Terror according to Glenn Greenwald

This is a cross-post by Marc Goldberg

In an article written the day after the terror attack in the UK that saw Lee Rigby murdered in broad daylight Glenn Greenwald questioned whether it was in fact a terror attack. In a rambling article he poses the question, essentially arguing that because this was a British soldier and not civilian killed then it cannot be an act of terror. One would expect that the first thing he would do is explain why he feels the question to be an important one to ask but he waits until the second half of that article arguing that:

“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.”

The thing is for something that is so important it is odd to me that the closest Greenwald actually comes to providing an answer to his own question is the following:

“It is very hard to escape the conclusion that, operationally, the term has no real definition at this point beyond “violence engaged in by Muslims in retaliation against western violence toward Muslims”.

“It’s very hard to escape the conclusion that” really? That’s it, nothing definitive, no real answer just a statement that gives enough room later to argue that he wasn’t in fact arguing for that perspective but simply throwing it out there, in the name of debate. I would have thought that Greenwald would go on to provide a suggested meaning for the word terrorism or some kind of categorical statement arguing that in his opinion this was not an act of terror. He doesn’t, the implication is that this is the result of Western actions in Afghanistan and Iraq and that ultimately if we don’t want to see it any more then we should stop attacking Muslim countries.But it’s only an implication, if anyone wants to actually find out Glenn’s point of view they are going to have to simply accept his innuendos and implications.

I don’t agree with much of his article but he is right in that there is no definition of the word terrorism that is accepted around the world. The worn out adage that one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist still applies, though actually not in Greenwald’s article. The murderers were never pretending to be fighting for freedom for anyone. They were making it quite clear that Lee Rigby was murdered as revenge for Muslim deaths in Muslim countries. There was no issue of freedom here at all. In fact thanks to the Daily Mail we now know that the Islam espoused by Michael Adebolajo one of the men suspected of murdering Rigby is the extremism of Al Muhajiroun where freedom is most certainly not an issue they are campaigning for

The comparisons between the actions of Western governments who kill civilians in their own attacks and terrorists who actively target civilians aren’t something new and they have never stood up to reason. Let’s take Greenwald’s point that Lee Rigby was a soldier:

“To begin with, in order for an act of violence to be “terrorism”, many argue that it must deliberately target civilians. That’s the most common means used by those who try to distinguish the violence engaged in by western nations from that used by the “terrorists”: sure, we kill civilians sometimes, but we don’t deliberately target them the way the “terrorists” do.

But here, just as was true for Nidal Hasan’s attack on a Fort Hood military base, the victim of the violence was a soldier of a nation at war, not a civilian. He was stationed at an army barracks quite close to the attack. The killer made clear that he knew he had attacked a soldier when he said afterward: “this British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

I am not sure who the many people that Greenwald refers to are but this idea that an act of terrorism is an act exclusively aimed at civilians is a new one to me. There is no exclusivity on who can be a victim of terror and who can’t. Imagine if that definition was in place during 9/11. Does that mean that every civilian who was killed would be considered a victim of terrorism but that those soldiers killed during the attack on the Pentagon were somehow legitimate targets? Or if there just happened to be an off duty soldier in one of the Twin towers that his death would be treated as somehow different to the thousands of others who died there? The attackers themselves didn’t care to differentiate, for them it was enough that they were in America and killing Americans.

By focusing on the victim rather than the perpetrator Greenwald is heading in the wrong direction. The men who perpetrated this crime wore no uniforms, were soldiers in no army, representatives of no one. When a soldier puts on their uniform the country or indeed organisation that has licensed them to wear that uniform is making a statement to the world, or at least to the enemy. They are defining who their combatants are, they’re telling the enemy that this is who we are and more importantly defining who they are not. Rigby wore a uniform in combat those who killed him did not. They were two guys who murdered someone and then declared that murder in the name of their religion.

I do find myself wanting to agree with Greenwald in arguing that this is an atrocious murder rather than an act of terror. Arguing that these men are terrorists seems to give them a title of which they are unworthy. Thinking of them as two nutters who wanted to kill someone and did sits better with me somehow than the idea that they had some kind of cause for which they were fighting. But the truth is that the moment they uttered the dogmatic nonsense about Western killings in Muslim lands this did, in fact, become a terror attack. That’s really what being a terrorist is, a person who kills in the name of a political cause who doesn’t belong to a national army. An act of terror is an act designed to change government policy through creating terror within a society.

Arguing that Western countries are committing acts of terror when they kill civilians is, I think, possible but arguing that US and other militaries are the same as terrorists is, by definition, not true. Our soldiers have legitimacy based on the fact that they are the representatives of our nations. We send them off to war to defend us or our national interests.

The word terrorist therefore covers a huge amount of ground and there is a large difference between Hezbollah fighters and two British guys who most likely woke up one morning and decided to murder a man and hide behind various injustices overseas as their reasoning. There is no shared ideology in terrorists and there is no shared methodology, simply the willingness to kill, murder and maim in the name of an ideal.

To most people this is pretty obvious stuff, but not for Glenn who prefers to use an act of terror as a way of beating up on his own country and the United Kingdom. There were several things that surprised me about his article as they were so counter intuitive for me to read. I say counter intuitive because I thought that his views were based on concern with human rights and being anti prejudice. It is for that reason that I was surprised by his consistent use of the word Muslim. His own rhetoric in fact mirrors the rhetoric of al Qaeda when he talks about Muslims. For example when he asks the question;

“Can it really be the case that when western nations continuously kill Muslim civilians, that’s not “terrorism”, but when Muslims kill western soldiers, that is terrorism?”

I can’t understand why he would hi-light Muslims in this question, when the British army killed IRA men in Northern Ireland was there ever a suggestion that this was state sanctioned terrorism against Catholics? He should remember that there are a billion Muslims in the world, treating them as one monolithic group is nonsensical. The point he makes above is nonsensical for the same reason. Were Iranian soldiers to kill Americans it is doubtful that many people would regard it is an act of terror, when Hezbollah did in Lebanon in 1982 it was, for the reasons I have outlined above.

When Glenn says the following;

“It is very hard to escape the conclusion that, operationally, the term has no real definition at this point beyond “violence engaged in by Muslims in retaliation against western violence toward Muslims”

I find this point to be precisely the opposite of the the truth. Society as a whole, from politicians to journalists, to law enforcement went out of its way to specify that the Muslim community was not responsible for this and that Islam as a religion is not responsible and to point out exactly which terror group (if there is one) is responsible for any particular act of violence. Immediately after this atrocity Muslim groups came out in huge numbers to condemn the attack.

It is for these reasons that I come to the conclusion that although Glenn Greenwald titles his article with the question Was the London killing of a British soldier ‘terrorism’? He isn’t really looking for an answer so much as a way to argue that the killing of a soldier on the streets of London by glorified thugs is entirely comparable with civilian deaths caused by Western nations in their hunt for terrorists in ‘Muslim’ lands (whatever that might mean). This reasoning is reinforced by the second part of the url for his article “woolwich-attack-terrorism-blowback”

Furthermore he goes on to add the conclusion that this is due to British foreign policy is “so glaringly obvious that it is difficult to believe that it has to be repeated.” The implication being that if the UK were to change its policies then these attacks wouldn’t happen. But then the further conclusion is that if the UK were to change its policies every time there was a gruesome act of violence anyone could force a change of UK policy by grabbing a weapon and committing murder.

Given the url that he created it is pretty clear that this is the point he wanted to make all along and asking the technical question as to whether this was actually an act of terror is nothing more than a little device to allow him to do so. He didn’t even bother including any legal definitions of terrorism in his piece.

Gene adds: For those who haven’t seen it, I recommend this comment from UncleChris.