Terrorists, Terrorists, Terrorists…

Addendum March 24th 2017

***It has since emerged that the perpetrator of the murders at Westminster was UK-born Khalid Masood, 52 who had a record of prior criminal offences including grievous bodily harm, assault, and criminal damage. According to West Midlands police he had a history of violent knife crime. He converted to Islam sometime around 2004 and worked as an English teacher in Saudi Arabia. Saudi authorities have indicated that Masood was unknown to them, though MI-5 claims to have interviewed him as a “peripheral figure” in an investigation some years ago. No one is certain why he was motivated to perpetrate the Westminster Attack, however police speculate that he may have been “radicalised” during a period of incarceration for a prior offence. It is also possible that he felt victimized as part of the earlier MI-5 investigation. There is precedent of moderate Islamists being provoked to extreme positions after being subject to repeated investigation (the case of Anwar Al Awlaki and his repeated interviews with the FBI comes to mind.) This is not to condone Masood’s behaviour. However, if law enforcement policy contributed to the events of the March 22nd 2017, then this should be recognised so that similar events do not occur again.***

 March 22nd 2017

    TERRORISTS, TERRORISTS, TERRORISTS

On Wednesday March 22nd 2017, a lone man used a four wheel drive vehicle to mow down pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge. Within minutes, he murdered four people and injured twenty others including three police officers. He then turned his attention towards the nearby Houses of Parliament.

After crashing his vehicle against a set of security barriers the driver attacked veteran police officer Keith Palmer with a knife and fatally wounding him. As Palmer’s murderer advanced on the parliament building armed plain clothes police shot and killed the suspect.

In the aftermath of the incident and at the beginning of the police investigation of the crime, Reuters News Agency reported that London Metropolitan Police were conducting inquiries on the basis that the attack was “Islamist-related terrorism.”

The immediate assumption of an Islamist agenda behind the attack reminded this writer of similar and immediate assumptions made against the perpetrator of the shooting massacre at the Centre Culturel Islamique, in Quebec City on January 29th 2017. In fact the man charged with the murders of six people and the attempted murders of five others that day was a Laval University student motivated by anti-Islamic sentiments. Alexandre Bissonette, the man responsible for the shooting rampage was a supporter of France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen and known to his fellow students for his anti-feminist rhetoric on social media.  At a press conference held after Bisonette’s arrest, an RCMP official stated that charges of terrorism were being considered against the Quebec native.

Two considerations immediately stand out regarding the two cases. First the rush to judgement by both the police and the media about the profile of the perpetrator and second the assumption that such heinous acts were the result of Islamist “terrorism”. A third consideration is the jargon employed by law enforcement and the media concerning the term “terrorism”. In addition, the definition of “terrorism” as pronounced by legal and government officials merits discussion. What act of murder constitutes an act of “terrorism”? If the murder of civilians on a bridge in the heart of London counts as terrorism, why not the murders of unarmed congregants in a Quebec City mosque? Why the selective use of the term?

The reality in the case of the Quebec City Mosque attack was quite different than what was initially reported. At the time of writing this piece, facts are still emerging over the crimes perpetrated in London on March 22nd. However, until all the facts are known, the immediate assumption by the media and civil authorities – that such a crime against humanity is the result of Islamist-terrorism – is irresponsible at best, ideological at worst.

It must be noted that on Monday March 21st, the Reuters News Agency covered an incident in Syria where the US Air Force is reported to have killed thirty three unarmed civilians. Not once during the report were the actions of the Air Force referred to as “terrorist.”

*

To be fair to Reuters News Agency, their initial reports on the recent incident in London conveyed the stated opinion of Mark Rowley, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, that being that the Westminster attack was an act of “terrorism”.

However what should be abundantly clear at this junction is that if the police investigation determines that the Westminster attacker was not motivated by Islamist ideology, they will have operated in an erroneous manner from the outset. This in itself would not be so dangerous if not for past precedents. Mistakes in any murder investigation are common and so long as the guilty party is captured and subjected to lawful sanction, without ideological prejudice, the well-being of society is served.

However, police forces world-wide and throughout history have been guilty of perpetrating serious injustices by adhering to ideological positions. British law enforcement was responsible for the wrongful imprisonment of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven thanks to racial profiling. The assumption made by police about the defendants in those cases was that since all arrested in the case were of Irish descent they were guilty of the crimes for which they were being prosecuted. The result was that innocent people were wrongfully jailed for over a decade while the actual perpetrators of the bombings in Birmingham and Guildford remained at large.

Therefore making assumptions about suspects in any crime can lead to shoddy police-work and judicial failures. That there is a rush to judgement about the motivations of the Westminster attacker and that these judgements are being proclaimed by law enforcement personnel so early into an investigation is dangerous. Such pronouncements are best made when all the facts of the case are collected and evaluated and not beforehand.

*

“Terrorism” is a politically loaded term and in most uses its meaning is vague. Collins English Dictionary defines the term as:

1. systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal

  1. the act of terrorizing
  2. the state of being terrorized

Hypothetically such a broad definition could then encompass any violent act including rape and grievous bodily harm. However, like other jargon “terrorist” is always employed in an ideologically subjective context. Furthermore, there exists no broad consensus as to the actual meaning of the term. It is worth noting that the Oxford English Dictionary defines “terrorism” as

“The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.””

If the key word here is “unlawful” can the actions of Allied pilots who area bombed civilian areas in Germany during World War II not be defined as “terrorism”? Did they violate the laws of war or did they engage in mass murder? Military historians continue to grapple with this argument. Certainly British officials in World War I were quick to decry German aerial bombing of London as acts of “terrorism” despite the existence of legally declared war.

Moreover who defines who a “terrorist” is? The answer is usually government institutions. Certainly Osama Bin Laden never described himself as a “terrorist”.

It is interesting that the use of the term “terrorism” first occurs in 1795 concerning the actions of France’s government during the Terror phase of the French Revolution. During the course of the Terror, some two hundred and fifty thousand people were executed on the orders of the National Convention. Leading politician Maximilien Robespierre who helped orchestrate these judicial murders expressed his considered opinion that:

…the basis of a popular government in peacetime is virtue, its basis in a time of revolution is virtue and terror – virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.

As part of a government that oversaw atrocities carried out against civilians in the Vendee and public executions in Paris, Robespierre’s belief in the “virtue of terror” is indeed monstrous. In an ironic twist Robespierre also expressed his belief that:

Any institution which does not suppose the people good, and the magistrate corruptible, is evil.

Yet these contrary beliefs differ little from the actions of Western governments towards non-Western societies in modern times. George W Bush and Barack Obama made sweeping pronouncements about the justice of the American led “War on Terror” while regularly authorising aerial drone attacks on civilian areas of Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. Leaving aside the immoral and ineffective nature of these acts, the ability of an American President to authorise these actions is unconstitutional. There exists no legal state of war between the United States and any of the countries which it so frequently bombs. Yet despite the unlawful nature of US drone strikes, neither the Western powers nor the main stream media ever refer to these unconstitutional military activities as acts of “terrorism”. Nevertheless, Coalition forces deployed to those parts of the world and their apologists at home might argue in similar terms to that of Robespierre: that terror has virtue, no matter how barbaric the results.

*

The late Menachem Begin served as the Prime Minister of Israel between 1977 and 1983 and as prime minister oversaw the indiscriminate aerial bombings of civilian areas in Lebanon. Begin’s intended targets were Palestinian guerillas operating out of West Beirut and Southern Lebanon. Faced with the prospect deploying ground troops against the guerillas and receiving a high casualties among Israeli personnel, Begin’s government began a campaign of “precision bombing” against Palestinian positions inside West Beirut. Over the course of the campaign, Lebanese civilian apartment buildings and businesses as well as PLO positions were indiscriminately bombed by Israeli pilots who had only a scant idea of where their intended targets were. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post in 1982, one such pilot confirmed that he had operated his General Dynamics F-16 – acknowledged by militaries worldwide as one of the most technically advanced fighter bombers ever produced – over Beirut all the while referring to hand-held Polaroid photographs of “enemy targets”.

Begin justified the actions of the Israel military in Lebanon as “combatting terrorists” by which he meant the PLO. His definition of “terrorist” did not extend to the Israeli backed Christian militias who carried out the massacre of Palestinian civilian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Chatila – many of whom were unarmed women and children.

Nor did Begin acknowledge the irony of his own past actions against the British in the 1940’s, acts that can be construed as “terrorism”. As leader of the Zionist extremist group the Irgun, Begin planned and co-ordinated paramilitary attacks against British military and civilian installations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These attacks included suicide bombings – horrific acts that Begin’s Likud Party would later declaim as “terrorism” when perpetrated by Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Today Begin remains a controversial figure in Israel and elsewhere. Some might argue that he paved the way for the existence of an independent Jewish state. His critics and victims might argue he was a “terrorist”.

*

Regardless of opinion on that matter it would be best if the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” were treated with the same pejorative attitude as those to whom these labels are applied. As the journalist Robert Fisk noted when describing the World Trade Centre attacks of September 11th 2001, any acts of politically motivated murder should be referred to as “crimes against humanity.”

Furthermore, this author would add that attacks on civilian targets – including in wartime – are unjustifiable when perpetrated on the behalf of either governments or ideologies and should be viewed legally, ethically and morally as crimes. This includes the crimes against humanity perpetrated in Westminster on March 22nd 2017.

*

The journalist and activist Chris Hedges wrote a decade a after the attacks of September 11th 2001 that in 2001:

“…{the US} had garnered the empathy of not only most of the world, but the Muslim world who were appalled at what had been done in the name of their religion. And we had major religious figures like Sheikh Tantawi, the head of al-Azhar — who died recently — who after the attacks of 9/11 not only denounced them as a crime against humanity, which they were, but denounced Osama bin Laden as a fraud … someone who had no right to issue fatwas or religious edicts, no religious legitimacy, no religious training. And the tragedy was that if we had the courage to be vulnerable, if we had built on that empathy, we would be far safer and more secure today than we are. We responded exactly as these terrorist organizations wanted us to respond. They wanted us to speak the language of violence.”

Violent actions as performed by Coalition forces in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay against those suspected of aiding and abetting the September 11th crimes against humanity all carried the added ignominy of being cruelly unethical, unconstitutional and illegal and with those ethical and legal wrongdoings have come military and moral failure.

In the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan, the FBI’s initial tactics against those suspected of collaborating with the September 11th hijackers were as journalist Jeremy Scahill noted based on the idea that “terrorism” was a crime and thus subject to US Federal and not military law. In fact Scahill argues the FBI obtained more information about Al-Quaeda’s operations through recognised legal methods in the days and weeks following the invasion than the US military ever did through extraordinary rendition and torture.

However it did not take long for the FBI to be corrupted by the US military in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon agents from the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team were operating alongside US Special Forces. The exchange of methods has resulted in the militarisation of the FBI in its duties inside the United States. Like any other law enforcement arm the FBI is susceptible to corruption and overreach. The FBI has a history of interfering in domestic political and social movements as evidenced by operations such as COINTELPRO, Ruby Ridge, the surveillance of Martin Luther King and the wiretapping and online surveillance of civilians thanks to the PATRIOT Act.

The effect of this form of militarism has negative effects on both law enforcement and the judiciary, which in a healthy democratic society should act as supports for popular government. Instead, the focus on “terrorism” has weakened the capacity of law enforcement and the judiciary to perform these roles to meaningful, disinterested effect. This was witnessed in the 1970’s in Great Britain with the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven and in Canada and the US today. Though “terrorist” activities account for a tiny percentage of criminal behaviour in the Western world, the problem receives greater budgetary allocations than more common violent crimes such as homicide and rape. Recently one of the highest ranking officers in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police admitted that though “terrorist” activities are less common than other capital crimes such as homicide and sexual assault, more policing resources are directed towards “anti-terrorist” investigations and surveillance than to those other capital crimes which affect greater numbers of citizens.

This represents not only a profound interference in the   undermining of the principle of law enforcement but a deliberate misuse of said law enforcement for ideological purposes. It is also represents the flawed understanding of the rationale of law enforcement when the police are subjected to and indoctrinated with militaristic or moralistic ideologies.

“Terrorism” is a subjective ideology and enjoys the dubious benefit of being treated as both a legal, military and moral offense and its professed opponents more often than not behave as ideological crusaders. This in itself is violence against language and poses a danger to society as a whole. Combatting crimes against humanity such as the attack on Westminster is best performed without the ideological baggage associated with the term “terrorism.” To do otherwise imparts a false morality to law enforcement – and police forces are not designed to enforce morality. Nor should they be used in such a manner. The failure of law enforcement tactics to combat drug addiction or to halt the flow of narcotics into any Western jurisdiction has been well documented as has police collusion with criminal gangs during Prohibition.

Instead of acting against the crime against humanity in Westminster in ideological, moralistic terms, law enforcement would do better to treat this heinous act for what it is: a crime against humanity in the same way that any and all homicides are crimes against humanity. If the attacker acted with some kind of ideological conviction, said ideological conviction would be negated by an even-handed, balanced and sensible response by both the society and the law enforcement arms that serve it.

Statements made by British Prime Minister Theresa May that the murder of civilians at Westminster Bridge was an attack on “the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech” or Mark Rowley’s insistence that “terrorists have…a clear aim to create discord” are jingoistic self-serving rhetoric.  While intending to promote moral superiority over the perpetrator, May’s statements and Rowley’s assumption that this crime against humanity is an act of Islamist – terrorism serve to prevent any meaningful examination of how and why this crime against humanity occurred. Worse, it is a disservice to the victims and their families – indeed the whole of society – when the victims are used for political purposes.

At this stage we do not know the reason why the perpetrator of these crimes against humanity acted as he did. And regardless of his beliefs we should call refer to him for what he is: not a terrorist but a criminal and act with the appropriate lawful response. A necessary component of justice is empathy.

*

Links and Further Reading

1) On Rowley’s and May’s statements regarding the Westminster attack.

http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/world/five-dead-around-40-injured-in-uk-parliament-terrorist-attack/ar-BByAV0u?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartandhp

2) On definitions of Terrorism

http://www.dictionary.com/browse/terrorism

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/terrorism

3) On Robespierre

http://www.historytoday.com/marisa-linton/robespierre-and-terror

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilien_Robespierre

See also Revolutionary Europe by Georges Rude

The Terror in the French Revolution by Hugh Gough

4) On Menachem Begin

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menachem_Begin#Lebanon_invasion

See also Robert Fisk Pity the Nation especially Chapters 9 & 11

5) On FBI Involvement with US Special Forces see

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/inside-the-fbis-secret-relationship-with-the-militarys-special-operations/2014/04/10/dcca3460-be84-11e3-b195-dd0c1174052c_story.html?utm_campaign=buffer&utm_content=buffer5cdbd&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_term=.5206dd4c0819&wpmk=MK0000203

https://www.rt.com/usa/fbi-secretly-military-iraq-afghanistan-016/

Also see Jeremy Scahill “Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield

6) On Chris Hedges and Empathy

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/chris_hedges_speaks_on_osama_bin_ladens_death_20110502

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