a matter of perspectives
In the "City of God," St. Augustine tells the story of a pirate captured by Alexander the Great. The Emperor angrily demanded of him, "How dare you molest the seas?" To which the pirate replied, "How dare you molest the whole world? Because I do it with a small boat, I am called a pirate and a thief. You, with a great navy, molest the world and are called an emperor." St. Augustine thought the pirate's answer was "elegant and excellent."
Freedom fighter or Terrorist?
Sachin Karmakar is a Bangladeshi citizen who applied for political asylum in the United States last year. “His long record of promoting the rights of religious minorities were both so well-documented that his request for political asylum in the United States was approved just 13 days after he applied for it. His case officer, he says, told him it was the fastest approval she'd ever granted.” However the fairy tale came to an abrupt end when Karmakar was then denied the green card by the US authorities, “because he had been a member of 'Mukti Bahini', an 'undesignated terrorist organisation',” The Mukti Bahini was a force with its origins in the 1971 civil war in Pakistan that ultimately led to the birth of Bangladesh on December 16, 1971. Also known as freedom fighters, it comprised of military and civilian groups that resisted and actively fought against the Pakistani Army. It is important to note here that the state of Pakistan completely refused to grant any kind of legitimacy or validity to the struggle of the Bengalis for independence and labelled them as terrorists. The United States of America, then a chief ally of the Pakistani government as a result refused to recognise the Mukti Bahini as legitimate freedom fighters.
A day later, another immigrant, this time an Afghan by the name of Mohammad Rasul received a similar letter from the department of immigration, the reason being that he had been part of a group called “The Mujahideen” that fought against the Russians during the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Mujahideen received active financial and military backing from the United States as the Soviet Union at the time were the Communist enemy. Three decades later, and post 9/11, the situation had slightly changed.
Politics often encompasses various countries with their unique socio political/economic conditions, various religious/racial/ethnic backgrounds and different philosophical and political viewpoints. This more often than not gives rise to disagreements and ultimately polarised worlds. However, owing to the volatile international politics and governments and other political entities, perspectives and viewpoints do not remain constant.
I cannot better elucidate this point without quoting a man by the name of Nelson Mandela who once said “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one."
This quote opens a can of worms because it takes us back to the age old tedious task of defining terrorism. There is no internationally accepted definition for terrorism, because terrorism is almost always politically motivated, and as a result, we have conflicting interests and inclinations. This probably explains why the United Nations, with almost 200 nation states as members has failed so far to define terrorism. Since the UN has to cater to such a wide group of nation states, each with their own political motives, views and inclinations, it is impossible for it to formulate a generally accepted definition. It is important to observe the way the term has been used and the evolution it has gone through.
Origins and History of the term
Terrorism is an offspring of the word “terror” which originates from the Latin word meaning “to frighten”. It was used to define violent actions from the state level during the eighteenth century in the wake of the French Revolution. During the nineteenth century, the meaning of terrorism expanded to include violence from those not in control of a state or government against the state, thus encompassing violence from below as well. The definition has since then undergone much evolution owing to changing political scenarios, circumstances and incidents. Today, groups such as Al Qaeda, Tamil Tigers, Lashkar e Taiba with their hijackings, suicide bombings and other terrorist activities have redefined the way terrorism is seen and understood today. Terrorism, during the French Revolution was a positive term, and according to revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre, an essential tool to have a successful revolution and defeat the oppressive and tyrannical regimes. Moving on to a more recent figure, Osama Bin Laden, in an interview cited a few reasons for his opposition of the United States, “Because you attacked us and continue to attack us, you attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon, under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis;” (Bin Laden's letter to America)
It is important to note here how both Osama Bin Laden and Maximilien Robespierre define themselves and their actions against a force or a power they are fighting against an oppressive state/kingdom/government; an attempt perhaps to justify the killings of innocent civilians and non combatants.
Perspectives and political standings change over time and allies become enemies and enemies become allies and that in turn allows a Menachem Begin, condemned as a terrorist in 1948, to win a Nobel peace prize in 1978.
However, what makes it so easy for an Osama or a Robespierre to justify their actions is the fact that those nations, or entities or forces, which attempt to fight terrorism, are themselves unable to do so by adhering to their own principles consistently.
“Good Us” vs “Evil Them” who draws the lines of demarcation?
To look at this relative nature of terrorism from a different perspective, I will now focus on those who take a stand against terrorism and attempt to do the selfless act of protecting the world against the evils of terrorism.
“The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I've directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbour them.” - The former President of United States of America, Mr George W Bush*
“The calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies as to the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological” (7) - United States Department of Defence
'Unlawful use of force or violence against persons and property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives' - The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The U.S. intervention in Nicaragua is a case that provides us with an opportunity to test the consistency of those principles and values established above.
By 1934, when the authoritarian Somoza regime was established, the U.S. had already occupied the country militarily on at least four different occasions, established training schools for right-wing militia, dismantled two liberal governments, and helped to orchestrate fake elections. In 1981, the CIA began to organise the "Contras" many of whom had already received training from the U.S. military as members of the Somozas' National Guardsmen to overthrow the progressive Sandanista government.
It is safe then to conclude that the CIA "harboured," recruited, armed and trained the Contras, in order to "coerce" and overthrow a government, and terrorise a people, through violent means ("in furtherance of political [and] social objectives").
Other instances of U.S. support for, or direct engagement in, terrorist acts include:
* the training of thousands of Latin American military personnel in torture methods at the School of the Americas
* providing huge quantities of arms--far more than any other nation-- to various combatants in the Middle East and West Asia
* and massive support, in funds and arms, for Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians.
Whether an individual is a terrorist or a freedom fighter depends on a wide array of factors, including but not limited to
* Whose perspective?
* When did it happen?
* What are our political motives and interests currently?
Perspectives and political standings change over time, and thus changes the meanings of the terms “freedom fighters” and “terrorists”. However, it is not only the “time” factor that makes terrorism such a hotly debated and controversial subject, but it is also the double standards of those, who claim to be our protectors and fight against the immoral and inhumane terrorists that makes it so easy for the likes of Osama and Robespierre to carry our their despicable acts of mass murder under the garb of “revolutionaries” or “freedom fighters”.
Terrorism as a phenomena may never go away and it is precisely because of our constant attempts to label and demonise those who are opposed to us and those we do not understand as immoral, wicked and mass murderers. We are unable to adhere to the high moral standards we set for ourselves in order to draw a clear line of distinction between “us” and “them” and that in turn fuels the long running debate of terrorist vs freedom fighter and paves the way for future Osama Bin Ladens to hope for any sort of legitimacy and sympathy.
* (Address to the Nation in light of the terrorist Attacks of September 2001)
(R) thedailystar.net 2009