When is a freedom fighter not a terrorist ?

One might reasonably conclude, from the way things have been reported, that the only difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is whether the person describing them likes them. Governments all round the world are – all the more so in the aftermath of the 2001/September/11th hijackings – seizing the opportunity to limit the scope for dissent by labelling it terrorism. A reasoned examination of what terrorism is, in terms of what it is that revolts common folk about it, is a necessary pre-requisite of any discussion of what forms of dissent should be allowed – as being those very freedoms allegedly attacked by terrorists – and which should be outlawed and suppressed.

My 1973 poxy tells me that terrorism means systematic intimidation as a method of governing or securing political or other ends, with terrorist and terrorize as derivative words. As expressed, these words apply themselves to a great many of the world's governments since time immemorial. They also apply to a great many organizations that have called themselves freedom fighters. All the same, I'll use this wording as a start-point in my search for the essence of what folk despise about terrorists.

Those, such as the Kurds (at least for much of the later 20th century), living under the heel of governments which terrorize them have few options but to fight for their liberty (at least while the less oppressively governed nations of the world are closing their doors to asylum seekers). If we declare all use of military force by non-governments to be terrorist (as appears to be happening), our modern laws against international terrorism will deprive genuine freedom fighters of any safe haven in which to organize their resistance to oppression. Oppressive regimes will describe all dissidents as terrorists regardless of the means they use: if we accept these lies at face value, we collude with oppression. Consequently, what we intend to mean by terrorism is a significant practical concern, not just a theoretical question.

Bruce Schneier (inevitably) has since done a better job of saying what I was trying to get at, and explained why the response in the UK and US is exactly what the terrorists want. Brett Glass has also written instructive remarks on lessons our own immune system can teach us about how better to respond to terrorist threats.


So let's review that 1973 poxy wording:


i.e. one-off atrocities aren't terrorist: they're just disgusting crimes. Folk may have died but no-one lives in terror in the aftermath. As to this, one may fairly note that the public is as opposed to horrific one-off crimes (such as the Oklahoma bombing – or, indeed, the atrocities of 2001, September 11th, had they been the work of a dozen late maniacs working without help) as to well-organized campaigns; and with just cause, since the victims see no difference.


which may jar, when we are wont to associate terrorism with the violence it involves: yet this is just, for the effect of the violence distinguishes a terrorist attack from a criminal act. A murderer kills someone without intent to make folk fear similar fates, though he may have that effect: but a terrorist's intent is to oblige us to live in fear that we shall be killed, so that he can use the promise of lifting that threat as a bargaining token with which to pressure us into giving in to his demands. Note, also, that violence is not the only way to intimidate a people: indeed, politicians condemning some atrocity against their people have been known to talk up the risk of further atrocities in order to intimidate their own people into accepting restrictions on their liberty.

as a method

i.e. a criminal act's objective is the act itself; a terrorist attack may resemble it in all other details, but the act is a means to some other end, and not itself the terrorist's goal. Though victims may care not one whit, the criminal is finished with his crime while the terrorist will strike repeatedly, (at least) until his goals are achieved. The fact that the terrorist attack is a means to an end does matter materially to the issue of creating a climate of fear, out of all proportion to that induced by the distressing reality of crimes.

of governing or securing political or other ends

which is too general to mean anything – use of an or other clause ensures it can never be denied. None the less, this wording is only superfluous, not erroneous: if only because innocent victims are little concerned at the motive of the culprit.

So the poxy wording doesn't stand up too well to scrutiny: all the same I prefer it to the emerging non-government violence meaning presumed in public debate and legislation. From the above critique, I find myself focusing on the creation of a climate of fear – an apt enough reading of terrorize. This will tend to put protection racketeers and the hit squads of oppressive governments under the terrorist banner: with which I, at least, am entirely comfortable. In light of this, I'll tentatively assert that the signal quality of terrorism is the creation of a climate of fear.

Even this requires a caveat. It is the proper business of those who enforce laws to make those who would commit crimes against their neighbours so fear the consequences as to abstain. Those who fight corruption cannot do so without making the corrupt fear exposure: indeed, an official terrified of losing his position if caught is less apt to allow coercion to sway him from faithfully executing the proper duties of that position. While some will simply declare all law-enforcement terrorist, respect for the vernacular forbids me to stretch the word so far. At the same time, granting law-enforcement a blanket exemption from charges of terrorism would go too far – if only because it would make what is terrorism depend entirely on one's recognition or repudiation of the legitimacy of laws and governments. My intent is to express the question of whether someone is a terrorist or a freedom fighter – as far as possible – in terms of what they do, rather than whether they are allied with those charged with judging the issue.

This points to a suitable refinement: one may describe the fear of fair punishment, for actions the perpetrator would condemn were others to enact them, as deserved and characterize terrorism as the creation of a climate of undeserved fear. A finer pedant might be needed to put the wording in order, but I would contend that this characterization is faithful to the vernacular.

Further, one must take some care to discern who the terrorist is, even acknowledging that a climate of undeserved fear has been created. If the news media in Canada were to report every violent crime in which a citizen of the U.S.A. was a suspect, emphasizing that detail, the Canadian population might well come to live in a climate of undeserved fear, believing their southern neighbours to be the cause; yet, indeed, one cannot fairly call the yanks terrorists in such a case – indeed, as the news media are the cause of the terror, they would better deserve the accusation.


It is hard to see how a climate of fear might be created without being at least systematic or deliberate; though either, on its own, may suffice – a few strategically chosen unrelated atrocities can achieve the goal, but would appear to require deliberation; while a systematic programme of oppression may, without intending it, cause a climate of fear. The U.S.A. may claim that the C.I.A.'s actions over the last half century were not intended to create a climate of fear in the third world; but, by systematically deposing governments which stand up for the rights of the poor and supporting governments whose hit squads brutally crush opposition, they have created such a climate (and made enemies of a huge proportion of the human species), whether deliberately or not.

Likewise, when the violent among one ethnic group commit atrocities against members of another in revenge for earlier atrocities against their own group, they may not intend to create a climate of fear but – at least unless their targets are (and are plainly understood to be) the actual perpetrators of a prior atrocity – they do create such a climate (as much among their own group, knowing that counter-revenge will follow, as among the other) and so do deserve to be described as terrorists.

Yet I shall not make systematic or deliberate a pre-requisite of terrorist; there is no need to provide a terrorist with a loop-hole by which to avoid the charge simply on grounds of lacking system or deliberation, if one manages to create a climate of fear without them.

Likewise, though it is usual for terrorists to commit their atrocities for political ends (if only because it is hard to have any ends which involve other folk and cannot be construed as political), and to use material violence to create their climate of fear, nothing is gained by including these factors in the specification: a campaign by psychotic dadaists might not be political, yet if it creates a climate of fear it still deserves the title terrorism, even if they achieve that effect by surprising their victims, in incongruous contexts, with pictures of scary monsters.

Freedom Fighters

Now a guerrilla force might well fight in opposition to a government (which, naturally, that force's supporters will describe as oppressive and etc., but again these terms are emotive so I shall dodge discussion of them). In so far as its use of violence serves manifest military objectives (notwithstanding that some civilians may be caught in the cross-fire) it may fairly repudiate charges of terrorism: it is fighting a guerrilla war, and we recognize this as a distinct activity from a terrorist campaign (though, clearly, the boundary will be blurred: an effective guerrilla war does, to the enemy forces, what a terrorist campaign does to the broader population).

By the same token, we should judge the legitimacy of a government's actions against its enemies. While the rule of law and due process may allow for them to detain folk suspected of colluding with the guerrillas, those rules oblige them to show just cause and engage in proper restraint, inflicting material harm only when guilt is honestly proven in a fair court. Yet government forces have as much right to make a military strike against (what they can show good cause to have supposed to be) a guerrilla strong-hold as the guerrillas have to attack the government's military bases.

Attacks on military outposts and armament stores may pose a threat to the general population (as opposed to the government's agents); which might cause a climate of undeserved fear. Yet if the government thus opposed is genuinely so oppressive as to justify the guerrillas' claim to be freedom fighters, one may suppose that the populace in general – already living in a climate of undeserved fear caused by the government – will be no more severely terrorized by such attacks, and may experience a lessening of fear in so far as the guerrillas show themselves to be gentler than their enemies.

When it comes to attacks on civilian supporters of the regime opposed by the guerrillas, the boundary between guerrilla war (or freedom fighting) and terrorism becomes far more muddled. Clearly a (civilian) torturer employed to obtain information about the guerrillas is as legitimate a target as the military: equally clearly, a literacy teacher or doctor who simply does the job described is not – even though they are working on behalf of the existing régime. Yet a police station in which no political prisoners are currently being held is a harder matter to decide: if it is routinely (albeit not today) used as the torturer's base of operations, the guerrillas may fairly argue that their attack on it is a proper part of their war; yet police stations are a proper part of the peaceful civilian world. Informers, and kindred collaborators, who aid either side in such a struggle can expect the other side to regard them as legitimate targets; as, in practice, can those who speak up in public for the cause of either side – though the international community clearly must consider attacks on the latter, if public advocacy is their sole part in the struggle, to be undeserved.


A climate of fear can be created without the use of violence – by the use of economic pressure. The threat of starvation, penury and homelessness is as apt to cause terror as the threat of assault. Such a threat may be disguised behind a threat of legal action or redundancy, or a threat to move business activities; all of which corporations have used to obtain their ends.


Since the second world war, the U.S.A. has bombed, while not officially at war with them, roughly one in seven of the countries whose governments its state department recognizes. If this is not a terrorist campaign, it is hard to see how anything else can be so classified.

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