In a December 5 paean to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Globe and Mail journalist Paul Koring writes, Sharon “has been a fighter since the age of 14, when he first joined the Haganah, an underground military group that opposed British rule.”
If your eyes pass over the sentence quickly, nothing seems amiss. But pause for a second, and ask yourself this: How is Haganah, “an underground military group that opposed British rule,” different in principle from Hamas, the Palestinian military group that opposes Israeli rule? And why is Haganah, a terrorist group, called an underground military group, when Hamas, a terrorist group, is called a terrorist group?
Here’s another question: Why is Sharon, once a member of a terrorist group fighting British rule, called a “fighter,” while Osama Bahar and Nabil Halabiyeh, the two Palestinians who blew themselves up and took 15 others with them, are called “terrorists”? Both belonged to terrorist groups, yet Sharon is admired as a “fighter” while Bahar and Halabiyeh are reviled as terrorists. Shouldn’t all three be reviled as terrorists?
The contras, the mujahadeen, the KLA, and the KLA offshoot in Macedonia, the NLA, are called freedom fighters, rebels, an underground military group, never terrorists — until they change sides. Whether terrorist or rebel depends on who the target is.
The KLA was once a terrorist organization in the eyes of the US State Department, until it became one of Washington’s principle tools in ousting former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Then it became a band of fighters, defending itself against the Serbs (who, themselves, had been made-over from the vigorous antifascists they are into the Nazis they never were.)
The mujahadeen, Washington’s tool to bog the Soviet Union down in a military quagmire, were freedom fighters. The mujahadeen were responsible for expunging the pre-Taliban days that Laura Bush now waxes lyrical about. Some former mujahadeen are now decried for sponsoring terrorism (the Taliban), while others are admired as liberators (the Northern Alliance.) Yet, whether Taliban or Northen Alliance, their tactics are the same. The difference is the interests they serve.
Osama bin Laden, elevated to the status of master terrorist, was not always so. He too was once admired as a “freedom fighter.” And yet his methods have survived his transformation from hero to goat. Only his targets have changed.
Writer William Blum says a terrorist is anyone who has a bomb but not an airforce, emphasizing that those who are called terrorists use the same methods as airforces, but don’t have the sanction of the state. Kill others with a bomb strapped to your chest in a suicide attack and you’re a terrorist. Kill others with a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet and you’re a fighter in the war against terrorism.
Political scientist C Douglas Lummis puts it this way: “It is a scandal in contemporary international law…that while the wanton destruction of towns, cities and villages is a war crime of long standing, the bombing of cities from airplanes goes not only unpunished but virtually unaccused. Air bombardment is state terrorism, the terrorism of the rich. It has burned up and blasted apart more innocents in the past six decades than have all the anti-state terrorists who ever lived.”
Listen to Haji Khan, who fled Kandahar, which has been subjected to “around-the-clock bombing raids designed to shatter the nerves and morale of the people,” as The Globe and Mail reported on December 4. “It was like being inside a nightmare. Everyone was crying. There were dead people everywhere. It never ends. It was boom, boom, boom, boom, and then boom again.” This is state terrorism, carried out under the direction of the state terrorist extraordinaire, George W. Bush. Bush orders the wanton destruction of towns, cities and villages, oversees a military that commits war crimes against Taliban prisoners at a fortress outside of Mazar-i-Sharif, and is hailed in fluff pieces as having the moral courage to rid the world of the scourge of evildoers, a task that, if truly carried out, would engender a host of self-referential paradoxes.
But while there’s a double standard in excusing regular military forces for their terrorism, there’s another double standard: Who’s denounced as a “terrorist,” and who’s admired as a “fighter,” depends entirely on whether the target is friend or foe, apart from the issue of whether the terror is state-sanctioned or not.
The only way to avoid the double-standard is to recall Margaret Thatcher’s, “terrorism is terrorism is terrorism.” In that vein, let me begin: Sharon is a terrorist. He was then. He is today. Call him a fighter, but he’s still a terrorist, no different in the days he was a member of Haganah, than Osama Bahar and Nabil Halabiyeh were last Saturday as members of Hamas; no different today, as a state terrorist, than he was at the age of 14 as an anti-state terrorist.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.