Terrorism: Some Definitions

12/18/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the casualties of a bruising political campaign is language and no word has been more invoked and less defined than terrorism. We have suffered this condition for some time. Since the end of the Cold War, terrorism has taken the place of communism as the bogeyman in US culture. After the horrendous attacks of 9/11, Bush declared that we were going to have a "war on terrorism." How to conduct a war against a tactic is hard to fathom but one thing was clear, it would have no borders and it would have no end.

And, of course, the t-word was at the core of the McCain-Palin campaign. The first charge was that my brother Bill Ayers, Chicago education professor, was a terrorist. Later, it morphed into a "swift-boated" belief that Barack Obama would be an unreliable leader in the fight against terrorism because of his friendship with Bill Ayers.

With the election over, I wonder if we can draw down the rhetoric a bit. Let's begin with a definition of terrorism. Terrorism is a tactic of attacking civilians with the purpose of spreading fear and terror in the population. The 9/11 attacks were clearly terrorism. Bombing civilian targets in Vietnam has also been understood, not only by the International War Crimes Tribunal but also by some American military analysts, as terrorism. Terrorism is a despicable act -- one with no defense.

The term terrorist is an easy grouping term, aligning militant resistance with the most despicable acts. When Palestinians attack Israeli soldiers, that is declared an act of war. When a Palestinian blows himself or herself up on a bus in Jerusalem, that is called terrorism. For many in the dominant culture, anyone who commits acts of violence without the blessing of government or the cover of uniform is a terrorist. So a Palestinian guerrilla carrying out an operation is a terrorist; an Israeli helicopter which hovers outside an apartment and fires a rocket inside, killing families, is simply soldiers doing their job.

Sometimes history looks at even cases we would call terrorism in a more nuanced way. For example, when Native Americans massacred settlements of whites who were encroaching on their lands, including lands agreed upon by treaty, this was decried as terrorism. And it was an awful thing to do. Ironically, however, history has looked on the actions of the Native Americans as ones in which they were, by and large, in the right.

But the burgeoning right wing bullies and super patriots, the talk show screamers and hate mongers, have decided to apply terrorist to any extra-legal acts committed by the resistance. Anti-war activists who attacked napalm producers -- terrorists. Black Panthers who resisted illegal police raids -- terrorists. Militant Earth First members fighting to save old growth redwoods -- eco-terrorists. Note too that the South African government, and media, routinely talked about the number of "terrorists" arrested or killed when discussing the African National Congress -- both their armed wing and unarmed activists.

Our home-grown authoritarians are not really talking about terrorism. They are, in fact, trying to brand anyone who does not worship the authority, and the unquestioned power, of the US state as evil.