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Evolution and Debates about the Concept of Terrorism

[Israeli bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunis, 1985. Image by Israeli Air Force.] [Israeli bombing of PLO headquarters in Tunis, 1985. Image by Israeli Air Force.]

The term “terrorism” has become a permanent fixture in US political vocabulary. However, as recently as the late 1970s this terminology was virtually absent from the rhetorical arsenal of US presidents. Today, people invoke the concept in ways that suggest its meaning is self-evident and consensual. In fact what is and is not described as “terroristic” in the American context is the result of a relatively recent and highly political process of meaning-making. In this process, specific voices and viewpoints have been allowed to shape and inform the totality of the discussion, while others were simply silenced. 

The older debates were rekindled recently with the controversy sparked by the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to bring The Death of Klinghoffer back to the New York stage. John Adams’ opera tells the story of the hijacking of a cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. In October 1985, members of the Palestine Liberation Front (PLF), a faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), murdered Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American retiree. To many critics of Adams’ opera, the simple fact that it gives the hijackers a voice to express their grievances is unacceptable and amounts to justifying or glamorizing “terrorism.” By contrast, supporters have applauded the opera for offering a complex, non-Manichean version of the conflict, one where the audience can view Palestinians not simply as the perpetrators of violent crimes, but also as victims of political violence.

The controversy over The Death of Klinghoffer reveals the parameters of the discourse on “terrorism” as it exists in US political and media spheres. What this discourse excludes is a wide range of other potential narratives about political violence in the world and, specifically, in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Over the years, acts such as the murder of Leon Klinghoffer have informed how US political and media actors have come to think and talk about the nature of “terrorism” in the Middle East. Meanwhile, these same actors have excluded other forms of political violence, notably a government’s use of force against civilians and civilian infrastructures. For example, only a few days before the Achille Lauro hijacking, Israel bombed the PLO headquarters in Tunis. Many political actors around the world condemned this aggressive and violent attack as having amounted to “terrorism.” In the United States, however, such labeling was at the time, and has since remained, completely absent from discussions about “terrorism.” 

In his study of journalism during the Vietnam War, Daniel Hallin argues that the media “mark[ed] out and defend[ed] the limits of acceptable political conduct” by creating space for “legitimate controversies” while excluding other “deviant” views and actors. The workings of Washington and partisan differences present journalists with quintessential “legitimate controversies.” However, the mainstream media exclude or treat the views of actors critical of state itself, such as anti-war activists, as “deviant.” Thus, the media serves as a “boundary-maintaining mechanism.” This process has been central to the shaping of the discourse on “terrorism” over the last few decades. 

What Is Terrorism? 

On 25 September 1985, Palestinians from a group called Force 17 killed three Israeli citizens on their yacht in Larnaca, Cyprus. After a firefight with local authorities, the attackers surrendered. They were tried a few months later and sentenced to life in prison.

Six days after the attack on the yacht, Israeli jetfighters bombed the headquarters of the PLO in Tunis, killing around one hundred people, including many women and children. Amnon Kapeliouk, a journalist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, described how the people in the buildings, situated in a residential area of the capital, “were torn to shreds beyond recognition.” Given pictures of the dead, Kapeliouk turned them down. “No newspaper in the world would publish terror photos such as these.” 

Five days later, four members of the PLF hijacked the Achille Lauro off the coast of Italy. They took all passengers hostage and murdered Klinghoffer, throwing his body overboard.

During the session that the Security Council convened on 3 – 4 October 1985 in response to the raid on Tunis, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s UN representative, rejected the notion that his country’s military action amounted to aggression. “If anything can be defined as aggression, it is the actions taken against us,” he argued. “If anything can be defined as self-defense, it is the action taken by us. It is a legitimate response to acts of terrorism.”

This series of events played a decisive role in the meaning-making process relating to “terrorism.” By bombing Tunis, the Israeli air force had not simply attempted to “punish the offenders” of the Larnaca attack, who were already in police custody. Rather, Netanyahu explained, the objective was to “prevent future crimes,” to “weaken and destroy the nerve-center of world terror,” namely the PLO, so that it could not “spread its tentacles further and further.” The Palestinian “terrorist threat” was deemed so serious that it justified using force against a state, Tunisia, that Netanyahu himself admitted had no involvement in the attack. It also called for a new understanding of the military doctrine of proportionality. “If the question of proportionality is raised,” he explained, “we must take into account not only the thousands who have already fallen victim, but also the many thousands more who will fall if this nerve-center of terror is allowed to operate undisturbed.”

The Israeli reasoning following the Tunis attack was not unprecedented. Indeed, throughout the 1960s Israel argued that the use of armed force against states that provide sanctuary for or otherwise support “terrorists” are legitimate acts of self defense. The Security Council repeatedly rejected such arguments, as the votes on Resolutions 228 (1966), 248 (1968), 256 (1968), 262 (1968), 265 (1969), and 270 (1969) make clear. The consensus in the international community was (and to a large extent remains) that such uses of force often violate international law and the UN Charter. 

In response to the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972, Israel had conducted air raids against Syria and Lebanon. During the following Security Council session, the American representative, George H.W. Bush, announced a major shift in US policy. From then on, Washington would veto any “one-sided” resolution, namely any resolution that condemned Israel’s use of force without also condemning the “terrorism” to which it was responding. Bush embraced the argument that states subjected to terrorist attacks were entitled to respond, and that such uses of force were legitimate acts of self-defense. The 10 September 1972 veto of a resolution condemning Israel was only the second veto Washington had ever cast in the Security Council. By the end of the decade, it had vetoed seven resolutions that condemned Israeli raids against its Arab neighbors. 

The Unresolved Issue of State Terrorism

On 4 October 1985, by a vote of fourteen yeses and with the United States abstaining, the Security Council adopted Resolution 573, which “condemned vigorously the act of armed aggression perpetrated by Israel against Tunisian territory.” That time, Washington did not use its veto but, as Vernon Walters explained, it continued to “recognize and strongly supported the principle that a State subjected to continuing terrorist attacks may respond with appropriate use of force to defend itself against further attacks.” As the outcome of that vote makes clear, Israel and the United States continued to stand squarely outside the international consensus on the illegality of the use of force against third-party states to avenge acts of terrorism. But international disagreements ran deeper: to non-Western countries, Israel’s raid amounted to “state terrorism” and should be condemned just as strongly as acts of “terrorism” by non-state actors. 

Thus, after noting that his country had “often unequivocally condemned terrorism of every kind and from whatever source,” the Tunisian representative insisted that “nothing can justify this act of terrorism committed by and duly acknowledged by the Government of a Member State against another Member State.” 

Over the next couple days, all non-Western members of the Security Council similarly argued that Israel’s raid was criminal, contrary to international law and an act of “state terrorism.” Indeed, the initial draft of the October 1985 resolution contained an explicit condemnation of Israel’s raid as a form of “state terrorism.” It was only under the threat of a US veto that these words were removed from the final text, as were the call for sanctions and, remarkably, an explicit reference to “Tunisian and Palestinian civilian casualties.” 

When the question of “international terrorism” was first put on the agenda of the General Assembly in late 1972, discussions focused on the absence of a clear, agreed-upon definition of “terrorism.” Non-western countries expressed worry that, if the term was left undefined, it would be used by Israel, the United States, apartheid South Africa, Portugal (which still retained colonial possessions in Africa), and others as a way to de-legitimize any and all uses of force by “national liberation movements” while justifying their own uses of military force. They insisted that efforts to fight terrorism required that the concept be defined, and that such definition should apply to all political actors, covering violence against civilians by states as well as non-state actors. This would remain their position for the following decades.

Two days after the killing of Klinghoffer, the Security Council issued a statement deploring his murder and “condemned terrorism in all its forms, wherever and by whomever committed.” This statement has special historical significance because it represents the first explicit condemnation of “terrorism” by that UN body. Despite the statement’s apparent straightforwardness, however, its actual meaning is far from obvious. As the whole history of UN debates makes clear, in the absence of an agreed-upon definition of “terrorism,” different states embrace fundamentally different interpretations as to the kind of acts and actors that this condemnation did, and did not, apply. Crucially, there is disagreement on whether this unequivocal condemnation of “terrorism by whomever committed” applied solely to acts by non-state actors or should include state violence as well. Western states hold the position that “terrorism” applies to violence by non-state actors, such as the PFL members who murdered Klinghoffer. The position of all non-Western states hold that “terrorism” also encompasses acts by states such as Israel’s air raids on Tunis a few days prior to the Achille Lauro hijacking.

The US Media’s Terrorism Problem

In the US media, the 9 October 1985 UNSC Presidential Statement was applauded as a (belated) condemnation of Palestinian terrorism. There was no mention of the fact that, to the majority of UN member states, this condemnation clearly also applied to “terrorist” acts by states and, specifically, to Israel’s bombing of Tunis. In fact, even though the issue of the definition of “terrorism” has been at the heart of countless General Assembly and Security Council debates for over forty years, such discussions have been absent from media accounts or, as in the case of The New York Times’ coverage of the 1972 debates in the UN, woefully mischaracterized.

The same is true of countless Congressional debates; while Democrats and Republicans were in complete disagreement as to who were, and were not, the real “terrorists” in conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, or South Africa, there has been a bipartisan consensus that Israeli violence was self-defensive “counter-terrorism.”

Many journalists regard reporting on controversies between elected officials as the core of their profession. Yet during the 1970s and 1980s, media outlets time and time again decided that certain debates about “terrorism” were in fact “illegitimate” and not fit to inform public discussions on the topic, even when they took place within the halls of Congress. The US media-consuming public thus remained unaware of the extent of the disagreements that existed at the international level as well as within Washington itself, about the exact nature of “terrorist” violence. 

In fact, in those years the most attentive readers of the New York Times or Washington Post, for example, would have been fully unaware of the simple fact that such a concept was contested. Such a reader would not have known, for instance, that many Democrats insisted that various policies pursued by the Reagan administration in Latin and Central America amounted to sponsoring or supporting “terrorism,” nor that they arrived at such a conclusion by applying the State Department’s own definition to the methods and tactics used by US allies in the region. Such a reader would not have known that these accusations were similar to those made against the United States at the United Nations year after year. Consequently, he or she would have been uninformed that, according to the Democrats’ own arguments, Israel’s historical support for various military regimes in the Americas also amounted to sponsoring or supporting “terrorism.” However, Democrats who readily condemned Reagan’s policies as amounting to “state-terrorism” never used such rhetoric when talking about Israel’s.

As these examples clearly illustrate, the near complete absence of the “definitional question” from contemporary media accounts was central in allowing the discourse on “terrorism” to present itself as natural, or self-evident, despite its extraordinary internal contradictions and fundamentally ideological nature. As a result, the broader discourse on “terrorism” came to be shaped in fundamental ways by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, precisely a conflict where bipartisan consensus about who is (and is not) a “terrorist” was (and remains) absolute and, consequently, where the definitional question was (and is) never asked.

The Death of Klinghoffer Controversy 

The controversy surrounding The Death of Klinghoffer vividly illustrates the extraordinary success of the process of meaning-making that led to what we know today as the US discourse on “terrorism.” According to the wide array of groups calling for the banning of the opera, John Adams’ piece is problematic because it “falsifies history” and, in so doing, supports and justifies “terrorism.” In a statement included in the opera’s program, Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer insist that “the four terrorists” who brutally killed their father “will be humanized by distinguished opera singers and given a back story,” as well as an “explanation” for their “brutal act of terror and violence.” Adams’ production, they argue, “rationalizes, romanticizes and legitimizes the terrorist murder” of their father.

According to Jordan Hoffman’s review in the Times of Israel, the protesters’ main critique appears to be that the opera “does not portray the hijackers as mindless bloodthirsty monsters, but dares to give the men and their cause a degree of back story.” To its supporters, the opera should be praised for placing the murder of Klinghoffer in its broader context, for giving Palestinians a voice and showing that even when some of them do commit deeply immoral acts, their history is also one of victimhood.

In the United States, public debate around “terrorism,” as in the case of the uproar against The Death of Klinghoffer, takes place within very narrow limits. Disagreements about whether mentioning “grievances” amounts to justifying “terrorism” belong, to use Hallin’s phraseology, to the “sphere of legitimate controversy.” However, the very possibility that the concept of “terrorism” itself may be contested, the fact that it remains undefined at the international level, or that countless actors have insisted, for decades, that some of “our” (Israel’s or the United States’ or some of its allies’) uses of force amount to “terrorism” are absent, invisible, relegated to the “sphere of deviance.”

In 1986, Edward Said wrote a scathing critique of the emerging discourse on “terrorism.” The word was purely and simply a rhetorical weapon, whose raison d’être was to “isolate your enemy from time, from causality, from prior action, and thereby to portray him or her as ontologically and gratuitously interested in wreaking havoc for its own sake.” “’We’ are never terrorists no matter what we may have done,” he noted. “’They’ always are and always will be.”

Absurd, almost cartoonish in its ideologically-driven selectivity, the discourse on “terrorism” we are burdened with today is, to a great extent, a co-creation of media and political actors. As such, it is one of the most central, unexamined basic assumptions of our current political moment, and one of its most potent and dangerous ones. 

 

 

 

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