Had the word been en vogue back in the 18th century, what would the British government have labeled the rebels in the American colonies?
Terrorists, of course.
Had George III ever delivered a televised BBC address on the American insurgency following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress, he would have explained that he had given orders to crack down on terrorists in the New World, using—and stressing—that word at least once every other sentence.
The king’s branding-savvy advisers and strategists would have urged him to never, under no circumstances, refer to those pesky insurgents as anything but terrorists (like “rebels” or “armed insurgents” or—God forbid!—“freedom fighters”), as doing so might, in the mind of one or the other listener, confer an air of potential legitimacy upon their cause.
Accordingly, Benjamin Franklin would have been presented to the British public as one of the principal terrorist masterminds—the Bin Laden of the Wild West, as it were.
Franklin & Co, on the other hand, in order to gin up support for their actions would have insisted that the real terrorist, having steered that intolerable Train of Abuses and Usurpations for much too long, was occupying the British throne; again, using the word frequently so as to, with one fell term, delegitimize the objectives of the anathematic monarch and his red-coated hatchet men.
Likewise, in the eyes of the European settlers, those Native Americans that had the audacity to offer bow-and-arrowed resistance to being relocated at the say-so of their occupiers would have been terrorists. Conversely, to the indigenous population, the white invaders intent on establishing their shining city on a hill as per the doctrine of Manifest Destiny must have appeared little different from modern ISIS terrorists attempting to clear the land of undesirable elements for the sake of establishing their shining caliphate in a desert as per Allah’s alleged edict.
In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes decried Greek and Latin writers who considered it “lawful and laudable” for any man to kill their sovereign “provided, before he do it, he call him a tyrant.”
In modern times, in order to legitimize a kill, it is imperative—and generally sufficient—that the target, whether he or she is a sovereign or a foot soldier, be called a “terrorist.”
Terrorists are bad and must be defeated. So far everyone agrees. Where opinions diverge is when it comes to assigning terrorist status to either party in a given conflict.
And so, the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad, himself considered a terrorist by much of the world, in his bloody jihad against whom he steadfastly keeps referring to as terrorists, has gradually been turning large swaths of his country into a rubble factory. Ukraine is defending itself against Russian separatist terrorists, who, from their point of view, are rising up against the Western-backed terrorist regime in Kiev, while Israel has laid waste to Gaza as a collateral side-effect of combating the terrorists there. Arabs, in turn, generally regard Israel’s behavior as state-sponsored terrorism, waged under the gauzy pretext of self-defense.
The United States, of course, is fighting terrorists all over the place and is regarded by many as being the biggest terrorist of all.
We begin with the thesis that terrorism is the responsibility of some officially designated enemy. We then designate terrorist acts as ‘terrorist’ just in the cases where they can be attributed (whether plausibly or not) to the required source; otherwise they are to be ignored, suppressed, or termed ‘retaliation’ or ‘self-defence.’ … When the U.S. and its clients are the agents, they are acts of retaliation and self-defense in the service of democracy and human rights.” (Noam Chomsky, International Terrorism: Image and Reality)
In waging its “war on terror,” the U.S. must be careful to style the foreign factions it arms and supports as “rebels” or “opposition fighters,” not as terrorists. These fighters will then be re-branded as terrorists the moment they aim their weapons in a direction the U.S. disapproves of.
The word “terrorist” seems defined less in terms of what you’re doing (e.g., intimidating or killing) or why (e.g., in order to emancipate yourself of your perceived oppressor’s yoke) than in terms of who you’re doing it to. Descriptors along the lines of “rebels” or “insurgents” apply to those whose struggle is prompted by grievances deemed legitimate, whereas “terrorists” is reserved for those who, on top of resorting to violence to achieve their ends, are plainly misguided as far as the nature of these ends. (The trick, once again, is to determine whose ends are legitimate and whose are misguided or outright wicked.)
This is not meant to draw a moral equivalency between the various clashes that ply us with a never-ending stream of gory footage from around the globe, as if there existed no right and no wrong, no good and no evil. Like most of us, I tend to harbor strong views as to who are the terrorists in a given collision of interests—although, granted, when it comes to certain conflicts, all sides strike me as legitimately aggrieved to some extent, which puts a bit of a damper on my inclination to root for either, i.e., to decide who the terrorists are.
Indeed, it seems rather challenging to devise a working definition of “terrorism” that fails to include various activities by the U.S. and some of its allies. For instance, what’s “gunboat diplomacy” other than a form of intimidation using the threat of force?
Regardless, these days, in order to justify armed action against an enemy and rally the public to one’s cause, it is imperative to denounce said enemy as “terrorists.” Anyone who is fighting anyone in today’s world, the moment a microphone is being stuck in their face, must declare they’re fighting terrorists and repeat the word as often as possible so as to hammer home the righteousness of their battle. Otherwise, it will be a tough sell, for either one is battling (a) terrorists or (b) folks who might not be totally off their nut as concerns the motives for their belligerence. Surely, you wouldn’t want to sound as if you’re battling the latter, would you?
The last remaining holdouts to this modern way of marketing one’s war, it seems, are the nutty jihadists, who keep fighting “infidels” rather than terrorists. I cannot explain their sales strategy—unless, perhaps, in Arabic infidel and terrorist are the same word to begin with.