Terrorism is what I say it is

Apr 20, 2024
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‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’. ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’.
 ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all’. – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass.

The motive for the 7 October outbreak by Hamas was undisputedly accepted in the West as terrorist, so anything done in response to it is automatically justified as counter-terrorism. For Israel, all members of several civil society organisations are ‘terrorists’ because they are Palestinians. Hamas and Hezbollah are declared terrorist organisations by the US, Israel and Australia. Yet last December, Pope Francis selectively deplored the killings by an Israel Defence Force soldier of two Christian women at a Catholic church in Gaza City, saying: ‘Yes, it is war. It is terrorism.’

Police and media in Sydney were confident that an ‘act of terrorism’ had been committed on April 15 by a 16 year-old boy with a Lebanese Muslim background. His victims were an Assyrian Christian bishop and three others in their church. Terrorism authority Greg Barton did wonder about how ASIO, and State and Federal police so quickly decided on a counter-terrorism investigation. Dai Le, the MP whose electorate includes the Assyrian church and its members, warned people against reaching hasty conclusions about the motivation for the stabbing.

Discussion about terrorism recurs whether there’s a mass killing, like the Lindt Café event in December 2014 – whose perpetrator was not on ASIO’s suspect list – or a single murder, like the murder of Curtis Cheng by 15 year-old Farhad Jabar in October 2015. Sudden attacks on crowds, like three street events in Melbourne in 2017 and 2018, set off debate about the perpetrators’ motives and states of mind. That diminishes after they are shot dead by police, as were Man Haron Monis in 2014, Yacqub Khayre in Brighton in 2017, and Hassan Khalif Shire Ali in 2018, and public certainty about terrorism is reinforced.

Yet cumulatively since 2000, when a terrorist act at the Sydney Olympic Games was averted, then 2001 when President GW Bush declared war on terror, and after that with the 2002 Bali bombings, the threat to the West and Israel of Islamist terrorism has lodged in Australian minds. Surveys found it to be a major cause of fear in Australia for a decade, and Muslims were its focus. Mutual hostility between Jews and Muslims now divides public opinion.

The NSW Premier and police in October 2023, when the Opera House was illuminated with the flag of Israel, were quick to criticise pro-Palestinian demonstrators for shouting ‘kill the Jews’ (I was there, and didn’t hear that). A later retraction by police didn’t dispel it from the memory of columnist David Crowe, who claimed crowds had chanted ‘where’s the Jews?’ (SMH 17 April 2024).

Debates about terrorism persist, not only because there is no end to the war on terror, but because no internationally agreed definition of ‘terrorism’ exists. All nations, or groups of nations, are left to decide for themselves who are terrorists and what constitutes a terrorist act. The accusation against an enemy of using terror was not invented by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, nor in September 2001, but thousands of years earlier. Always, however, terrorists are the Other, not Us. As Noam Chomsky explained: ‘It’s very simple: if “they” do it, it’s terrorism; if “we” do it, it’s counterterrorism. That’s a historical universal’.

The simplest definitions of terrorism are ‘violence for political or religious purposes’, and ‘the creation of fear to exercise power’. The US and its allies used the pretext of Bush’s war on terror to justify and pay for military operations in the Middle East. Their underlying purposes were to maintain American control of markets, oil, gas, and communications, subsidise the arms industry, and support Israel. For that, constant fear of an enemy was necessary. For those wanting endless war, terrorism remains perfect.

‘Terrorism’ is the term applied by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government to Palestinian acts against Israelis, but not the reverse. A new law defines terrorism as ‘the purpose of harming the State of Israel and the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland’. So anyone who resists that purpose is a terrorist, and will be punished as such, even while the government and the Israel Defence Force are not just harming Palestinians, but deploying powerful weapons and military forces to inflict on them ethnic cleansing and genocide. This, always justified by Israel’s right to self-defence, is State terror.

Perhaps for this reason, and despite the Nazis, the standard definitions do not mention State terrorism. South Africa, which has now challenged Israel in the International Court of Justice, knows that State terror was earlier practised against its black native people. State terror was inherent in the Western imperial process, which imposed control over indigenous people, seized their land and resources, and even enslaved them. European colonisers used terror in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and their successors did the same against indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada, and Australia. What Israel has done for more than 70 years is an inherited process. The world is challenged to agree at last to resolve what terrorism is, including State terrorism, and to stop militarising it.

Only political and religious terrorism are officially applied to such crimes in Australia. But as the Bondi Junction stabbings on 13 April show, terror can be inspired by other factors – allegedly misogyny. And as belated revelations reveal about the deaths of gay men, terrorists can include homophobes. Terrorist acts can be committed by Reclaim people seeking white privilege, as the 2022 shootings of two police and a neighbour at Wieambilla in western Queensland suggested.

Deakin University’s Professor Barton thinks terrorists have a collective goal, and see themselves as being backed by people who share their beliefs and hatreds. One element in it may be misogyny (he doesn’t mention homophobia) ‘but it’s part of a larger political project’ (The Conversation, 17 April 24). Nothing we’ve seen so far shows that the knifeman at Westfield had backers for a wide project for attacking women.

Nor do we know if the 16 year-old anti-Assyrian was a terrorist, or as Barton speculates, simply angry, ‘projecting loathing and driven by personal demons’.

But we do know that, after October 7, Israel’s leaders intended to inflict terror on Palestinians and commit genocide.

Law for Palestine Releases Database with 500+ Instances of Israeli Incitement to Genocide – Continuously Updated

Let’s be careful about whom we call terrorists.

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