Yesterday, my kids asked me what terrorism meant. The subject was relevant because of the nonstop media coverage of the massacre in Norway and the many conversations that swirled around this tragedy. I wanted to get the answer right because I did not want these two impressionable minds to be muddled about what terrorism looks like and why no one should be exempt from such a label should they fall within its definition.
Since Norway was the freshest example, I began with that, saying a terrible minded man hurt innocent people for no reason (or at least no reason the children could fathom). Terrorism, I explained, is an awful thing, where people take it upon themselves to kill and harm others for purposes they think are justifiable.
“Give us an example,” my son said. Of course, for me, the closest-to-home terrorism that comes to mind is Israel. When the Israeli air force bombs a neighborhood in Gaza City and kills innocent unarmed people in their own homes, that I told them, is terrorism. When a group of settlers descend upon olive picking Palestinian farmers and beats them until they need hospitalization, that is terrorism. Occupation, I told them, perhaps going out on a limb, is terrorism, because it causes daily horror for those living under it.
Back to the present, the Norwegian attacker, Anders Breivik, is for all practical purposes, evil incarnate and the best example of what individuals can become if possessed by fanatical ideas falsely wrapped in noble goals.
As I explained to my two children what awful forms terrorism takes, I was reminded of just how unfair the classification has become. A “terrorist” should not be classified as such according to the color of their skin, their religion or their ethnicity. It should not be decided according to political alliances and interests or to the balances of power that make the world what it is. The taking of innocent lives is an atrocity regardless of what group the victim or the perpetrator belongs to.
Sadly, this is not the case in today’s world. An American woman working in Palestine who had recently gone home for vacation told me that when she told a group of friends where she lived some of them gave her a “look.”
“Aren’t there terrorists living over there?” The question was not in reference to the occupying Israeli army but apparently to the Palestinians and Muslims living under the former’s occupation. Or perhaps it was about other Arabs as well given the “region”. Never once is the word terrorism used to describe the bombing of civilians in Iraq by US warplanes where scores of children lose their families, their homes and many times even their lives. This sort of state-sanctioned terrorism is given another name. It is called self-defense, the protection of freedom and democracy and the overriding need for security. As long as those values are supposedly upheld, it is irrelevant who falls to the side as collateral damage.
It all comes down to this –” terrorism is terrorism, whether the attacker is white, brown or black. It matters not whether the person works under the guise of Islam, Christianity, the security of Israel and its Jewish character or any other belief. What matters is that it is all called by the same name. When an Israeli army chief orders the bombing of a heavily populated civilian neighborhood on the slim chance that a wanted man could be hiding among them and instead kills families in their beds, this is the ugliest face of terrorism. Why it is not branded as such is beyond me.
And so, when my children ask me what terrorism is, I will tell them the truth. I will not hide the fact that there are those who exploit Islam for sinister causes just as I will not shy away from teaching them the equally sinister doings of Israel’s occupation and the numerous acts of terror it has perpetrated in its name.
If terrorism is to be condemned, we should do so across the board. Enough of the double standards and stereotypes that put all of us brown, Muslim people in a category we just don’t deserve. Perhaps Anders Breivik taught the world a valuable albeit tragic lesson. You can be any nationality, any color and any religion to follow in the path of evil. Because for the victims of such abhorrent acts, it makes no difference.