In the age of the re-declared War on Terrorism, one state legislature has decided to buck the system, placing itself in the vanguard of those who wish to end this war, which was declared by Reagan in 1980, re-declared by Bush in 2001, and is currently being enthusiastically prosecuted by “Dove”-in-Chief Barack Obama. And they’re not taking some wishy-washy, bourgeois civil libertarian stance, either – if a bill currently in the South Dakota state legislature is passed, South Dakota will have officially taken the most radical stance against the War on Terrorism that one can imagine: South Dakota will have officially legalised terrorism.
I’m sure that some readers may be a bit surprised, to put it mildly, to hear this. A crazy, right-wing state legislature like South Dakota’s taking a stand against the bipartisan US Right’s favourite war?
It seems inconceivable, I know, but it is true. South Dakota is considering a bill that would make it justifiable for religious fanatics, egged on by foamy-mouthed fundamentalist clerics seeking to establish a misogynist, homophobic, transphobic theocracy right on US soil, to murder civilians in furtherance of that goal. That, it’s worth recalling, is the definition of terrorism Congress itself enacted in Title 18 of the United States Code: targeted attacks on civilians and civilian objects in order to intimidate a civilian population or otherwise in pursuit of political or religious ideological goals.
Assuming you heard the news at all, you probably heard things a bit differently. Most likely, you heard that South Dakota is considering making it justifiable homicide to kill abortion providers. The word “terrorism” was almost certainly not used, even though this bill would legalise precisely what we are constantly told that that the US trying to stop in Afghanistan: religious fanatics murdering anyone who dares to provide needed health care to women (yes, it’s bullshit, but it’s the official justification, and if that’s good enough for ‘progressive’ intellectuals to justify blowing up Libyan civilians, it’s certainly good enough for argument’s sake).
The federal government, and the US political class and media generally, take a more nuanced position, to be sure. To use the words of US State Department Spokesperson P.J. Crowley’s attempt to explain the US position on the Mubarak dictatorship on Al-Jazeera English, our political class doesn’t see this as an “either-or proposition”. To them, “terrorism” is a feeling, a vibe, like abstract art. You can’t just go around applying rigid legal definitions to a thing like terrorism or you miss the whole point of having the term.
Thus, it isn’t automatically “terrorism” just because religious fanatics commit cowardly murders against defenceless civilians in order to intimidate women and those who support their rights. It all depends on context. When it happens in Afghanistan, and is done by the Taliban (rather than our even more misogynistic collaborators there), it’s terrorism. Indeed, it’s even terrorism when the Afghan resistance (some of whom are Taliban as we understand the term, and many of whom are not) launch attacks on the military personnel who are illegally occupying their territory, even though that clearly does not constitute an attack on civilians.
But when enraged and deluded white men decide to kill gynaecologists, it’s not terrorism. When one of them opens fire at a member of Congress, it’s not terrorism. Indeed, even firebombing a mosque doesn’t count as terrorism (though, judging from the FBI’s surveillance practises, attending one does). And blowing hundreds of thousands of defenceless civilians to bits in an effort to “liberate” them from the idea that they should be the ones choosing their government, when that’s clearly our job, certainly isn’t terrorism. That goes without saying.
Clearly, then, this “terrorism” business is much more complex than it seems, if an act is generally agreed to constitute terrorism in one case, when identical – or sometimes much worse – acts cannot be considered terrorism in other cases.
This apparent paradox quickly evaporates once we abandon our prescriptive approach and acknowledge that the operative usage of “terrorism” bears only a faint resemblance to the actual definition of the term. Implicit in the actual usage of the term is an unspoken requirement: “…if and to the extent that such attacks harm the interests of the powerful.”
This requirement is clearly met in the case of attacks on major US financial and commercial hubs, and just as clearly met in the case of attacks on foreign governments installed or propped up by, or otherwise subservient or useful to the US. Indeed, if the requirement of harm to powerful interests is met, even clear definitional requirements – such as the requirement that the attack be directed against civilians or civilian objects – are superseded, as in the case of an attack by indigenous resistance fighters against a US military occupation, or the revelation by a journalist of documents conclusively proving US war crimes and showing US policy in general in an excessively realistic light.
However, when the paramilitary wing of the openly theocratic fundamentalist Christian movement in the US bombs a gynaecologist’s office, and/or murders doctors, nurses, and patients, the power structure is not harmed. Therefore, it is not terrorism, and those who commit these crimes need not worry about drone attacks on their homes and offices or the prospect of being abducted in the dead of night to be tortured at a clandestine concentration camp. They are not terrorists; their crimes are just deplorable excesses to some – or, to others, laudable contributions – in the ongoing public debate on whether or not women are human beings with human rights, a matter on which “reasonable” minds can clearly differ.