Remember, remember, the fifth of November…
While you don’t need to be familiar with British history to enjoy V for Vendetta, it certainly helps. The movie starts off with a short scene from 1605, as Guy Fawkes is caught trying to blow up the parliament building in London, and executed shortly thereafter. What was then known as the “gunpowder plot,” is commemorated every year in England on Guy Fawkes day, November 5th.
The antagonist of V for Vendetta shares little with Guy Fawkes, who may have been the world’s first religious fundamentalist terrorist. Or was he? A lot of the debate surrounding this film is because it supposedly glorifies terrorism. V, the ‘terrorist,’ fights the ‘freedom fighter’s’ fight against an oppressive government. At least, that’s what people are saying.
So what exactly is terrorism? I think it has something to do with indiscriminate killing of non-combatants, for starters. That would include suicide bombings in civilian centers. What it would not include would be suicide bombings on military bases, or soldiers. Some might say that any suicide attack is terrorism. Would that include kamikaze pilots in World War Two? What about shooting attacks on soldiers on guard duty? What about off-duty soldiers? Any definition that the media comes up with (and they really need to come up with one soon, an industry standard.) is going to have to be consistant. I’ve made up a “terrorism labeling test,” here (for lack of a better name). Let’s plug in a definition and see what happens.
Let’s start with this simple definition: “Terrorism is the indiscriminate targeting and killing of non-combatants.”
Now, let’s run that through some test examples:
1) The Sbarro bombing. Definitely fits. Civilians were targeted, indiscriminately.
2) September 11th WTC attack. Also works. They just wanted the highest number of kills possible. They also attacked a symbol, the World Trade Center, which isn’t really relevant to this definition, but we might want to keep it in mind if we want to refine it.
3) September 11th Pentagon attack. This one’s tricky. The Pentagon is a military target, and the civilians on the plane itself could be construed as collateral damage. We either need to change this definition of terrorism, or accept this attack as a legitimate military action.
4) The Allied bombing of Dresden in World War Two. Hmm… now we’re getting controversial. Dresden had no military targets. According to this definition, the USAF and the RAF were terrorists, clear and simple. We may need to go back and change something if we want to avoid condemning the Allied air forces.
5) An Israeli rocket attack that kills a wanted terrorist and two bystanders. Obviously, the targeted killing itself isn’t terrorism according to our current definition, but what about the bystanders? Again, collateral damage, but how far does this go? What if we launched a rocket that killed the terrorist and ten civilians? How about the terrorist and a hundred civilians? When does collateral damage become unacceptable and turn into terrorism?
6) The EZL and Haganah blowing up the King David Hotel. This probably escaped the terrorism label here. Even though many civilians were killed, the target was the headquarters of the British Army in Palestine, and if anyone should be at fault for the civilian deaths is was the British. Also, they telephoned in with a warning long before the explosion.
7) A Palestinian sniper attack on a soldier at a checkpost. This is actually the closest thing here to a legitimate act of war; a soldier attacking and killing another soldier.
I think the average Israeli, or even the average Westerner, would want 1,2, 3 and maybe 7 to be labeled terrorism, while 4, 5, and 6 should remain legitimate acts of war. But how can you label something to fit only those first three, and none of the last? I think we made need to introduce additional elements to our definition. For example, something about the terrorists themselves using civilian garb as cover, and not fighting in uniform might be in order. Also, a distinction needs to be made (if there is a distinction to be made) between targeting civilians, and executing military strikes where you know with certainty that there will be collateral civilian deaths. But I’ll leave it up to you.
Here’s my challenge. Define terrorism in one or two sentences. Then run it through these seven test cases, be completely honest with yourself, and publish the result, either on your blog, or in my comment space (but if you do it in your blog, let us know, and provide a link here). I’ll alter my definition here, and put up a new one soon, too. I’m going to “tag” to do this (but it’s open to anyone) David, Regreg, Umar, OC and OY, and mousetrap84, as her triumphant return to the blogging world.
Update: I want to add an eighth test case to run the definitions through. In 1943, Warsaw Ghetto fighters resisted the Nazis, and controlled the Ghetto for about 4 months. During that time, the non-uniformed resisters carried out attacks on German troops, and executed reprisal attacks on Jews that had been collaborating with the Nazis.
Key points here: They had no uniforms, fought for no country, and executed civilians in addition to fighting the Germans.
Obviously, I don’t think that the Warsaw Ghetto fighters were terrorists, and I don’t think anyone will debate that. However, there’s no doubt that the German High Command at the time considered them as such. Prove them wrong.