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A New Definition Of "Terrorist" II: Why A Terrorist Is Not A Freedom Fighter

Jun 24, 2009
To be a criminal requires a conscious decision to be a criminal. A terrorist does not make that decision; therefore, he is not a criminal.

Is the terrorist, then, a freedom fighter?

As do the criminal and the terrorist of today, the French Resistance member of the 1940s made a decision as a rite of passage. However, that decision differed from those of the criminal and the terrorist...

In the Resistance, "The exercise of thought is inherent to the action of resistance. In order not to be criminal acts, guerrilla operations must be accompanied with precise intentions and shared convictions. Even the very concept of resistance requires a rigorous adaptation of its meaning."(1)

F. Bedarida, a historian who participated in the French Resistance, put intentions and convictions at the very core of the meaning of the word "resistance," i.e., "a clandestine action conducted, in the name of liberty of the nation and the dignity of man, by volunteers organizing themselves to fight against domination, and most often the occupation of their country by a Nazi or fascist regime, satellite, or ally."(2)

"Liberty," "Dignity of man": ours is a cynical age. Many readers will see such lofty intentions and patriotic convictions as hot air. Too often, they serve as excuses made by someone defending the indefensible.

One line of thinking today even goes beyond cynicism: we are taught that intentions per se, be they "good" or "bad," do not matter -- that no neurosurgeon or anybody else has ever seen or touched an intention; consequently, it is impossible to prove that intentions exist. Why bother, then, with intentions?

In fact, the law recognizes intentions and motives to be not only things that exist but also are of paramount importance. The rest of us need to catch up with the lawyers and judges if we are to define terrorism in a meaningful and useful manner -- for intentions and motives are at the heart of terrorism:

(i) Yes, criminals regularly invoke noble intentions, especially justice, but they do so in an ex post facto manner. The criminal "comes to justify his act which he could not have justified when he committed it."(3) The ex post facto nature of the justification differentiates the criminal from the resistance member and also from the terrorist, who have a justification of their act before and when they commit it.

(ii) Yes, members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations claim noble intentions and convictions, many of them the same -- liberty and dignity -- as those Bedarida cited. The question, then, comes down to this: what distinguishes the perpetrators of bombings and killings in Iraq and Afghanistan today from the French Resistance in the 1940s? Why is the former a terrorist and the latter a freedom fighter? After all, both are fighting in the name of ideals against outside occupation forces.

Terrorist versus freedom fighter: is not the distinction between them, when all is said and done, a matter of politics, of whose side are you on?

The crucial difference was introduced by two curious words cited above: "rigorous adaptation." The adjustment of thought to action and vice-versa was never final in the French Resistance. The essential ambiguity surrounding crimes committed in the name of liberty and dignity was not denied, disowned, excused.(4) The Resistance fighter did not escape the moral burden of his act by appealing to ideals such as Self-Evident Truths or a Divine Law above human law. The ideals were there, but so was the burden. If you blew up a train transporting Nazi munitions and innocent people were killed, you killed innocent people: how do you live with that fact?

The terrorist, on the contrary, does not preserve in consciousness the ambiguity of his act. He is honest consciousness personified, justice and justification confounded. The terrorist's intentions and convictions are for him "idees fixes," absolute truths outside time and space, above all questioning. The terrorist is past Othello; he is beyond Hamlet. Beyond any doubt, he does not suffer from doubt.(5)

Simply put: the terrorist does not own what he is or what he has done, unlike the Resistance fighter. The terrorist makes a decision and an evaluation once and for all; the French Resistance fighter continued making decisions, evaluations.

Of course, the extreme nature of the terrorist's absolute certitude announces the presence of its opposite lurking in the background, mostly unconsciously. In not recognizing the ambiguity of his act, the terrorist reveals ambiguity to be the ultimate source of his act.


(1) Marie-Francoise Delecroix, "Mouvement litteraire: La Resistance, un devoir de poete," in Rene Char, "Feuillets d'Hypnos," Gallimard, Paris, 2007, p. 89. All translations from French are my own. (Note: the Internet format used here cannot accept accents and other special characters).
(2)Quoted in ibid.
(3)Dr. Richard McCleery, "The Strange Journey: A Demonstration Project in Adult Education in Prison," University of North Carolina Extension Bulletin, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, March 1953, p. 24.
(4) The wartime works of Rene Char, French Resistance leader and poet, are filled with scepticism, self-questioning, ambivalence, ambiguity. "Man agonizes between two contempts." "We are stretched between the thirst to know and the despair of having known." "Atrocious obligations." "Are we destined to be only debuts of truth?" "A judgement that engages does not always fortify." Rene Char, op.cit., p. 18 (fragment 36); p. 19 (fragment 39); p. 36 (fragment 106); p. 130 (fragment 186), p. 68 (fragment 226). I have yet to see a terrorist express such doubts, consternation, uncertainty.
(5) An case study appeared in an International Herald Tribune report:

Guantanamo Bay, Cuba: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, appearing for the first time since his capture five years ago, said he would welcome becoming a "martyr" after a judge warned...that he faced the death penalty for his confessed role as mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks...

The judge warned that he faced execution if convicted of organizing the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. But Mohammed, the former No. 3 leader of Al Qaeda, was insistent.

"Yes, this is what I wish, to be a martyr for a long time," Mohammed said, "I will, God willing, have this by you."

Calmly propping his glasses on his turban to peer at legal papers, Mohammed grinned at times and insisted that he would not be represented by any attorneys. He told the judge he "can only accept Sharia," or Islamic, law.

"There is no God but him; in him I have put my trust," Mohammed chanted before [Judge Ralph] Kohlmann asked him to stop.

Author not identified, "An author of Sept. 11 seeks death," International Herald Tribune, June 6, 2008.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed graduated in mechanical engineering in 1986, from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.
About the Author
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a political consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. He worked for all levels of government, and for all three branches. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science.

He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion" atBooklocker, Amazon , andBarnes and Noble.
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