The definition of terrorism has been widely debated, arguably this is because the term is a social construct, and therefore continually gets adapted as society, and its perspective, changes. The United Nations currently defines a ‘terrorist’ as “any person who, acting independently of the specific recognition of a country, or as a single person, or as a part of a group not recognized as an official part or division of a nation, acts to destroy or to injure civilians, or damage property belonging to civilians, or to governments in order to effect some political goal” (White, 2009, p.7).
But what if it’s a government acting outside of the will of the people that it is supposed to represent, does that constitute terrorism then? Terrorist acts are intended to intimidate, or to coerce a certain population of people, or to influence the policy of a government by using violent coercion or intimidation tactics.
Terrorism is essentially a tactic, a method used towards a specific series of strategic goals, and this means that any living person has the option to choose this tactic, regardless of their goal, if that were his or her desire. But, to declare a war on terrorism is to assume that there can ever be an end to terrorism. Logically, there can never be an end, because it essentially comes down to individuals choosing peace, instead of violence and aggression, toward their fellow man.
How can we ever put an end to terrorism when we can’t prevent simple actions like people speeding, drinking and driving, or from purchasing and consuming criminalized natural substances? The state can never ensure an environment of total safety. But the state has the convenient excuse of ‘terrorism’ anytime they want to infringe on one’s individual privacy, and on other civil liberties. You cannot prevent the initiation of violence, all you can do is respond when a violent act is committed.
People are more willing to give up their rights when they believe that there is a threat or danger to them. In ancient times when the Athenians were threatened with invasion, they were more willing to grant the state increased power, and to suspend the rules of democracy (White, 2009). They believed that by doing this it provided them with more protection. Likewise, the Romans would also allow for the creation of a dictatorship in times of war.
But no one should have to give up their liberties out of fear. Instead of the state infringing on the privacy and rights of peaceful citizens, perhaps they should treat ‘terrorism’ for what it really is: the use of violence against any person or their property, in violation of criminal law, for the purpose of intimidation, coercion, or ransom (Borgeson & Valeri, 2009).
Perhaps governments should take a more direct approach to terrorism, and first identify which person is at fault, and use current legal routes to seek remedy for victims, and to determine what the resulting punishment should be (Levitt, 1988). Every human being should have, and be guaranteed the right to due process of law, and to be considered innocent until proven guilty. These are the fundamentals of a free and democratic society.
Instead of treating terrorism for what it is they place terrorism in its own realm, and it gives blanket justification for broad violations to individuals’ privacy. Because of supposed terrorist threats, the government has successfully passed various legislation, like the National Defense Authorization Act, which gives the state the power to detain any citizen without charges, and grants authority to have any citizen murdered without a trial, if they are deemed to pose a terrorist threat. The Patriot Act is another example of an oppressive bill that was passed as part of the “war on terror” (Borgeson & Valeri, 2009).
The Constitutionally guaranteed 4th amendment right, to be secure in one’s person against unreasonable searches and seizures, should ensure that the people are protected against phishing expeditions by the government. Recently we have learned that despite these natural, Constitutionally protected rights, the government has been infringing on privacy regardless. These actions grossly overstep the boundaries of a democratic government.
The excuse of terrorism has been used by the state to infringe upon the privacy and civil rights of the American people. Terrorism is the perfect excuse available to the state, if their objective is to infringe on the civil rights of the people they represent, secretly in pursuit to their own goals. Or perhaps they truly believe that sacrificing some liberty now, pays off for security and protection in the future. But decreasing civil liberties limits individual freedom, and it increases government and state power. No government can ever ensure complete protection or safety. Harsher security measures are not going to ensure a higher level of safety. In polls asking people if they would be comfortable having government screen their phone calls or emails in order to ‘reduce terrorism’, only 29% were willing, with 66% opposed to the idea (Borgeson & Valeri, 2009).
Instead of a broad approach to terrorism, why can’t the state deal with the individuals themselves who have violated the rights of others? Instead of violating the rights of non-violent, and law abiding citizens? To put the risk of any terrorist attack in perspective, statistically, you are more likely to drown in a bathtub, be struck by lightning, die in a car accident, overdose on pills, be killed by the police, or die in a building fire, than you are to be killed by any terrorist.
Does the risk then warrant the sweeping invasion to privacy and liberty? More than eleven years, and billions of dollars have been invested into the anti-terrorism ghost chase. There is little to show for the efforts, besides the loss of millions of lives, and inescapably crippling debt (Napoleoni, 2010). It hardly seems worth the lives lost or the bankruptcy of an entire nation, in order to carry on with the stated pipe dream of eradicating a tactic.
By attacking other countries, whether you mean to or not, you are consequently creating new enemies. So the foreign policy of the United States government is a self-perpetuating cycle. And it is important to note that the reasons for starting these undeclared wars, may not be legitimate. The reason for invading Iraq was to find weapons of mass destruction, and after extensive searches, final reports stated that no such weapons were found, and many believe that it was a lie to begin with and that the American people were intentionally deceived (Froomkin, 2012).
There is no clear enemy in this terrorist hunt, the government previously declared Al Qaeda to be the enemy, but then the US Government funds rebels who have pledged support and allegiance to Al Qaeda? And the CIA themselves arguably created, worked with, and have funded Al Qaeda, so to some it understandably seems rather hypocritical, and backwards. It would seem actions of the American government in the Middle East, and elsewhere have led to more hostility toward the nation, which apparently justifies increased civil rights violations? The majority of drone strike victims are 80% civilians, and with hundreds of children having been the victim of drone strikes, this isn’t going to inspire support for Western nations or Western democratic objectives.
Napoleoni, L. (2010). Terrorism and the Economy: how the war on terror is bankrupting the world. New York: Seven Stories
Borgeson, K., & Valeri, R, (2009). Terrorism In America. Sudbury: Jones/Bartlett Pub
White, J. (2009). Terrorism and Homeland Security (6th edition). Toronto: Thomson/Wadsworth
Levitt, G. M. (1988). Democracies Against Terror. The western response to state supported terrorism. Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies.