The terror in a label
11 Sep 2018|

Al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 brought the wrath of the world’s greatest military force and its allies down on the perpetrators, their sponsors and supporters, and any fraternal organisations or imitators. It also instated the concept of terrorist as a label that authoritarian and dictatorial regimes could use to justify acts of persecution, ethnic cleansing and state-sponsored violence.

Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi recently invoked the term to explain the plight of the Rohingya: ‘The danger of terrorist activities, which was the initial cause of events leading to the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, remains real and present today.’

Suu Kyi deftly passed over generations of discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya and the injustice of inflicting disproportionate retribution on an entire minority population. What she describes as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ has been termed ethnic cleansing or possible genocide by others.

The United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide has said that from birth the Rohingya are doomed to a ‘fate of persecution and exclusion’. Last year the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called the Myanmar government’s actions ethnic cleansing. In 2012, the UN General Assembly Third Committee expressed concern about ‘discrimination, human rights violations, violence, displacement and economic deprivation’ towards the Rohingya minority in Rakhine State.

The denial of basic human rights to the Rohingya predates the attacks on border posts and military facilities in 2016 and 2017 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Legislation introduced in 1982 effectively denied the Rohingya citizenship and left roughly a million people stateless. The Rohingya have been excluded from education and the right to vote and are subject to restrictions on freedom of movement. The so-called Race and Religion Protection Laws of 2015 constrained religious freedom and reproductive rights.

The Independent International Fact-finding Mission on Myanmar has confirmed the longstanding violence, persecution and abuse of human rights against the Rohingya and found ‘reasonable inference’ of a genocidal intent and evidence of acts amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes. It notes that investigations over three decades mean that, ‘The steps required to address the human rights crises in Myanmar are well known.’

In Rakhine, a small element of a minority group has opted for political violence against a powerful and entrenched state system that offers the Rohingya no legal or political avenues to pursue justice or equality. ARSA’s actions can be distinguished from the violence committed by ISIS-type insurgents wanting to impose values and norms for ideological, racial or political ends. Also, armed resistance to a foreign military occupation is fundamentally different from ARSA’s campaign, as would be rebellion against a dictatorial regime.

Now all these various manifestations of political violence are liable to be labelled terrorism by self-interested parties. Authoritarian and dictatorial regimes around the world excuse, as Suu Kyi has, crimes against humanity by tainting victims with the ill-defined concept of terrorism. This is not a new phenomenon.

Christopher Hitchens, in a risible but serious 1986 piece republished in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, asked, ‘How can a word with no meaning and no definition, borrowed inexpertly from the second-rate imitators of Burke and his polemic against the French Revolution of 1789’ become ‘the political and media buzzword of the ’80s?’ Well before 9/11, he concluded that we should be wary of ‘a term with which rulers fool themselves and by which history is abolished and language debased’.

Nevertheless, the problem of defining terrorism has persisted into the post-9/11 era. And it’s a juicy one for philosophers. Insightfully, Jenny Tiechman observed that a key stumbling block to agreeing on a definition is ‘disagreement about whether and when terrorism so-called can be justified’.

Can the distinct situations and varied motives of ARSA, the Sandinistas struggling against the brutal Somoza dictatorship, the partisan Nazi resistance, the Irgun Zionists, the IRA, and ISIS all be classed meaningfully as the same phenomenon? Is all anti-state violence equivalent? When confronted with potential genocide or mass dispossession, the turn to defensive political violence is qualitatively different from the intolerance and fanaticism driving the violent criminal acts of ISIS or al-Qaeda.

This is impossible moral territory. Objectively, the killing of civilians is unambiguously morally repugnant. It is murder. But Albert Camus recognised that the terrorist faces a subjective moral dilemma. Sometimes it’s a choice between either sitting idly and impotently by while your family and fellow citizens are being persecuted and oppressed by state terror or responding with violence. When domestic solutions appear unachievable, intervention by the international community becomes the only practical hope for avoiding extreme political violence.

This is an obligation enshrined in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty report The responsibility to protect and endorsed in the UN General Assembly 2005 resolution declaring that, ‘Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.’ The UN resolved that the international community, through the Security Council, should be ‘prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner’, including military intervention.

The absolute prohibition on political violence is self-evidently justified in a functioning democracy in which the rule of law operates effectively, equal rights and access to justice are respected, and freedom of speech and political participation are protected. Violence against civilians or institutions in such a society is always completely unacceptable. Beyond that situation the justification of violent protest and resistance is always conditional.

That doesn’t automatically vindicate ARSA. Still, the plight of the Rohingya has long been known. That people in a condition so desperate and deprived of hope would inevitably resort to violence was predictable.

Suu Kyi was wrong on two counts. The brutal discrimination of the regime is the prime cause of the crisis. The contributing cause is the facility the label terrorist offers the international community to excuse inaction.