Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,

The Meaning of the Word

In 2002, I attended a panel at a local sf convention on the subject of "How did 9/11 change SF?" One of the panelists, Glen Cook, said, "Before 9/11, the terrorists were the good guys." As an example of his point, he offered the rebels in Star Wars. Other panelists chimed in, one of them going so far as to label the American revolutionaries terrorists. The implication was "the only thing that differentiates a hero from a terrorist is whether or not you agree with his goal".

Sitting in the audience, I was struck by how wildly inaccurate it was treat "terrorist" as synonymous with "rebel". Cruising through's definition of "terrorism", I was surprised that several of the definitions would be synonymous with "rebellion". But it's this definition, attributed to WordNet, that matches my own understanding of the term:
"Terrorism: the calculated use of violence (or threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear"

For me, the key words are "against civilians". Luke Skywalker isn't a terrorist and the Rebel Alliance isn't a terrorist organization: they select military targets, not civilian ones. One of my friends once pointed out that, by attacking the unfinished Death Star, the rebels must have killed many civilian contruction workers. But I'd say even the unfinished Death Star is still a legitimate military target. Buffering your military targets with a wall of human flesh so that your enemy has to go through civilians to get to your soldiers and weapons doesn't make your enemy a terrorist, it makes you a monster. Soldiers are supposed to protect civilians, not the other way around.

Likewise, Iraqis using IEDs to blow up American APCs are certainly my enemy, but those are acts of guerilla warfare, not terrorism. Now, if they use the same IEDs to blow up an Iraqi cafe or library -- that is terrorism.

Zorro isn't a terrorist: he fought soldiers, not civilians, in his varios escapades. Robin Hood arguably is; even though he's not generally portrayed as a killer, he does use the threat of violence in "stealing from the rich".

Oddly, I'm not sure I'd qualify V, of "V for Vendetta", as a terrorist. Granted, he does kill civilians (in both the film and the comic book) in the pursuit of his goal. But what distinguishes him from Al Queda is that V's goal isn't to instill fear in the general populace. His message isn't "see these people I just killed? That could be you. Maybe next time, it will be." His targets aren't random and his goal isn't to make the general populace so afraid of him that they force their leaders to cave to their demands. Which is not to say that I approve of his methods ... I'm just not sure "terrorism" is the right word to use.

What surprises me, in all the talk of terrorists in the past and in the media, is one comparison I haven't heard from anyone except my mother.

In 2002, I was talking about current events on the phone with my parents, and my mother said, "We did it too, you know. Hitler may have started it by bombing London, but we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were civilian targets, and we destroyed them."

My father started to go through the usual list of reasons why it was the right decision, and my mother said, "I know. But it was still a terrorist act. Those were cities, not military installations. We shouldn't've done it."

I didn't have an answer for that at the time. I still don't.
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