What counts as terrorism?

I realize I’ll get in trouble for writing this. I hope you can love me even when God puts it on my heart to advocate for people whose existence has been delegitimized with the label of “terrorism.” And I hope you understand that my advocacy does not connote moral approval of very evil things that have been done and are being done. I used to be a youth pastor to kids who society had written off on account of their being “gang-bangers” and “illegal aliens,” and I discovered they were beautiful children of God who needed someone to tell them that. Jesus’ ministry was defined by associating with people whose existence had been delegitimized with a label, whether it was “sinner” or “tax collector” or “prostitute.” Thus it seems like not an inappropriate emulation of Christ to try to understand and even defend the human dignity of “terrorists” in Gaza whether they’re labeled that way because of their own sinful deeds or because they share the same ethnicity, neighborhood, or even household with people who have engaged in acts of violence that create terror.

There are two ways of defining terrorism that I can think of: 1) to intentionally kill civilians, 2) to terrorize a population of people through violence as a means of accomplishing political objectives. Suicide bombers do both. They not only kill civilians but they also create a culture of terror for the surrounding population. But what about fighter pilots? Can they be called terrorists if their bombs kill civilians and terrorize a population? Could it be that the primary difference between suicide bombers and fighter pilots is the technological capability to pinpoint a precise military target?

I realize that these questions are taboo and offensive. But here’s what needs to be named. We often don’t define terrorism according to the two ways I described above, but according to whether a group of people has the technological resources, nation-state affiliation, and organization to be considered an “official” military. If a paramilitary group plants a roadside bomb that blows up a military vehicle filled with people who are on a mission to kill members of that paramilitary group, is that terrorism or self-defense?

We tend to say it’s terrorism, because we know soldiers who have been killed and wounded by IED’s whereas we don’t have any first-hand exposure to those who are killed by the bombs that we drop from our planes, which makes the bombs seem “clean” in a way that the IED’s are “dirty.” But if our definition of terrorism is strictly killing civilians and terrorizing a population as a political strategy, then we can’t say that IED’s which target military are terrorism, as nasty as they are.

When the British fought in the revolutionary war, they marched in straight lines across the battlefield while the colonists hid in trees and picked them off. If the word terrorism had existed in the 1770′s, the British would certainly label guerrilla warfare tactics as terrorism, saying why don’t you come out in the field and face us like gentlemen? When you have an armed conflict between two radically mismatched sides, the side that has the technological disadvantage cannot engage in conventional warfare tactics or they would get decimated very quickly. If Hamas lined up in a field with all their weapons across from Israel’s military with all their weapons, Israel would win in six seconds rather than six days. Hamas doesn’t have the intel or the technology to engage in surgical strikes against Israeli airfields even if they wanted to. All they can do to retaliate if Israel assassinates their leaders is launch rockets which cannot be aimed with any precision.

This is not to say anything about Hamas’ moral culpability in either suicide bombings or rocket attacks, but merely to point out that we often conflate technological superiority with moral superiority. If you have the capability to engage in “surgical” strikes, then you don’t have to worry about killing civilians because you can say it was an “accident.” This is precisely what Israeli prime minister Netanyahu does rhetorically in the following quote: “The moment we draw symmetry between the victims of terror and the unintended casualties that result from legitimate military action against the terrorists, the minute that false symmetry is drawn, the terrorists win.”

Netanyahu’s quote makes Palestinian civilian life less valuable than Israeli civilian life because Israel can show that their technology makes their bombings “legitimate military action.” No matter how many civilians die, they can always be labeled “unintended casualties” or “human shields,” not because any assessment of “intent” has occurred but because the Israeli military spokesperson can point to the technological precision of their weapons. But the question of whether the Israeli military has engaged in terrorism needs to be answered according to our two definitions. Have they intentionally targeted civilians or used violence deliberately as a means of terrorizing Palestinian civilians to put pressure on Hamas?

One of the greatest sources of Palestinian casualties has been the deliberate Israeli targeting of households in which a member of Hamas allegedly lives. In Arab culture, many households include large extended families. The Israeli military says that it calls the house or drops leaflets ahead of time to warn people that it’s about to bombed. Whether this lets them off the hook for deliberately targeting residences where civilians live can be determined by answering the following question: if Hamas had the technological and intelligence capability to only launch rockets at the houses of Israeli military engaged in operations against Hamas in Gaza, then would it be “legitimate military action” and not “terrorism” as long as they robocalled the homes in advance? If you can’t answer yes to that question, then you have to concede that killing the families of Hamas members is indeed terrorism.

The question of whether Israel is deliberately creating an environment of terror in Gaza for the sake of political pressure can be answered by looking at what buildings are targeted and how Israeli officials describe their objectives. Israeli ministers have referred to their operation into Gaza as “cutting the grass,” meaning that Hamas cannot be eliminated without the genocide of 1.5 million people (which would be “uprooting the grass”), but their power can be suppressed and cut back periodically. Judging by Israel’s choice of targets which have included government buildings, media facilities, hospitals, and schools, it seems that “cutting the grass” means causing enough general infrastructural damage to Gaza that Hamas will change their cost-benefit analysis.

The other thing that Israel has been doing to Gaza is to enforce a blockade of goods entering and leaving Gaza that was established in 2007 in response to Hamas winning the democratic elections in Palestine. Supposedly, this blockade exists to prevent weapons from entering Gaza, but the banned items include food items like pasta, lentils, and tomato paste, musical instruments, and notebooks. According to an Israeli official, the objective of the blockade has been to put Gazan residents “on a diet.” An Israeli human rights organization discovered that government officials were calculating the minimal calorie intake needed to keep Gaza’s people just above mass starvation in deciding upon the food restrictions for the blockade. The other aspect of the blockade is that Gazan companies are not allowed to export their goods, which has nothing to do with whether weapons enter the country or not, but attempts to pressure Hamas through destroying the Gazan economy and creating massively high unemployment. This is an extraordinarily imbecilic strategy by the way: who do you think unemployed 20 year olds in Gaza are going to ask for work?

Is it terrorism to deliberately impoverish a group of people to punish them for their electoral choices? What if kids in Gaza die as a result of malnourishment even if they’re not literally starving to death but are more vulnerable to diseases like dysentery? Is that different than killing them with rockets or suicide bombs? Based on how Israeli officials describe the objectives of the blockade and military action as putting Gaza on a diet and cutting the grass, I think it’s fair to say that their goal is to create an environment of desperation and terror among Gazan civilians in order to put pressure on Hamas.

If we strictly follow the two definitions of terrorism that I started out with, instead of allowing ourselves to moralize technological, then Israel is committing terrorism against Gaza in both senses. If the US government were not wrapped around Benjamin Netanyahu’s pinky finger, then Israel would be a pariah state. The only reason our allies defend Israel’s actions is because of the US’s ferocious advocacy. Does this justify Hamas’s rockets? By no means! But it’s clear that the blockade of Gaza has done nothing to stop Hamas from acquiring weapons, so it’s ludicrous to argue that the blockade serves any purpose other than to terrorize the local population which is not only evil but terrible strategy since it pushes people into terrorism who would otherwise be invested in having a peaceful, stable society. So it’s time for Israel to drop the blockade and stop targeting Hamas’ members’ families and destroying Gazan buildings for the purpose of doing infrastructural damage. Otherwise, they need to go on the same list with Iran.

  • http://um-insight.net Cynthia Astle

    I don’t find this essay offensive in the sense of questioning U.S. support for Israel. What offends me is the knowledge that we who claim to follow Christ don’t speak up for the value of all human life. What offends me is the knowledge that those who are abused, as the Jews have been for so long, can so easily become the abusers when in power. What offends me is our inability to see “the other” as we see ourselves, and to love them as Jesus taught. This is the heart of our sin, and only with divine help can we overcome it.

    Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Amen. Exactly.

  • http://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com TheEvangelicalLiberal

    Bravely and eloquently said. Sadly I suspect you may not get a huge deal of support for your views among your fellow US Christians, but over here in the UK many would agree passionately! Your arguments seem to me sound, reasonable, sensible, compassionate and above all deeply Christian. Keep ‘em coming!

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks for the encouragement!

    • http://gravatar.com/alextfish AlexC

      Absolutely. This article seems just perfectly sensible from a UK evangelical point of view. What’s heartbreaking is to think that many/most American evangelicals would disagree.

  • Kevin

    If you want to create your own definition of terrorism you can arrive at any conclusion you like. Here is what the Dept of Defense says;
    “The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.”
    And here is what the Dept of State has to say
    United States Law Code – the law that governs the entire country – contains a definition of terrorism embedded in its requirement that Annual Country reports on Terrorism be submitted by the Secretary of State to Congress every year. (From U.S. Code Title 22, Ch.38, Para. 2656f(d)
    (d) Definitions
    As used in this section—
    (1) the term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than 1 country;
    (2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;

    Under these definitions an attack pilot acting in his nation’s interest is not a terrorist. Any civilians killed are considered collateral damage. The choice of target is made by the enemy. It is considered lawful violence. Not terrorism.
    You seem to confuse guerilla warfare with terrorism. It isn’t. It is simply another method of conducting war between belligerent sovereign entities.

    • Morgan Guyton

      “Under these definitions an attack pilot acting in his nation’s interest is not a terrorist. Any civilians killed are considered collateral damage.” Do you see how this logic privileges national identity? You are exuding precisely the conflation that I name in my article. Read it again.

      • Kevin

        I am simply saying that if you want to have a rational discussion about terrorism you should stick with the legal definitions. And yes the rules are different for nation states who after all make the rules. That is how that works. Non-nation state actors such as Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and the like are in a legal limbo. An act of war by a nation is perfectly legal. An act of war by a sub national group is terrorism. In the Gaza mess the people elected a party that uses terror as an instrument of policy. The Israelis suppress terror with violence. Reminds me of the line by Sean Connery in the Untouchables. “When he sends one of yours to the hospital you send one of his to the morgue.”

        • Morgan Guyton

          If you define terrorism in this way, then the term ceases to have any moral weight because you’re denying the existence of state-sanctioned terrorism simply for being state-sanctioned. Iran has not done anything that Israel hasn’t done, but I don’t think you’re going to concede that Iran isn’t a terrorism-supporting state. Sorry, but accepting the normativity of nation-state privilege is absolutely not the foundation for a rational discussion about terrorism.

  • Verdell

    You articulate well what I feel in my heart but lack the words to express. God bless you.

  • Kevin

    Iran is a terrorism sponsoring state. From the State Dept

    (5) the terms “terrorist sanctuary” and “sanctuary” mean an area in the territory of the country—
    (A) that is used by a terrorist or terrorist organization—
    (i) to carry out terrorist activities, including training, fundraising, financing, and recruitment; or
    (ii) as a transit point; and
    (B) the government of which expressly consents to, or with knowledge, allows, tolerates, or disregards such use of its territory and is not subject to a determination under—
    (i) section 2405(j)(1)(A) of the Appendix to title 50;
    (ii) section 2371 (a) of this title; or
    (iii) section 2780 (d) of this title.

    • Morgan Guyton

      And the only reason Israel is because AIPAC owns our government. You realize quoting all these sections of legal code is completely ludicrous to me. I’m talking from a moral/theological perspective which perhaps you don’t share. I’m just trying to follow Jesus, who hung out and stuck up for people that everybody else dismissed as categorically evil.

  • John

    There is no excuse for targeting civilians. The difference is not one of technology as the post implies. Suicide bombers in the Iranian resistance have been quite effective in destroying military targets as were some of those who resisted the U.S. in Iraq. Sociological studies have also shown that terrorism is not effective in achieving political goals. See http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/download/216/434. What Hamas and Palestinian terrorism does do is keep corrupt regimes in power by focusing the attention of their populations on the “external enemy” and away from the evidence of government corruption. It also attracts the attention of a gullible world which provides funds to the Poor oppressed Palestinians, who must be sorely oppressed to be driven to such horrible actions. This gives the Palestinians a higher per capita income than the Egyptians, for example. (See http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/KH18Ak01.html.) Hamas purposely sets up their rocket launchers in civilian areas so that, if the Israelis respond, they can be accused of atrocities. They also do not take steps to protect their civilians from rocket failures, trotting our those
    killed by their own rockets as evidence of Israeli atrocities. (See http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frenchrevolution/2012/11/16/maintaining-clarity-in-the-debate-over-gaza-tactics/.) The situation in Gaza and Palestine is tragic because the governments their find the tragedy, which helps keep them in power, preferable to peaceful coexistence between a Palestinian and an Israeli state. And despite all the bad press and accusations, Israel has always accepted the Palestinians right to exist.
    If you want to be sympathetic for an oppressed people, you might consider the Western Ukrainians. Before world war II they were part of independent Poland. Then the USSR invaded and took their homes and land, committing genocide in the process. Then the Nazis invaded and took the homes and land of the survivors, committing genocide in the process. Then the USSR invaded yet again and took the homes and land of the survivors, committing additional genocide. With the breakup of the USSR they found themselves part of yet another state that was not their own. Unlike the Palestinians and Hamas statements about Israel, the Poles never pledged to exterminate either the Nazis or the USSR. And of course, unlike the establishment of Israel, which was sanctioned by the U.N., none of these conquests of the Poles had any international justification except for right of conquest. Although we have been trained to see the Palestinians as unique victims, there are many oppressed people whom we don’t even think about because they work to end their oppression rather than survive by being oppressed victims.

    • Morgan Guyton

      When you bomb a house where civilians live intentionally which Israelis freely admit to doing with the houses of Hamas members, then it’s terrorism even if you use an F-15 to do it. That fact isn’t negated by anything the Palestinians have done. Why are you so invested in their dehumanization? I’m not defending Hamas’s actions, merely pointing out the double standard.

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