07/23/2014 07:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Terrorist by Any Other Name?


Free Palestine Demonstration, Berlin. Montecruz Foto (2014) Creative Commons

In the current coverage of Israel's ground war in Gaza, I see a lot of old familiar phrases. "War crimes," "massacre," and every permutation of the word "terror" fill every news and social media outlet. With stories pouring in of devastating civilian casualties and swiftly disintegrating infrastructure unable to meet the basic needs of a population under siege, it is natural to reach for strong language to fit the magnitude of our reactions.

But as we dig into our vocabularies to express our outrage, sadness, and fear, we must bear in mind the consequences of how we conduct our dialogue.

The language of governance and international law is carefully defined. Some phrases, like "war crimes," carry with them a host of qualifications, requirements, and judgments as prerequisites to their use. Other terms, like "terror," have failed to evolve in complexity with the acts they describe. "Terror" is broad. It is clumsy, imprecise, and emotionally charged, yet it carries the utmost social and political weight.

In the parlance of the post-9/11 western world, "terrorism" is the greatest of all transgressions, yet we discuss it with little transparency or analysis of changing realities on the ground. In the past, terrorism has largely been the provenance of politicized minorities, whether Russian Anarchists, Northern Irish separatists, or the Ku Klux Klan. Thanks in part to growing globalization underwritten by rapid technological change, terrorism has become an increasingly complicated and transnational affair. Some of our current language does reflect this shift. Our description of modern terrorism in terms of interconnected operational "cells" and "networks" surely relates to the undeniable importance of the revolution in connectivity brought about by cell phones, the Internet, and social media. Nevertheless, much of how we discuss global terrorism still does not correspond to the intricate realities of this phenomenon in the 21st century.

In many cases, today's terrorist groups aspire to goals that are diverse and alarmingly well entrenched. For example, organizations in the Sahara, such as Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb and Al-Murabitun, have widely expanded their geographic spheres of influence as state sovereignty in the region has deteriorated. Libyan arms, illegal cigarettes, and West African drugs have flooded desert trading routes, alongside the dispersion of refugees from violent conflicts like Mali's. All of this readily provides funding, supplies, and recruitment opportunities to militants. Moreover, these groups frequently feature several branches, numerous commanders, and unstable leadership thanks to infighting in their ranks, rendering cohesive negotiations or targeted counterterrorism efforts nearly impossible. And yet these self-proclaimed terrorist organizations often wield more political and military power and provide more support to civilians in the form of refugee camps, medical centers, and schools than the state governments are capable of.

Other organizations have less imperial ambitions that focus on specific historical and modern borders. Hamas falls into this category, as do a number of other extremist groups in the Levant. Groups with terrorist origins can evolve in structure and methods over time and, as Hamas did in Gaza in 2006, even win elections. All too often, we also see the significant state backing of terrorist activity by powerful governments who grant militants the security and means to act with near impunity. Few would question Russian President Vladimir Putin's role in supporting rebels in Eastern Ukraine, and it is well known that the civil war in Syria has become the site of proxy wars between other regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, and Russia, all of which are alleged to have provided substantial arms and financial support to Islamist fighters both opposing and supporting Assad.

Despite the increasingly blurry lines between ruling authorities and terrorist activities, many states have developed emphatically black-and-white anti-terrorism policies that prevent them from negotiating or cooperating with designated terrorists in any way. Terrorist status can mark an organization for life, preventing it from evolving into a legitimate political entity, even through popular election. After all, we do not speak of states as terrorists. "Rogue nations," "pariah states," or "nuclear threats" perhaps, but never "terrorists."

To be clear, I do not argue here which groups should or should not be termed "terrorists" and I make no statements regarding the validity of any given election or anti-terrorism policy. Legitimacy is at the core of what terrorist organizations universally crave, and there are a great many reasons to deny them. On the other hand, we must ask whether there comes a point when it is less harmful to deal with a potentially dangerous governing power than a suffering civilian body in which the de facto leadership is not recognized and cannot be effectively politically engaged.

Perhaps it is time to begin questioning ways to incorporate greater nuance into our policies, in particular in conflicts fraught with extreme complexity and long, bloody histories where passions run high on all sides.

The first step in this questioning is to examine our discourse and force ourselves to consider the consequences of our rhetoric and its associated politics, a step that should be taken not only by our policymakers, but by every journalist, activist, and casual observer. Perhaps then we can begin to find pathways to power and representative government that reduce violence, rather than allowing it to remain the foremost option for certain groups to be heard at the international level.

Tara Dominic is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Her specializations include Eurasian Energy Security, International Security Studies, and Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization.