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The Rhetoric of ‘Terrorism’ and Its Consequences


Journal of Political and Military Sociology (Summer 2002)

Since September 11 and the onset of the “war on terrorism,” increased attention has been given to the very concept of terrorism.  What exactly is terrorism?  Who practices it and why?  What are the appropriate responses to this form of violence?  We contend that these issues are obscured by the prevalent rhetoric of ‘terrorism’, a discourse that has not only deflected attention away from a critical examination of the moral and political issues underlying political violence, but also contributed to the increasing spiral of hatred and atrocity.   We illustrate this thesis by focusing on the development of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past three decades, and argue that the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ ought to be severely curtailed, if not dropped entirely, if this conflict is to be dealt with in an intelligent manner.

There is little agreement on the meaning of the term ‘terrorism.’1 Often an explicit definition is not even attempted, and when the matter is broached, it is freely admitted that there is no single universally accepted definition of the term—even the various agencies of the U.S. Government are not united on a definition.2  This might not be a problem for rhetorical purposes, but policy-making and scholarship require some sort of definition in order to identify the phenomenon and to justify ascriptions.  Otherwise, how can headway be made in determining which actions and agents fit the description of “terrorist”?  How else can we fashion policies to deal with what some regard as a fundamental challenge to world peace?

Sensing this obvious problem, those who talk and write about terrorism have attempted to demarcate their subject matter through a variety of characterizations.  Probably the simplest and most standard conception of terrorism is provided in this definition:

Terrorism is the use of violence or force, or the threat of such, directed upon innocents, civilians, or noncombatants, in order to achieve political objectives.3
There are several things to note about terrorism as so described.  First, the standard conception implies nothing directly about whether an act of terrorism can be justified or not.  The popular perception is that terrorism is illegitimate, and some scholars think that a definition should “capture the trait, or traits, of terrorism which cause most of us to view it with moral repugnance” (Primoratz 1990: 129).  Some go further and declare that terrorism is “by definition illegitimate and unjust,”4 a feature that is built into the FBI’s definition that speaks of an “unlawful use of force and violence against person or property.”5  This sweeping definition leaves open whether terrorism can ever be morally justified, but it is curious to note that it automatically renders any revolutionary violence as terrorist insofar as it violates standing laws, including the actions of the founders of the American republic.6  To avoid resolving the legitimacy question by pure fiat, a more popular point of view seems to be that moral condemnation must follow examination of the case and is not settled by labeling the act ‘terrorism’ and its perpetrators ‘terrorists’ (Valls 2000a: 79).

Second, the concepts of innocent, civilian, and noncombatant are distinct from each other, and each comes with its own problem of definition.  For example, the State Department stipulates that not only are civilians to be included among “noncombatants,” but also military personnel who are unarmed or not on duty at the time of the incident, with the result that popular resistance against off-duty soldiers of an invading army is classified as “terrorist.”  Yet apart from the oddities of such stipulations, which of the three terms is employed may have a bearing upon whether terrorist actions can ever be justified or not.  The use of  ‘innocents’ particularly inclines one to think of terrorism as illegitimate, and while the terms ‘civilian’ and ‘noncombatant’ are less obvious in this regard, they can also have this effect.  One apparent disadvantage of disjoining each of these terms in the standard conception is that it casts the terrorist net very widely, but, recalling the first point, the advantage is that it does not obviously prejudge the issue of legitimacy.

Third, while the standard conception excludes no kind of person or organization from being a potential agent of terrorism, the definition offered by both the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency automatically exclude open military actions of a government from being terrorist actions, though it allows that States can “sponsor” or “support” terrorists.  The definitions of the FBI or the Defense Department, on the other hand, allow that states can be the agents of terrorist activity.  Similarly, the definition supported by the United Nations allows that governments can engage in terrorism.7

Fourth, the standard conception says little about the specific methods employed by the perpetrating agent or about their immediate purposes.  Some scholars have thought that in order to capture what is unique about terrorist logic, it must be further stipulated that terrorism aims at intimidating people into a course of action they otherwise would not take.  To put it another way, an act of terrorism should be one that aims at instilling “fear” or “terror” as a means of manipulating a population or its leadership for political purposes.8  However, this stipulation would exclude acts that have primarily strategic purposes, such as strikes against enemy factories, harbors, or arsenals, and it would also exclude genocide.  Moreover, it would rule out acts of violence that are designed primarily to bolster the resolve and confidence of the side that feels itself oppressed regardless of the impact upon the oppressors.

Fifth, with the emphasis upon achieving political goals, virtually all definitions make a terrorist action dependent upon the intentions and purposes of the perpetrating agents.  Consequently, classifying an act as “terrorist” cannot be based upon the results alone, nor even upon the particular sources of motivation like, for example, revenge, even if political conflict is what caused the desire for revenge.  Yet the common practice in the media is to classify acts as “terrorist” if there is a suspicion that they stem from political grievances, regardless of whether the motive is accompanied by any definite political objectives (Margalit 1995: 18).

While the standard conception is adopted herein, the proposals offered below are compatible with a variety of definitions, for they are based on the fact that the word ‘terrorist’ is a highly emotive term, one that has acquired an intensely negative connotation in contemporary discourse.  Terrorism is perceived as breaking the rules of legitimate political violence, first, by targeting people who should not be targeted, and second, by using methods that should not be employed, such as the killing of hostages. As we shall see, this negative connotation is a vital feature of contemporary ‘terrorist’ rhetoric and the political uses for which it is designed.


Who gets labeled as ‘terrorist’?  The answer depends on where you are and whom you are listening to.  If you are tuned into the mainstream U.S. media, it quickly becomes apparent that the term ‘terrorism’ is not used consistently or with any scientific precision, and perhaps it is not meant to.  Let's look at some examples to illustrate this point.

It is generally agreed that young Palestinians who have turned themselves into suicide bombers amid civilians and those who flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center towers, were engaged in terrorist activity.  But there have been many actions that would qualify as terrorist under most definitions—certainly under the standard conception—that were not described as such by the mainstream U.S. media, and their perpetrators are not usually referred to as ‘terrorists.’  Sub-national groups perpetrated some of these; for example, the attacks upon civilians in Nicaragua by the U.S.-supported “contra” rebels of the 1980s claimed over 3000 civilian lives (Herman and O’Sullivan 1989: 46).  Again, the massacre of over 2000 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut in 1982 (Hirst 1984: chp. 12, Ang 1989: Part Two) is rarely referred to as ‘terrorist’ activity, and the alleged perpetrators of that massacre, members of the Lebanese Forces and the South Lebanon army, and their supporters in the Israeli military, are rarely called ‘terrorists.’ Again, U.S. media does not cite as a case of clandestine state-sponsored terrorism the car bomb planted by CIA operatives on March 8, 1985 in southern Beirut, killing eighty civilians and wounding of two hundred (Woodward 1987: 397).  At the level of overt actions committed by states, there are numerous examples that are not usually labeled as ‘terrorist,’ though they qualify as such under those definitions that allow for state terrorism.  These include the destruction of Grozny by Russian forces during the Chechnya war of 1999, the U.S. bombing of Tripoli, Libya in April 1986, resulting in the deaths of over 100 civilians, the US naval bombardment of Lebanese villages in the Chouf mountains in October 1983, and the Israeli aerial and land bombardment of Beirut in the summer of 1982 that resulted in the deaths of 5000-6000 civilians.9

State-terrorism can take other forms.  For example, there is the institutionalized violence that has been exercised against Palestinian civilians during Israel’s 35-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  This occupation has featured torture, deportations, collective punishment, economic strangulation, destruction of property, and confiscation of land (documented by several human rights organizations), actions that are routinely designed to intimidate a civilian population in order to secure political objectives, e.g., their abandoning hope of any success in opposing Israeli policies.  The same can be said about the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq, including both the bombing of Iraqi technological infrastructure in 1991 and the subsequent policy of sanctions that have led to the deaths of over a million Iraqis.10  This is to say nothing about more large-scale campaigns, like the US bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam war, not to mention the bombing of German and Japanese cities near the end of WWII.

At the opposite extreme, some actions are routinely labeled ‘terrorist’ that do not qualify as such under the standard definition.  For example, throughout the 1990s, the Israeli and U.S. media were replete with references to “terrorist” actions by the Lebanese group, Hezbollah, against the Israeli military in southern Lebanon, or by Palestinians against Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories, targets that hardly qualify as civilians or noncombatants.  Apart from the State Department’s unusually strict definition of ‘noncombatant,’ the same can be said for actions directed against the U.S. military, say, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000, or the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983.11


The discriminatory applications of the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ by the U. S. Government and mainstream American media reveal that neither uses these terms with any real concern for consistency, completeness, and accuracy.  If they did, and if the U.S. Government really meant what it says it means when it proclaims a “war on terrorism,” then the United States would be declaring war on itself, or, at the very least, upon its allies that have practiced or supported violence against civilians for political ends.
    Instead, these terms are selectively used by governments and media to describe those who resort to force in opposing governmental policies.  This development is not entirely surprising.  For example, we might expect that the U.S. State Department will be selective in its catalog of terrorist incidents since it is an arm of a government pursuing its own political agenda.  It is a bit more difficult to understand why a free press should follow the Government’s lead, but some have tried to explain this phenomenon by pointing out that the American media “support the existing social, political, and economic order in which they operate because they are part of and benefit from that order, and the views they convey rarely stray far from the norm” (Picard 1993: 121).12

The American situation is not unique in this regard; other countries, including Israel, Great Britain, Russia, India and Egypt routinely do the same, and so might any state in describing militant insurgents opposed to its policies, like the Nazis in describing resistance fights in the Warsaw ghetto (Herman and O’Sullivan 1989: 261).  There is a definite political purpose in so doing.  Because of its negative connotation, the ‘terrorist’ label automatically discredits any individuals or groups to which it is affixed; it dehumanizes them, places them outside the norms of acceptable social and political behavior, and portrays them as people who cannot be reasoned with.13  As a consequence, the rhetoric effectively,

    erases any incentive that an audience might have to understand the point of view of those individuals and groups so that it can ignore the history behind their grievances;

    deflects attention away from one’s own policies that might have contributed to these grievances;

    repudiates any calls to negotiate with them;

    paves the way for the use of force and violence in dealing with them, and in particular, gives a government “freedom of action” by exploiting the fears of its own citizens and stifling any objections to the manner in which it deals with them.14

The general strategy is nothing new; it is part and parcel of the war of ideas and language that accompanies overt hostilities.  The term ‘terrorism’ is simply the current vogue for discrediting one’s opponents.

The net effect is that the ‘terrorist’ rhetoric effectively shuts down all meaningful debate on policy or tactics, and leaves only the path of violence to solve differences.  The theoretical roots of this line of thinking are probably Hobbesian.  In his book War and Justice, Robert Phillips writes,

Every political community has understood that random and indiscriminate violence is the ultimate threat to social cohesion, and thus every political society has some form of prohibition against it. Terrorism allowed to take full sway would reduce civil society to the [Hobbesian] state of nature . . . No political society can sanction terrorism, for that would be a self-contradiction, as the very reasons for entering civil society were to escape precisely those conditions imposed by the terrorist. (Phillips 1984: )

Under a truly Hobbesian view, one need not object to one’s own terrorism against foreign peoples or countries.  I enter a political society so that I may escape precisely those conditions imposed by the terrorist, not in hopes that all people, least of all the foreign enemies of my society, can escape those conditions.  So a terrorist strike against my society may well be intolerable, but a terrorist strike on behalf of my society and/or against another society may be acceptable or even desirable.

This may help to explain a second critical feature in the semantics of the word  ‘terrorism.’  As typically employed, the word effectively takes on an indexical character, that is, there is an implicit reference to the speaker’s point of view, so that in general usage, ‘terrorism’ is actually coextensive with the phrase ‘terrorism against us’ (O’Brien 1977: 91).15  Just as successive Israeli Governments routinely refer to Palestinian militants as ‘terrorists,’ Palestinians have responded similarly in describing Israeli settlers and Israeli military personnel.  If we read each of the occurrences of ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ in Phillips’ passage and in popular discourse as indexical, then there is greater consistency with the Hobbesian view as well as common sense.  Thus, to paraphrase Phillips, “no political society can sanction terrorism against itself, for that would be a self-contradiction.”  Accordingly, it becomes easy to demonize terrorists because they are violating the canons of our social organization and would draw us into a brutal state of nature.  They are “beasts” that can only be dealt with on their own terms, according to the laws of the Jungle under which disagreements are settled through violence or the threat of such.

Yet, despite its popularity, this sort of talk is difficult to justify. Terrorism does not present any more of an assault on the foundations of political society than do more ordinary sorts of crimes, like murder, robbery, or rape.  Most societies have found more effective ways of dealing with crime than matching the brutality of the criminals and there is no obvious reason to think that similar methods, e.g. addressing the root causes of the crime, would fail in dealing with terrorism.  A Hobbesian stance on terrorism makes it difficult to defend the position that many mainstream figures and most scholars wish to hold, namely that acts of terrorism are morally repugnant.  After all, the Hobbesian objection to a terrorist bombing concerns not the method employed or the human cost as such, but the fact that the strike was “against us.”  However, one cannot explain why oneself or one’s society should not be the target of terrorist actions without recourse to a general norm, and the moment that sort of appeal is made, consistency demands that the same standard be applied to the actions of one’s own society in dealing with its adversaries.  An unwillingness to universalize a maxim of action is the surest indication of its immorality, as Kant said, and this is why the Hobbesian political realism provides no moral ground for objecting to the violence perpetrated against one or for restricting the violence one perpetrates upon others.

Of course, nothing precludes embracing a disingenuous rhetorical position that universally condemns terrorist actions as such but remains selective in its application.  This final point completes the picture of the Hobbesian stance toward terrorism.  Terrorism against one's own society is unacceptable, but the same sorts of actions it performs are fully acceptable.  The best rhetoric for promoting this stance is exactly that described above: to stigmatize terrorists and to tacitly restrict that label to adversaries, so as both to bolster intolerance for strikes against one’s society and to gain carte blanche in dealing with adversaries.  This may help to explain the tension between most academic definitions of ‘terrorism’ and the actual usage of the term in mainstream political discourse.


Any reasonable response to terrorism must considering why individuals, groups, and states would ever engage in such activity.  The general explanation is that those with resolute political objectives resort to terrorism when they decide that attempts to arrive at an acceptable negotiated compromise are doomed to failure and that conventional warfare is infeasible for achieving their objectives.  This glosses over an important distinction between the root causes of their behavior and their immediate and long-range ends.  The causes can involve any number of factors, but eventually they are funneled through emotional reactions to events such as an outrage over perceived injustices, desires to change the status quo in some fashion, say, to alter the balance of suffering (vengeance) or to change unwanted political or demographic realities in order to improve the standing of a particular group or organization; and beliefs in the legitimacy of one’s cause.  Some scholars contend that the primary reason some groups choose terrorism is that it makes strategic sense for them to do so.  A group opposed to a government’s policies, for example, “may choose terrorism because other methods are not expected to work or are considered too time-consuming, given the urgency of the situation and the government's superior resources” (Crenshaw 1990: 16).  An individual crosses the line into terrorism when he or she comes to believe that continuance of the status quo is worse than violence caused by acts of terrorism, a decision point that some refer to as the “doctrine of necessity” (Cooper 1977).  Religion and other forms of ideology become relevant to the terrorist strategy because of the needs for both motivation and justification.

The objectives behind terrorist actions can range widely.  States resort to terrorism in order to intimidate perceived enemies into acquiescence.  For sub-national groups, the objectives can include such things as (i) causing a government to change its policies, for instance, causing it to withdraw from territory, surrender control, release political prisoners, or descend further into destabilizing aggression; (ii) creating general panic to bring about a demographic change; (iii) convincing one’s adversaries that the price of its policies is too great in terms of the human suffering required;  (iv) causing a government to increase its repressive measures in order to bring about a further instability as a prelude to more fundamental change; (v) publicizing one's grievances, i.e., to be heard in order to merit attention and perhaps gain support and sympathy from others; or (vi) instilling confidence and promoting unity within a subjected population by showing that its members have the power to hit back at their oppressors.

One sometimes hears that terrorist tactics seldom succeed in securing their goals (for example, Carr 2002).  However, there are many examples when violence directed at civilians has achieved both short and long-range goals.  For example, the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities in 1945 are widely thought to have hastened the end of WWII, resulting in over a half-century of peace between the former antagonists.  Among non-state actors, there have also been relatively long-term successes, e.g., within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  One of the objectives of Jewish terrorists in the late 1940s was to make the cost of governing Palestine too great for a war-weary Great Britain.  Another objective during the 1947-49 war between Jews and Arabs was to induce as many Palestinian Arabs to flee from their homes in Palestine as was possible.  Through a few well-timed massacres, notably of some 250 civilians in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin in April 1948, over 300,000 Palestinians fled from their homes, villages, and lands in the areas that eventually became part of Israel, paving the way for the establishment of a decisive Jewish majority in these areas (Childers 1961, Morris 1987, Flapan 1987).  Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, described this flight of Palestinians and the forced removal of some 400,000 others as “a miraculous clearing of the land: the miraculous simplification of Israeli’s task” (Hirst 1984: 143).16

One effect of Palestinian terrorism of the early 1970s is that it drew attention to the grievances of dispossessed Palestinians, grievances that had been largely ignored in the first two decades after the loss of their homeland and the crushing of their quest for self-determination.  For example, after the kidnappings and killings at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the Palestinian leader, Abu Iyad, said the following:

The sacrifices made by the Munich heroes were not entirely in vain.  They didn't bring about the liberation of any of their comrades imprisoned in Israel . . . but they did obtain the operations' other two objectives; world opinion was forced to take note of the Palestinian drama, and the Palestinian people imposed their presence on an international gathering that had sought to exclude them.  (Rouleau 1978: 111-112)
The Palestinian’s recourse to violence succeeded to the extent that it placed their grievances and aspirations on the World’s agenda.  It is still too early to tell whether their strategy will have served the quest for Palestinian self-determination in the long run, but judging from a suitably long-range perspective, the same might be said of the tactics of the Jewish underground.

It is not yet clear what the objectives were of those who rammed the planes into the World Trade Center Towers.  If the perpetrators were indeed al-Qaeda operatives, as is often claimed, then their aim may well have been to provoke a massive U.S. military reaction in the Middle East that would intensify hostility to the American presence there, destabilize pro-American regimes, and, eventually, put an end to the perceived American hegemony over the Middle East.  They might have miscalculated, but it is far too early to judge.  The great risk of any resort to terrorism, of course, is the hatred and resentment created in the victims and their sympathizers.


Given that a population has deeply rooted grievances it is determined to rectify, and given that, continually, its members have been willing to resort to terrorist actions in pursuing its goals, then what is the intelligent response?  One might try to beat them into submission, but short of outright genocide, retaliation against a population from whose ranks terrorists emerge will not solve anything so long as that population feels it has a legitimate grievance worth dying for and decides that terrorism is the only viable response.  Such “counter-terrorist” retaliation, combined with a failure to address their grievances, only intensifies their hatred and resolve, their willingness to engage in more terrorism, and soon the parties will find themselves wrapped in an ever-increasing spiral of violence.  Whether individual terrorists are driven by strategy, psychology, or a combination of both, the rational approach to persistent terrorism stemming from a given group requires examining the situation wherein terrorism is seen as the only route of resistance or outlet for outrage.  Only then can intelligent moral responses be crafted.

This brings us closer to our main contentions. The prevalent rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ has not provided an intelligent response to the problem of terrorism.  To the contrary, it has shut off any meaningful examination of causes or debate on policies and has left only the path of violence to solve differences.  Rather than promoting a free and open examination of the grievances of the group from which terrorists emerge, the ‘terrorist’ label nips all questioning and debate in the bud.  Terrorists are “evil”—as the U.S. Administration has repeated on numerous occasions since September 11, 2001—and are therefore to be eradicated.  This sort of response to terrorist violence is nothing new; the ‘terrorist’ rhetoric has been steadily escalating since the early 1970s, and under the Reagan Administration it became a principal foil for foreign policy.

None of this was lost upon those who employ the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ as a propaganda device, to obfuscate and to deflect attention away from controversial policies.  A prime example in the 1980s was a book edited by Benjamin Netanyahu entitled, Terrorism: How the West Can Win.  While it offers a standard definition of ‘terrorism,’ both the editor and the contributors applied it selectively and argued that the only way to combat terrorism is to respond with force, “to weaken and destroy the terrorist’s ability to consistently launch attacks,” even though it might involve the “risk of civilian casualties” (pp. 202-205).   Throughout this book, very little is said about the possible causes of terrorist violence beyond vague assertions about Islam’s confrontation with modernity (p. 82), or passages of this calibre:

The root cause of terrorism lies not in grievances but in a disposition toward unbridled violence.  This can be traced to a worldview that asserts that certain ideological and religious goals justify, indeed demand, the shedding of all moral inhibitions.  In this context, the observation that the root cause of terrorism is terrorists is more than a tautology.  (p. 204)
One is tempted to pass off comments like this as pure rant, save for the fact that this book reached a large audience, especially since its contributors included not only academics and journalists but also important policy makers.   Netanyahu himself went on to become the Israeli Prime Minister, and among the American contributors were U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz, U. N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Senators Daniel Moynihan and Alan Cranston, all of who voiced sentiments similar to those of Netanyahu.  This upshot of the book is that a terrorist is portrayed as a carrier of “oppression and enslavement,” lacking moral sense, and “a perfect nihilist” (pp. 29-30).  Given that the overwhelming number of examples of terrorism are identified as coming from the Arab and Islamic worlds, and that “retaliation” against terrorists is repeatedly urged even at the expense of civilian casualties, then one begins to see the point of Edward Said’s assessment of the book as nothing short of “an incitement to anti-Arab and anti-Moslem violence” (Said 1988: 157).17

The ‘terrorist’ rhetoric typified in Netanyahu’s book actually increases terrorism in four distinct ways.  First, it magnifies the effect of terrorist actions by heightening the fear among the target population.  If we demonize the terrorists, if we portray them as arbitrary irrational beings with a “disposition toward unbridled violence,” then we are amplifying the fear and alarm generated by terrorist incidents.  Second, those who succumb to this rhetoric contribute to the cycle of revenge and retaliation by endorsing terrorist actions of their own government, not only against those who commit terrorist actions, but also against those populations from whose ranks the terrorists emerge.  The consequence has been an increase in terrorist violence under the rubric of ‘retaliation’ or ‘counter-terrorism.’18  Third, short of genocide, a violent response is likely to stiffen the resolve of those from whose ranks terrorists have emerged, leading them to regard their foes as people who cannot be reasoned with, as people who because they avail themselves so readily of the ‘terrorist’ rhetoric know only the language of force.  As long as they perceive themselves to be victims of intolerable injustices and view their oppressors as unwilling to arrive at an acceptable compromise, then they will reply with more violence against their oppressors.  Fourth, and most insidiously, those who employ the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ for their own political ends, for instance, to solidify American support for Israeli policies, are encouraging actions that they understand will generate or sustain further violence directed against civilians.  Inasmuch as their verbal behavior is itself intended to secure political objectives through violence directed against a civilian populus, then it qualifies as an instance of terrorism just as much as any direct order to carry out a bombing of civilian targets.  In both cases, there is purposeful verbal action aimed at bringing about a particular result through violence against civilians.19   Let us now examine evidence for these points.


The Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides a paradigm of how ‘terrorist’ rhetoric has generated only more terrorism.  Since the early 1950s, Israel's harsh responses to Palestinian militancy have not reduced, but increased, the threat of terrorism that the average Israeli faces.  For example, during the ten-year period from 1978-1987, eighty-two Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks perpetrated by Palestinians, a little more than eight Israelis per year, including both civilians and security personnel.  Within the next ten-year period, 1988-1997, that figure had jumped to 421, that is, to an average of forty-two Israeli deaths per year.  During this time same ten-year period (1988-1997), at least 1,385 Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were killed by Israeli security forces (and all but 18 of these were civilians).  In the first nineteen and one-half months of the second Intifada (September 29, 2000 – May 14, 2002) approximately 450 Israelis lost their lives—a rate of 277 Israeli deaths per year—whereas over 1250 Palestinians were slain.  Again, the vast bulk of the fatalities on both sides were civilians.20

Figures like these can be used to show several things.  They illustrate how the Israeli “reprisal” killings of Palestinians have not deterred Palestinian violence directed at Israelis.  They disprove Netanyahu’s claim that terrorists will rarely engage in terror tactics if the risks to their own survival are too great (Netanyahu 1986: 207), and they go directly against his argument that deterrence will put a stop to terrorism and protect innocent civilians from terrorist violence (p. 211).  Moreover, the figures show that despite Israel’s three decade long policy of reprisals against terrorism, the average Israeli is less secure today than he or she was ten years ago, and certainly less than twenty years ago.  If any causal claim is to be made, Israeli attacks have only intensified Palestinian anger and stiffened Palestinian resolve.21

The most devastating uses of the term ‘terrorism’ has been in Israel’s attempts to justify actions by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) against Palestinians in refugee camps.  In August 1982, during the Israeli siege of Beirut,  a multinational force was sent to oversee the evacuation of PLO fighters and to protect Palestinian refugees who had been left behind in the Sabra and Shatilla camps, home to some 30,000 people.  This force left by early September, claiming its mission was accomplished, but Israeli officials contended that some “2000 terrorists” were still in the refugee camps, a claim echoed in the Israeli press.  On September 15, a day after Lebanon’s new president was assassinated in a powerful explosion, the IDF moved into West Bruit, in violation of the evacuation agreement.  The Israeli Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, authorized entry of what were presumed to be members of Gemayel's Lebanese Forces (a Phalangist militia) and Saad Haddad's South Lebanon Army into the camps that were then sealed off by Israeli tanks. When the militiamen entered on Thursday evening, September 16, the only resistance they encountered was a few lightly armed boys.  For the next 38 hours, aided by Israeli flares at night, the militiamen raped, tortured, mutilated and massacred civilians.  IDF personnel, including General Amos Yaron, IDF Commander in Beirut, were stationed on the rooftop of a seven-story building 200 meters from Shatilla, with a clear view of the camps below.  Members of the Phalangist intelligence, who had radio communication with militiamen on the ground, were also present on the rooftop.  By Friday morning, evidence that a massacre was taking place was communicated to Israeli Chief of Staff, Raphael Eitan, but he approved a request that the Phalangists remain in the camps until the next morning.

The exact number of those who were killed is not certain. On September 22, the International Red Cross gave a figure of 2400, but the militiamen had buried some bodies before evacuating, and sources among both Phalangists and Palestinians claimed that at least 3000 people were killed or unaccounted for (Hirst 1984, chp. 12).  Among the dead, none could be identified as members of any PLO military unit.  An Israeli commission of inquiry ridiculed the claim that a massacre was not forseen by Israeli officials, and concluded that “indirect responsibility” rested on the shoulders of Sharon and other Israeli leaders.  Presumably, the qualifier "indirect" was based on the assumption that Israeli soldiers did not actually do the killing. Yet, allowing the revenge-seeking Lebanese Forces into the camps under the fiction that they would clean out “terrorists” suggests complicity if not outright instigation.  In other circumstances, those responsible—directly or indirectly—would have been charged with war crimes.  But Israel was the victor in the Lebanon war, and memories are often short.  Within a few years, Sharon, was able to carry chutzpah to unprecedented heights in a 1986 New York Times op-ed piece in which he declared that the “civilized world” must form an alliance to wage a “war on terrorism” and stage “pre-emptive attacks on terror bases” in order to “eliminate” terrorists.

As Prime Minister of Israel since early 2001, Sharon has once again had the opportunity to act on his ambitions.   After the on-going battles of the Al-Aqsa Intifada led to a rash of suicide bombings in Israel in March 2002, Sharon sent IDF troops, tanks, and helicopter gunships into the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, vowing to destroy the Palestinian “terrorist infrastructure.”  As of this writing, the most brutal incident of the campaign occurred at the Jenin refugee camp, home to 14,000 residents and containing some 160 armed militants from the Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade groups.  From April 4-13, the IDF besieged the camp, meeting fierce resistance at the outset.  Human Rights Watch reported that in the early morning hours of April 6, U.S.-supplied helicopters fired missiles into the camp, often striking civilian homes where no Palestinian fighters were present.  The missile fire caught many sleeping civilians by surprise, and in the subsequent chaos the IDF was able to move closer to the center of the camp.  After thirteen Israeli soldiers died in an ambush in Hawashin district of the camp on April 9, the IDF used armored bulldozers to penetrate districts where previously the IDF had not been able to consolidate control, destroying many buildings in the process.  The bulldozers continued razing homes even after most of the fighting had ended, resulting in a total leveling of Hawashin down to the last house.  According to Human Rights Watch the “extensive, systematic, and deliberate leveling of the entire district was clearly disproportionate to any military objective that Israel aimed to achieve.”22

The director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society in Jenin, told Human Rights Watch of the difficulty of sending assistance into the camp during the siege.  Whenever IDF tanks saw the ambulances, they blocked their way and occasionally shot at them.  They continued to be denied access to the refugee camp until April 15, so that almost no injured persons from the camp were brought to the hospitals by ambulance from April 5 to April 15.  Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International,  and B’tselem reported that the IDF used Palestinian civilians as shields during the fighting, one of the more horrific war crimes documented by these organizations in the first few weeks after the fighting had ceased.

As of this writing, the details on the damage and casualty figures have not yet been determined.  The IDF spoke of some 100-200 Palestinians killed in the first five days of fighting though Palestinians sources placed the number of dead much higher (New York Times, April 14, 2002).  The actual number of dead may be difficult to determine, for several residents reported seeing the army load bodies onto trucks during the siege, while other bodies remain buried beneath the rubble of destroyed buildings.  The IDF had closed off the camp to the media and humanitarian organizations until April 19, and the Israeli government refused to allow a UN investigation team to visit the area in the aftermath of the siege.

The assault of the Jenin refugee camp was the most devastating attack on a Palestinian population center in the West Bank during the 35 years of Israeli occupation.  As with Sabra and Shatilla, the Israelis claimed to be fighting terrorism, but the principal result was the destruction of civilian lives and property.  That the Israeli claims were used to both motivate and justify these actions illustrates how the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ been a causal factor in generating even more terrorism.  Not only was the Israeli public led to endorse policies of “retaliation” with devastating results for Palestinian civilians, but also, the flames of outrage and revenge have been fanned among the Palestinians.  The net effect has been an actual increase in the shedding of innocent blood on both sides and the likelihood of more, hence, more terrorism, not less.


It is not as though the escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians had not been predicted.  Already in 1956, the Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion complained to U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold that the latter's condemnation of Israel's retaliatory actions against Palestinians would only encourage Egypt and Jordan to commit outrages.  Hammarskjold replied:

You are convinced that the threat of retaliation has a deterrent effect.  I am convinced that it is more of an incitement to individual members of the Arab forces than even what has been said by their own governments.  You are convinced that acts of retaliation will stop further incidents.  I am convinced that they will lead to further incidents . . ..  You believe that this way of creating respect for Israel will pave the way for sound coexistence with the Arab peoples.  I believe that the policy may postpone indefinitely the time for such coexistence. (Urquhart 1972: 157)
Hammarskjold’s advice fell upon deaf ears.  Successive Israeli governments have persisted in following the retaliation model in responding to terrorism, with deterrence being the usual justification (Dayan 1968, Netanyahu 1993).23  As Hammarskjold predicted, however, the effect has been the very opposite; Palestinian militancy has grown, not diminished, as a result of Israeli actions.

The state of Israel has been committed for 50 years to a policy of massive and ruthless retaliation – deliberately disproportional.  “Ten eyes for an eye,” the Israeli like to say.  And still their policy fails, because they have not recognized what the thoughtful ones among them know to be true—that terrorism will thrive as long as the Palestinian population is obsessed with the injustice of their lot and consumed with despair.”  (Close 1998)   For America to adopt the Israeli model, Close writes, would “weaken our leadership position in the world” and undermine the most effective defenses we have against terrorism, namely, “a commitment to the rule of law, dedication to the fairness and evenhandedness in settling international disputes, and a reputation as the most humanitarian nation in the world.”  Former Assistant Secretary of State George Ball argued in the same manner in The New York Times on December 16, 1984:

. . . let us take care that we are not led, through panic and anger, to embrace counter-terrorism and international lynch law and thus reduce our nation's conduct to the squalid level of the terrorists.  Our prime objective should clearly be to correct, or at least mitigate, the fundamental grievances that nourish terrorism rather than engage in pre-emptive and retaliatory killing of those affected by such grievances.
Despite four decades of counsel to the contrary, the United States has edged ever closer to mimicking Israeli strategy by ignoring the need to examine the roots of terrorist violence.  The U.S. State Department has developed just “four basic policy tenets” for dealing with terrorism:
First, make no concession to terrorists and strike no deals.
Second, bring terrorists to justice for their crimes.
Third, isolate and apply pressure on states that sponsor terrorism to force them to change their behavior.
Fourth, bolster the counterterrorist capabilities of those countries that work with the United States and require assistance. (“Patterns of Global Terrorism,” Alexander and Musch 2001, pp. 1-2)
Nowhere do the State Department’s guidelines call for investigating the causes of persistent terrorist violence coming from the same source, specifically from a given population over the span of several years, e.g., the Palestinians.  Nor do they call for any sort of policy review.  They assume that, since there is no legitimacy to terrorist actions, it is pointless to investigate into the causes of terrorism or to review U.S. foreign policy.24

There are legitimate ways of responding to terrorist actions without responding with terrorism.  Those in charge of developing a response should attempt to identify the individuals and organizations responsible, and then pursue legal alternatives to bring perpetrators to justice, including claims for indemnification.  A resort to force should occur only after the appropriate legal channels have been exhausted, and here one must be careful to target only those for whom one has firm evidence of terrorist activity.  But before this step is taken, it is essential to address the causes of persistent terrorist violence to avoid worsening the problem.  Terrorism is an aberration to normal human behavior, and its very existence suggests unusual circumstances.  Persistent terrorism stems from outrage over perceived injustices.  When a country finds itself a repeated target of terrorist violence, the only rational approach is an open and democratic debate over whether one’s own policies have been a contributing factor.  If the vote is positive, the next question concerns policy change.  If the vote is negative, then one must redouble efforts to convince others, including the aggrieved parties, that these policies are fundamentally sound, or, at least, that a tolerable compromise can be achieved that is far better than recourse to violence.

Finally, in the course of developing and pursuing a rational response to terrorism, it is imperative that the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ be recognized for what it is.  Its practitioners are serving a political agenda, unwittingly or not.  Its victims are innocents, civilians, noncombatants, whose grievances are ignored and who suffer from reprisals against their communities because some of their members have found violence to be the only way to react in a desperate hope that somehow, someone with enough sense and power will realize that these grievances must be addressed.  Too often, the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ does nothing but increase the likelihood of further terrorist actions by discrediting the targeted group and cutting off rational inquiry into the causes of their grievances and behavior.  In such a case, the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ is itself a cause of terrorism.  If its practitioners anticipate this sort of result, they are guilty of knowingly furthering terrorism.  Should they intend to bring it about then they are themselves guilty of terrorist actions.  Consequently, if terrorism has no placed in a civilized world, then it must be recognized that the rhetoric of ‘terrorism’ is an impediment in constructing a rational response to terrorism and, therefore, has no place in the civilized discourse of today.


1.   The Jacobins first employed the term in the 1790s, applying it to themselves with a positive connotation, and in the nineteenth century it was also used by Russian revolutionaries to characterize their own actions, viz., “political assassination, specifically tyrannicide” (Laqueur 1977: 6).

2.  See the compendium in White 2002: 12, which cites definitions by the State Department (Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000), the FBI, the Defense Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Vice President’s Task Force of 1986.

3.   Here, political objectives have to do with who will control certain regions or organizations, and the nature or modalities of that control.  A similar definition is favored by Noam Chomsky: “ . . . we will use the term ‘terrorism’ to refer to the threat or use of violence to intimidate or coerce (generally for political ends)” (quoted in Shafritz 1991: 264).

4.  Gordon and Lopez 2000: 111.  See also Fullinwinder 1988 and Hare 1979.

5.  See  for the FBI’s definition of ‘terrorism’. It is unclear what ‘unlawful’ refers to; it might mean, contrary to the laws of the United States—as is explicit in the definition of “terrorism” in 18 U.S. Code, Section 2331—or to the laws of whatever country in which the act is committed, or to international law.

6.  The U.S. State Department offers this definition: The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine state agents, usually intended to influence an audience.  “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000,” Alexander and Musch 2001: p. 5.  This definition of ‘terrorism’ is contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d).

7.   The definition of  “terrorism” used by the United Nations can be found at .  See, for example, UN General Assembly Resolution 3034, which speaks of “terrorist acts” by regimes.

8.  Primoratz 1990: 129 argues in this way.  That a terrorist action is one that is intended to inspire fear is also a feature of the definition given in Netanyahu 1993: 9 and in Falk 2002: 21.

9.  The failure to recognize such instances of state terrorism is pointed out by several writers, including in Chomsky 1988a, 1988b, Herman 1982, and Falk 1991.

10.  Documentation concerning both cases can be found on the websites of several human rights organizations, including, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Voices in the Wilderness, The World Health Organization, and the Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem.  Then Secretary of State Madeline Albright responded affirmatively when asked whether the U.N. sanctions on Iraq were worth the deaths of a half-million Iraqi children (60 Minutes interview, aired May 12th 1996).

11.  See for example, the State Department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism-2000 (Alexander and Musch 2001).  In it the Hezbollah attacks on the Israeli targets are described as “terrorist” despite the fact that these attacks were directed upon the Israeli military in southern Lebanon (p. 39).  Again, the actions of Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad are described as “terrorist” even when directed against Israeli occupying forces, whereas Israel’s undercover assassinations of Palestinian figures were not so described (pp. 41-45).  That the bombing of the USS Cole was taken as a terrorist action is implicit in the descriptions given on pp. 47 and 76.

12.  The collusion of interests between the U.S. Government and the mass media is documented in Herman 1982:chp. 4; Herman and O’Sullivan 1989: chp. 8; Chomsky 1988a: chp. 11; Chomsky 1988b; and Picard 1993.

13.  See, for example, the description of terrorists in Netanyahu 1986: 7-15.
14. A case in point is the debate that took place early in 2002 over the status of the Al-Qaeda prisoners captured in the U.S.-Afghanistan war.  The U.S. Administration determined that, as “terrorists,” these prisoners are not governed by the Third Geneva Convention that deals with the treatment of those detained in wartime.

15.  An interesting illustration of this point occurs in an article by Don Wycliff, the Public Editor of The Chicago Tribune, entitled “Sorting out usage of the T-word” (The Chicago Tribune, March 21, 2002.)  In explaining the Tribune’s policy concerning the use of the word ‘terrorist,’ Wycliff writes: “the Tribune is an American newspaper written principally for an American audience and owing its existence and independence to the American Constitution. Our perspective is inescapably American (which is not to say it is necessarily the same as that of the U.S. government). Inevitably, as the news of Sept. 11 is reported and interpreted, that perspective is reflected in the product. Indeed, it almost has to be if we are to speak intelligibly on those events to our audience.”

16.  Menachem Begin, head of the group that carried out the Deir Yassin massacre, wrote, “Of the about 800,000 Arabs who lived on the present territory of the State of Israel, only some 165,000 are still there.  The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be overestimated” (Begin 1951: 164).

17.  It did not take long for observers to realize the impact.  Christopher Hitchens, commenting on American foreign policy in the mid 1980s, wrote: “What an astounding state of affairs.  A great power and a purportedly educated and democratic intelligentsia have allowed themselves to be “terrorized” . . . into viewing the world this way.  Stalin was a terrorist, Mao was a terrorist, Arabs are terrorist; Europeans are soft on terrorism; Latins are riddled with it.  Whisk, whisk . . . and there goes history, there goes inquiry, there goes proportion.  All is terror.  The best that can be said for this method is that it economizes on thought.”  (Hitchens 1988: 300-301).

18.   See, for example, the U. S. bombings in Lebanon and Libya cited above.  Again, ever since the early 1950s, Israeli “reprisals” for violence against Israelis committed by Palestinians has routinely resulted in the deaths of more Arab civilians (see Hirst 1984: chps. 6, 8, 9, 10, 12).

19.  A recent instance of an incitement to terrorist violence on the pretext of combating terrorism can be found in an article by Alan Dershowitz, “A New Way of Responding to Palestinian Terrorism” The Jerusalem Post, March 18, 2002.   In describing his proposal to end the current Israeli-Palestinian violence, Dershowitz called for the organized destruction of a single Palestinian village in retaliation for every terrorist attack against Israel.  “It will be a morally acceptable trade-off even if the property of some innocent civilians must be sacrificed in the process.”

20.  The estimate of dead Israelis is that of the Israeli Embassy in the United Kingdom, at  and the Israeli human rights group, B’tselem at  The figures on the Palestinians are from B’tselem and from the Palestine Monitor at .  According to their estimates, civilians constituted approximately three-quarters of the Israelis killed and approximately 85% of the Palestinians killed in the period from September 29, 2000 to May 14, 2002.  (These figures do not include the Palestinian fatalities from the Israeli siege of the Jenin refugee camp in early April that B’tselem estimated as at least 160.)  The figures show that an approximate ratio of one dead Israeli for three dead Palestinians during the Al Aqsa Intifada, whereas in the first year and a half of the first Intifada, one Israeli was killed for every 25 Palestinians (see “In New Conflict, Narrowing Ratio of Dead Pressures Sharon,” The New York Times, March 12, 2002).

21.  For example, the onset of Palestinian suicide bombings coincided with the murder of 29 Palestinians by a Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, at a mosque in Hebron.  The perpetrators of the Palestinian suicide bombings during the Al Aqsa Intifada repeatedly cited revenge as a motive.

22.  See the Human Rights Watch report on the IDF’s siege of the Jenin camp at .  Related reports by Human Rights Watch reports can be found at their website  Amnesty International and B’tselem published similar reports.

23.  Blechman, 1971, suggests that Israeli governments have also resorted to the strategy of reprisals in an attempt to satisfy public rage, frustration, and anxiety by providing “a counterfeit form of redress” (p.  286).

24.  The State Department’s exclusion of any evaluation of policy or examination of causes is also evident in a statement by Edmund J. Hull, the State Department’s Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism: “The foundations of our efforts is diplomacy . . .. Our diplomatic efforts build crucial cooperation necessary for joint counterterrorism efforts and raise international political will to fight terrorism.  We will continue to reach out to our allies while isolating those who are sympathetic to terrorism.  We will continue to use all US tools and cooperation with those allies to disrupt terrorist activity and build a world that is intolerant of terrorists.  And we will never rest until we have brought to justice each terrorist that has targeted the United States and its citizens.”  (Alexander and Musch, 2001: 4)


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