Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Terrorist or Insurgent?

[I posted this on Facebook, and the blog Peculiar People. I thought it was worth repeating here, especially since the casual use of terrorist is one of my pet peeves.] 
 I would mainly argue with Belanger's definition of terrorism. She doesn't provide one. The definition itself is rather contested, but Bundy and his group don't seem to qualify. The link doesn't provide any known terrorists groups that are supporting Bundy. It simply labels his actions as terrorism, though its probably closer to armed resistance. That is an important difference.
Terrorism has a fairly strict definition, unfortunately in popular usage it has a rather broad definition (as the link to gawker shows). Sometimes that is done purposely to respectively legitimize or delegitimize groups and actions. A chapter in my first book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon, discussing how the term "robber" was used to delegitimize new power centers. For example, Roman elites had private soldiers loyal to them and not the government, so they were often called robbers by some historians such as Gregory of Tours. As de facto power holders the far off Eastern Roman emperor often granted these leaders official status, including such war lords as the Scourge of God Attila the Hun. So there is a great deal of confusion between illegal bandits and rival armies, that maybe have also committed terrorism, and force used by a recognized government. Often times, especially in ancient history, but always in contested lawless regions, the only difference between a robber and tax collector is the perceived legitimacy of the actors.
Moving back to terrorism then. It is a narrow tactic sometimes used by bandits, insurgents, revolutionaries. Mao's tactics were largely a rural based insurgency that didn't use terrorism (except when they took over a town and made selected executions. Even then, Mao often argued against mass executions. And I'm focusing on the early rural based insurgency before the Long March, not the final victory after World War II.) Che Guevera's use of focalism, that is random acts of violence designed to undermine a regime, was repeated by AQ in Iraq, and would be terrorism. In addition to overlap, its even more complicated because the enemies of Mao or Che would call the insurgents terrorists no matter what they did. And they would avoid the label terrorism no matter how many acts of terrorism they did commit. So as John Shy and Thomas Collier wrote in Makers of Modern Strategy, words themselves become weapons and obscure the matter a great deal. I wouldn't throw that term around so easily as the author does.
So long story short, I'm not sure the Bundys are terrorists. I need more information on that. What I do see are plenty of people throwing around rather loaded and contested terms with abandon,  and with little to no insight (historical or otherwise) beyond their personal politics.  Thanks for the chance to talk about words, their definitions, their place in history, and how we use them. 

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