Wednesday, July 02, 2008

who/what defines a terrorist?

Tuesday July 1, President Bush signed into law H.R. 5690, which "authorizes the Departments of State and Homeland Security to determine that provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act that render aliens inadmissible due to terrorist or criminal activities would not apply with respect to activities undertaken in association with the African National Congress in opposition to apartheid rule in South Africa." In doing so, Bush removes Nelson Mandela, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize from the United States terror watch list.

Does this mean that Mandela and the ANC didn't engage in acts of violence in their fight against apartheid -- of course not. The U.S. government has finally decided to bow to public opinion that view these acts of violence as the acts of "freedom fighters." It doesn't hurt that the ANC is now the ruling party in a country in which many U.S. citizens and businesses have significant economic interests.

Many of us, myself included, never considered Mandela and the ANC terrorists, but our government did. Just as there are some Americans today who do not consider Hamas to be terrorists, but view them also as freedom fighters. The point here is that the label of "terrorist" is not based on some objective measure of the level of violence employed, or the number of deaths and injuries incurred. It is a political label based on prevailing attitudes and sentiments, and it can change when the circumstances and attitudes change.

As sociologists point out over and over again, political, economic and social reality is socially constructed. It is constructed through the process of attaching meaning to things. We humans construct those meanings, and determine how things, people, and events will be defined; because our world is socially constructed, it can be reconstructed and redefined. Power and powerlessness often determine whose sets of meanings will get the backing of governments and military might. When the lines of power shift, things are often redefined to reflect those changes in power.

7 comments:

SBVOR said...

What reasonable person could examine this list and not “consider Hamas to be terrorists”?

Sue said...

It would appear that you missed the point, which is that twenty years ago, many "reasonable people" considered the African National Congress to be a terrorists, and now they do not. I am by no means equating the activities of the two groups, or making a predictions, I'm just simply saying that terrorism like all human activities is socially defined, so it is not beyond possibility that the day could come, decades in the future, in which Hamas is rehabilitated in the same way that ANC has been.

In the very same way, a person who is defined as a patriot in one time period, may come to be viewed as a war criminal at another time. Labels are simply that -- labels -- applied by human beings, who can and do change their minds.

SBVOR said...

Sue,

1) It appears to me that you missed your own point.

Allow me to expand your own quote for you (with emphasis mine):

“there are some Americans today who do not consider Hamas to be terrorists, but view them also as freedom fighters”

Hence, my question:

What reasonable person could examine this list and not “consider Hamas to be terrorists”?

Yes, I am aware that there are both fellow terrorists and domestic traitors who, despite the obvious, do not today consider Hamas to be terrorists. Both are equally despicable.

2) If any American President ever reconsiders the actions of Hamas and deems those actions to have been anything other than the most despicable sort of terrorism, that will be a very sad day for America.

outsider said...

Hamas is a democratically elected Government and whether or not we agree with their tactics that is the case. Of course some of their actions could be defined as terrorism but then so are some of the Israelis responses recently in Gaza,those actions certaintly bordered on terrorism.
If it wasnt for people such as Arafat the Palestinians woud be an invisible race of people,doomed to live in perpetual refugee status forcibly removed by the Israelis from their houses and lands in 1948.
Comparing the situation with South Africa,the disadvantage with the Palestinians is that the U.S is heavily on the side of Israel,and do not recognise the inevitability of sheer numbers with the Palestinian population explosion as a reason to dampen their support.

Sue said...

Outsider, you are absolutely spot-on with your point about Hamas being the democratically elected party of the Palestinians. That just further makes my point about the arbitrariness of the label "terrorist."

outsider said...

Semantics are a problem with human action. It appears the word terrorist emerged in France around the time of Robespiere probably preceding the French revolution.
However people argue whether terrorism by a State can be called terrorism which is interesting,so I guess we are stuck with this mess.
However I disagree with the duality of this term and criminal law. I believe murder or attempted murder is a far better terminology

outsider said...

Some people want history to stand still so that they may digest change.
We were horrified by the stories and film of the kamikaze during World war 2 and I ask the question,were they terrorists,or did the war that they were in absolve them from that extreme definition.
Then to to the present,we were horrified at the first suicide bombers,and still are,so what has changed,nothing. Powerless people resort to extreme violence when frustrated by political impotence.