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Friday, December 31, 2004
By Steven L. Taylor

Leopold Stotch, blogging at Outside The Beltway, hits one of my pet-peeves:

What Americans need to realize is that there really is no such thing as terrorism; there are revolutions you support (freedom fighters) and those that you don’t (terrorists). But to label a person or a group “terrorist” is to say nothing more than that you disagree with their claims and their cause.

I wholly disagree with the whole “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” line of thinking. For one thing, not all who fight for freedom use terrorism, and certainly it would seem that most who employ terror aren’t fighting for freedom. I see, for example, no freedom fighting in what al Qaeda has done, and certainly the PLO’s utilization of terror has hardly resulted in much freedom for anybody.

Terrorism is largely a tactic, and a group is defined by the degree to which that tactic accurately describes its basic operation. I see terrorism (and I defined it online here) as the specific targetting of civilians in order to foment fear, which, is created in hopes of changing the policies of governments. I do not see all collective political violence as terrorism–I certainly don’t see guerrilla movements as terrorists, per se (although they may engage in terroristic tactics at times, which, granted, blurs the lines a bit). However, if one takes a group like al Zarqawi’s that detonates car bombs in markets and kidnaps workers and beheads them on camera, one is dealing with something quite different than, say, the FSLN in Nicaragua prior to the revolution (or the Contras after the revolution) or the FMLN in El Salvador during its civil war. In one case you have a very small group that is trying to create terror in the population, in another you have an army that emerges to attempt to confront the state militarily.

I had a piece along these lines at TCS a while back (What’s an Insurgent? What’s a Terrorist?).

Further, I disagree with Stotch’s oversimplification of all groups which utilize violence as being part of a revolutionary movement. Not all collective political violence is necessarily revolutionary in nature–certainly I am not certain that I would want to term al qaeda’s aims as “revolutionary” in the normal usage of the term (at least as a term of art in political science/sociology).

Of course, I don’t consider the American Revolution a true “revolution” (in the French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Iranian or Nicaraguan sense), but rather a war of independence. That, however, is perhaps a discussion for another time.

Update: This is from a comment I left below, which may help illustrate my position further:

Pablo Escobar, of the Medellin Cartel, used car bombs in places like shopping mall garages in Bogota in the 1990s to scare the upper class so that they would force the government to capitulate to certain demands by the cartels. This was clearly terrorism, but was there was no freedom fighting involved and no revolutionary aims were present, yet it empirically was terrorism. No need to be normative in my definition, either: quite straight-forwardly a group of persons who could not militarily challenge the state used the fomentation of fear in the population in the hopes that that fear would lead to governmental action–in this case, the cessation of extraditions to the US of Colombian nationals. It worked, by the way.

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16 Responses to “On Terrorism and Revolutions”

  1. The Jawa Report Says:

    Are Terrorists Revolutionaries?
    There’s a fascinating conversation going on over at Outside the Beltway written by Leopold Stotch. It concerns the Northwestern professor comparing Al Qaeda’s fight with the U.S. Revolutionary War. I’m not going to re-hash my views on this subject a…

  2. InTheBullpen.com Says:

    Are Terrorists Revolutionaries?
    There’s a fascinating conversation going on over at Outside the Beltway written by Leopold Stotch. The debate seems to stem from my post concerning a Northwestern professor comparing Al Qaeda’s fight with the U.S. Revolutionary War.

  3. Leopold Stotch Says:

    Further, I disagree with Stotch’s oversimplification of all groups which utilize violence as being part of a revolutionary movement.

    I’m not sure I said that. But what I am trying to say is that the distinction between a terrorist and a revolutionary is completely normative. Both are engaged in political violence, a term somehow lost even among academics. Our failure to recognize the political roots of terrorism has led to an almost meaningless public discourse on the topic and a highly disjointed counterterrorism strategy.

  4. Steven Taylor Says:

    When you said “there are revolutions you support (freedom fighters) and those that you don’t (terrorists)” you seem to be casting all collective political violence into the “revolutionary” caregory.

    And while I agree that there is far too much normative thinking in the way these words are used, I disagree rather stridently that the distinction is wholly normative. One can construct useful definitions of both terms that demonstrate their distinctiveness.

    I cite, again, the FSLN and their guerrilla war against Somoza and the exploding of a car bomb in a crowded marketplace. There are empirically distinct activities.

    I will gladly allow that the very usage of the word “terrorism” makes cogent conversation difficult.

    Still, terror is, as I note, a tactic which may or may not have much of anything to do with fighting for freedom or for revolutionary activity.

    Pablo Escobar, of the Medellin Cartel, used car bombs in Bogota in the 1990s to scare the upper class so that they would force the government to capitulate to certain demands by the cartels. This was clearly terrorism, but was there was no freedom fighting involved, but empirically it was terrorism.

  5. Leopold Stotch Says:

    But Pablo Escobar was not a terrorist, strictly speaking, because all definitions of terrorism stress the political component as necessary. If Escobar was a terrorist, then John Gotti was a terrorist. And at this point the term is rendered meaningless.

    I’m not trying to be pedantic in all of this, but at this point in our discourse a terrorist is the equivallent of a witch. At least in calling the bin Ladens of the world revolutionaries (or perpetrators of political violence) we force more important secondary and tertiary questions that we currently ignore.

  6. Steven Taylor Says:

    I disagree. Gotti wasn’t trying to change the actions of the state (Escobar was).

    I agree about the usage of the term in popular discourse. I am speaking largely in terms of political science terminology.

    And I just don’t see bin Laden as a revolutionary. What revolution is he trying to create at this moment in time? Where?

  7. Steven Taylor Says:

    Out of curiousity–is this sort of thing something you study?

  8. Steven Taylor Says:

    And a point of clarification: I am not saying that Escobar was a terrorist, per se. But, rather, that the actions described were terroristic in nature.

    And, as I noted in my post: the degree to which one employs terrors determines if one should be labeled a terrorist. In bin Laden’s case I can think of no better label. Even moreso in al Zarqawi’s case.

  9. Leopold Stotch Says:

    Bin Laden seeks a renewed order in the Middle East, along the lines of what was preached by Fanon for Africa. If that’s not revolutionary, I don’t know what is.

    As for my subfield, I teach classes on mass movements and terrorism, and I have the first chapter written for a book on cultural narratives and the roots causes of terrorism. Which I guess is why I can get pretty narrow in these discussions …

  10. Leopold Stotch Says:

    Related to the Escobar distinction you make, HERE is an report on a gang member in New York being tried as a terrorist.

  11. Robert Prather Says:

    In my usual “cut the baby in half” style, I will agree with Leopold on the word “revolutionary” and agree with Steven on the word “terrorist” (see, I’m qualified to work at “Reuters”).

    Bin Laden is a revolutionary, but not all revolutions are positive. They set out to upset the existing order and Bin Laden wants to restore the lost Caliphate and unleash other horrors on the world.

    As Steven notes, his tactics are those of a terrorist.

  12. Steven Taylor Says:

    OK, that helps: I was trying to figure out how much we were arguing rhetoric and how much we were “inside baseball”.

    Ironically, I am working on an article right now that touches on some of this stuff.

    I take your point on bin Laden’s aims as being revolutionary in scope, but at the moment I would question the degree to which he is actually engaged in that project.

  13. Steven Taylor Says:

    Robert,

    Indeed, most revolutions are negative (just look at the list).

  14. Wizbang Says:

    Terrorism is a tactic, not a label
    For a brief moment, I thought James Joyner had gone over the edge. Then I noticed it was a guest poster Leopold Stotch. I don’t remember a time I’ve disagreed both so intellectually and viscerally with Stotch. I was all…

  15. Legal XXX Says:

    There Is No Such Thing As Terrorism?
    Now, I like Prof. Chaos, but I think he is fundamentally mistaken here.

  16. Christopher Cross Says:

    To maybe use an example a bit closer to home–how would we define John Brown?

    To think Brown was a terrorist is not to disagree with his desire for abolition. Abolition of slavery is good, murdering an innocent Kansas family to try to achieve that end is not.

    So Brown can be a revolutionary–but he was still a crazy f’r.


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