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Yes, a horrid crime......but was it terrorism?

There can be no doubting that the vicious murder in London a couple of days ago was horrific.    Some aspects are downright bizarre.  But, was it an act of terrorism as it has been labelled by all and sundry, from the British PM downwards?

"It's true that the soldier who was killed yesterday was out of uniform and not engaged in combat at the time he was attacked. But the same is true for the vast bulk of killings carried out by the US and its allies over the last decade, where people are killed in their homes, in their cars, at work, while asleep (in fact, the US has re-defined "militant" to mean "any military-aged male in a strike zone"). Indeed, at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on drone killings, Gen. James Cartwright and Sen. Lindsey Graham both agreed that the US has the right to kill its enemies even while they are "asleep", that you don't "have to wake them up before you shoot them" and "make it a fair fight". Once you declare that the "entire globe is a battlefield" (which includes London) and that any "combatant" (defined as broadly as possible) is fair game to be killed - as the US has done - then how can the killing of a solider of a nation engaged in that war, horrific though it is, possibly be "terrorism"?

When I asked on Twitter this morning what specific attributes of this attack make it "terrorism" given that it was a soldier who was killed, the most frequent answer I received was that "terrorism" means any act of violence designed to achieve political change, or more specifically, to induce a civilian population to change their government or its policies of out fear of violence. Because, this line of reasoning went, one of the attackers here said that "the only reasons we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily" and warned that "you people will never be safe. Remove your government", the intent of the violence was to induce political change, thus making it "terrorism".

That is at least a coherent definition. But doesn't that then encompass the vast majority of violent acts undertaken by the US and its allies over the last decade? What was the US/UK "shock and awe" attack on Baghdad if not a campaign to intimidate the population with a massive show of violence into submitting to the invading armies and ceasing their support for Saddam's regime? That was clearly its functional intent and even its stated intent. That definition would also immediately include the massive air bombings of German cities during World War II. It would include the Central American civilian-slaughtering militias supported, funded and armed by the Reagan administration throughout the 1980s, the Bangledeshi death squads trained and funded by the UK, and countless other groups supported by the west that used violence against civilians to achieve political ends.

The ongoing US drone attacks unquestionably have the effect, and one could reasonably argue the intent, of terrorizing the local populations so that they cease harboring or supporting those the west deems to be enemies. The brutal sanctions regime imposed by the west on Iraq and Iran, which kills large numbers of people, clearly has the intent of terrorizing the population into changing its governments' policies and even the government itself. How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners? Can that be done?

I know this vital caveat will fall on deaf ears for some, but nothing about this discussion has anything to do with justifiability. An act can be vile, evil, and devoid of justification without being "terrorism": indeed, most of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, from the Holocaust to the wanton slaughter of Stalin and Pol Pot and the massive destruction of human life in Vietnam, are not typically described as "terrorism". To question whether something qualifies as "terrorism" is not remotely to justify or even mitigate it. That should go without saying, though I know it doesn't.

The reason it's so crucial to ask this question is that there are few terms - if there are any - that pack the political, cultural and emotional punch that "terrorism" provides. When it comes to the actions of western governments, it is a conversation-stopper, justifying virtually anything those governments want to do. It's a term that is used to start wars, engage in sustained military action, send people to prison for decades or life, to target suspects for due-process-free execution, shield government actions behind a wall of secrecy, and instantly shape public perceptions around the world. It matters what the definition of the term is, or whether there is a consistent and coherent definition. It matters a great deal."

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