19th Century

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”: Deciding what is and what is not an act of terror

This article was written by Tyler Welch, a first year undergraduate student at Richmond American International University (Leeds RIASA). The article is a condensed version of an essay he wrote in Spring 2018, and is the second essay he has contributed to this site.

Most people have a vague idea of what terrorism is, and foremost in many people’s minds are the 9/11 attacks upon the United States. Yet academics and policy-makers have generally struggled to reach a consensus on defining it. A standard dictionary definition of terrorism is

The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.[1]

911 attacks

Photo of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City

Yet who is to decide what constitutes unlawful violence, and what does not? After all, the classic maxim holds that: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Many Americans would assume that 9/11 attacks were indeed unlawful; the attacks concluded with almost 3,000 deaths, and a further 6,000 people wounded. Yet to many in the Middle East, the actions of Al-Qaeda may constitute a form of freedom fighting. Let us explore, then, how we might decide what kind of acts constitute acts of terrorism, for without understanding it, as one academic argues, there can never be a truly sustained fight against terrorism.

Boaz Ganor makes an interesting point,

The question of who is a terrorist, according to this school of thought, depends entirely on the subjective outlook of the definer; and in any case, such a definition is unnecessary for the international fight against terrorism.[2]

The words “outlook of the definer” are crucial in that sentence; while the idea of terrorism is hard to define from a legal standpoint, Charles L. Ruby suggests that academics and policy-makers are interpreting the question wrongly:

If a legal or moral perspective is used, the values of the interpreter are the focus rather than the act itself.[3]

If a legal consensus on terrorism is difficult to reach, it is much more so when terrorism is considered in a modern sense for morality is relative; what is fundamentally morally wrong to one person is not necessarily so for someone with a different worldview. The reason why some people across the world might disagree that Al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden, were terrorists, is because that particular group stated that they were “acting in retaliation for America’s support of Israel, its involvement in the Persian Gulf War and its continued military presence in the Middle East”.[4] In the eyes of people all across the western world, their actions constituted an act of terrorism; Osama Bin Laden and his colleagues, on the other hand, viewed themselves as striking a blow for oppressed Middle Eastern peoples against a nation (the USA) whom they viewed as imperialist; to the terrorists their attacks were simply an act of retribution and justice.

Instead of seeking to define acts of terrorism through a dry legal or a subjective moral sense, therefore, we need to be seeking a behavioural understanding of terrorism, and, as Ganor argues, base our ideas of terrorism upon victimology.[5] Looking back on 9/11 we see that roughly 3,000 civilians were killed, as well as 343 New York City firefighters. Therefore this attack should absolutely be classified as terrorism because the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization was trying to “attain political, ideological and religious goals” through the deaths of innocent people that had nothing to do with that organization whatsoever. The Al-Qaeda terrorist organization may have “freedom fighters” that are willing to take their own lives for an anti-Western religious and political cause, but that should not give them the right to punish those that were not the cause of their distress. If they were to attack anyone it should be the ones causing their distress; it should be the U.S. military, not the citizens of the U.S.A., because to do so is classed as a war crime according to the international conventions.[6]

Freedom fighters

Spanish guerilla (Freedom?) fighters during the Peninsula War (1808-14)

The idea that we should focus upon victimology when defining terrorism carries with it one major benefit: it would distinguish legitimate freedom fighters from unsavoury terrorists. Thus, as an example, if one country was invaded by an imperialist power, and the people of that country rose up against the armed forces of their occupiers using guerilla warfare, then it would be acceptable to classify them as freedom fighters, for it is usually only military targets which resistance fighters take aim at, in cases such as the above. Or, to quote Ganor, it would be the acceptable and “deliberate use of violence” against military forces, to “attain political, ideological and religious goals”.[7] This is true because two nations would have come to war, and neither of them are necessarily correct so they choose to battle for a result (though in a case of invasion, one would hope that the international community’s sympathies would side with the country being invaded). But if there is an attack on civilians then that not tolerable.

So, is one man’s terrorist really another man’s freedom fighter? The short answer is that we are often asking the wrong question and defining terrorism wrongly as a result. In the future, when there has been a tragedy, people can differentiate a terrorist act from those of freedom fighters by examining which groups in society have come to harm as a result of their actions. If it is government officials and/or an occupying army, then those are generally the actions of a freedom fighter. If it is innocent civilians, then that group’s actions have gone beyond mere guerilla warfare and have stepped into the boundaries of terrorism.

Works Cited

[1] Anon., ‘Terrorism’, in The Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), online edn. en.oxforddictionaries.com [Accessed 30 March 2018].

[2] Boaz Ganor, ‘Defining Terrorism: Is One Man’s Terrorist another Man’s Freedom Fighter?’, Police Practice and Research: An International Journal, 3:4 (2002), 287-304

[3] Charles L. Ruby. ‘The Definition of Terrorism’. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 2: 1 (2003), online edn. <https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com&gt; [Accessed 31 March 2018].

[4] Anon., ‘9/11 Attacks – Facts & Summary’, History, online, <https://www.history.com/topics/9-11-attacks> [Accessed 30 Mar. 2018].

[5] Ruby, op cit.

[6] Ganor, op cit.

[7] Ibid.