Terrorism has undergone what may be equivalent to genetic changes. In the earlier decades, its agenda was mostly political, such as class questions, national liberation and urban or anarchic issues. In the 1990s religious motivation has captured the centre stage. This development introduces an abstract concept into the phenomenon. Terrorists of the new breed consider their acts sanctified by God and, therefore, are not deterred by the values of any society other than their own.
This terrorist operates both at the strategic and tactical level. At the former level, his objective is publicity. Larger the number of victims, especially women, children and the elderly, more is the publicity and, therefore, more is he pleased with his actions. At the latter level, he operates to get a specific demand conceded, like release of compatriots, arrested earlier. Both types of operations have an inbuilt element of punishment. Besides, punishment itself could be the motivation as several incidents in J&K and elsewhere demonstrate.
The West reacted as one monolith, relegating the debate on the freedom fighters versus the terrorist to the shadows. While no last word has yet been heard on the subject, the voices of those who saw terrorists as freedom fighters are greatly subdued.
These changes have been occurring as the debate around terrorism has moved onto new arena Former colonies have won their independence. Wars of national liberation have all but disappeared. Urban guerrilla activity is on the wane as is class based or political ideological terrorism. But religious and sectarian phenomena have grown tremendously to disturbing proportions. 9/11 was a devastating manifestation of this resurgence. The West reacted as one monolith, relegating the debate on the freedom fighters versus the terrorist to the shadows. While no last word has yet been heard on the subject, the voices of those who saw terrorists as freedom fighters are greatly subdued.
Yet crucial to any consideration involving terrorism are the moral dilemmas involved:
- What is terrorism? There is no universal consensus on this question. One scholar has come up with 109 different definitions. One school of thought believes that violence, inherent in revolutionary struggles, national liberation etc. is not terrorism whereas the opponents of such acts label them as terrorism. The former would consider terrorism as a tool of warfare and therefore worthy of legitimacy. This school does not label terrorism as inherently immoral.
- Who is a terrorist? The distinction gets blurred because terrorism has no uniformly acceptable definition. Western powers call Al Qaeda and its supporters terrorists. To the latter West constitutes a group of perpetrators of terrorism.
- Are issues of human rights involved? The terrorist respects no human rights. Does he, therefore, deserve the benefits of human rights? If terrorism is considered to be totally immoral, why should not any act of counter terrorism be held worthy of a moral standing and approval? Even if it is conceded that the human rights of a terrorist must be respected, do the same rights of the victim take precedence?
- Which principle should be held supreme, Security of the state or rule of law? If a state or society is threatened with destruction, where will the rule of law operate if it gets destroyed?
Terrorism is, thus, a phenomenon operating on both sides of morality. Some of the moral dilemmas will cease if a definition of terrorism could be forged and accepted worldwide. A consensus seems to be developing that the means test should apply rather than the motivation test. Terrorists justify ends, not means. The suggestion is to define terrorism as intentional use of or threat to use violence against civilian targets to attain political, ideological or social aims. Under this definition guerrilla activities against security forces in a situation of a non-conventional warfare being waged between an organisation and a state will not count as terrorist acts, provided civilians are not targeted.
Terrorism is, thus, a phenomenon operating on both sides of morality. Some of the moral dilemmas will cease if a definition of terrorism could be forged and accepted worldwide. A consensus seems to be developing that the means test should apply rather than the motivation test.
Acceptance of a definition will facilitate international cooperation in fighting terrorism and legislating uniform laws in various countries for the purpose. In its absence terrorism will mean different things to different people and moral dilemmas will continue to abound. An easy solution does not seem to be in sight. India’s efforts to have UN adopt a comprehensive terrorism convention have consistently failed. While nearly 150 countries agree in the UN on a definition of terrorism, OIC’s insistence that people struggling against foreign occupation, aggression, colonialism and hegemony be exempt from the ambit of terrorism, blocks unanimity.
Political terrorism goes back several centuries. They were the acts of leftwing movements (19th century), Islamic assassins (13th century), Social Revolutionaries (20th century) who felt the need to carry out “propaganda by deed”. They found violence rational. Anarchists operated in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Subsequently it became organised political terrorism. Several nationalists – separatist movements sanctified it. The Irish against the British, Armenians against Turks, Muslim Brotherhood, against unrepresentative and authoritarian state power structure etc.