Viewpoint: Acts of Terror or Acts of War?


Everyone hates terrorists. They scare us, and we want our government to do something to stop them. We applaud when the president uses jet fighters to catch them or to demonstrate they can't be safe, even when asleep in their beds.

So why do we cheer the Afghan rebels and the Cambodian resistance army, provide financial support to the Nicaraguan contras, remember with honor the Hungarian freedom fighters, and celebrate the Fourth of July?

What's the difference between an Afghan farmer who slits the throat of a Russian soldier and a Salvadoran communist who kills three U.S. Embassy marine guards? Their politics are different, of course. But, contrary to the reactions and pronouncements of U.S. government officials, we cannot rightly honor as freedom fighters all those who support current American political objectives and condemn as terrorists any insurgent force that opposes them.

Americans have always recognized a moral right to take up arms against one's government. It's right there in the Declaration of Independence: "Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.…When a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations…reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such government."

People who decide their grievances against the government are so great as to justify violent acts of rebellion have declared war on that government. Traditionally, legitimate acts of war seek to avoid injury to uninvolved civilian populations, even if those populations support the government under attack.

But revolution is never safe or easy. Attacking military facilities, soldiers, or well-guarded government buildings is about the most dangerous thing a human being can do. Revolutionaries who don't have the courage, the will, and the tactical sense to wage real war against their enemies try something easier and safer. They attack uninvolved, unarmed, defenseless civilians. That's terrorism.

Whether we consider an attack an act of terror or an act of war should depend on the target chosen, not the politics of the attackers—no matter how offensive. By this measure, a lot of war is being labeled terrorist. Why? Because any smart political leader knows that the ordinary citizen will always be on his side against the terrorists. It's a lot harder to convince people we have to go to war.

Unfortunately, politicians don't just confuse the good citizens; they confuse themselves. And that self-deception gets in the way of making sound decisions in reacting to violence against us around the world.

Of course, innocent civilians do sometimes get killed in attacks on military targets. And the line between terrorism and military action has been confused because so many governments themselves resort to terrorism. Nevertheless, whether it is one madman, a dozen insurgents, or a government, we can separate an act of terrorism from a military act of war by checking on the target of violence and the efforts made to avoid noncombatant casualties.

An attack on a Russian military convoy by Afghan insurgents is an act of war; the carpet bombing of peasant villages where some insurgents might be hiding is an act of terror.

The capture of our embassy in Iran is an act of war; the kidnap and murder of an American businessman in Latin America is an act of terror.

The suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon is an act of war; the highjacking of a TWA flight is an act of terror.

The murder of British soldiers on duty in Northern Ireland is an act of war; the bombing of a crowded bar where civilians are sure to get hurt is an act of terror.

Shooting a crippled tourist in a wheelchair is an act of terror; bombing bases where terrorists are trained is an act of war.

Killing a foreign military advisor who's helping a local government suppress a rebellion is an act of war; raping and murdering four nuns is an act of terror.

It isn't surprising that President Reagan calls attacks on military advisors and U.S. Embassy officials in San Salvador terrorist attacks and insists that a terrorist killed the marines in Lebanon. He thus doesn't have to admit that we have been waging war in those countries and that at least a few of the citizens are fighting back. Whether or not we are on the side of right, if we support the contras in Nicaragua or the government in San Salvador, we are 'supporting one side in a war. By doing so, we make legitimate targets of American military personnel and the U.S. officials directing our efforts.

It's not just our leaders who get confused. The Sandinista government is using state terrorism against its own population, just like every other communist country in the world. That fact by itself destroys the argument of Americans who think we should be supporting that government.

When we don't distinguish between terrorism and war, we can't be true to our ideal of the right of all people to fight against their government for just cause. This has happened with our new treaty of extradition with Great Britain. By agreeing to no longer deny extradition to Great Britain on political grounds, we have in effect excluded it as a country against which people have a right to revolt.

We should extradite the bastard who bombed a church, blew up a car on a crowded street, or murdered civilians delivering groceries to British Army headquarters. But, confused over the difference between a terrorist and a rebel, we will now extradite also the insurgent who attacked a military target. We no longer recognize a right to revolt against the target of our own Declaration of Independence.

Is he a terrorist or is he a freedom fighter? It's easy to tell. Is he aiming at an innocent civilian, or at someone who was already aiming at him?

Mack Tanner serves in the U.S. diplomatic corps in Bangkok. His article on Thailand appeared in the July 1986 REASON.