coming and with it fresh thinking, new circumstances and better realities. Variations on the 'terror' concept bind us to the past and leave us blinkered, uncreative in easy judgement. We need to fight violence while staying open to all possibilities for peace.
Including shaking hands stained with blood.