01 May 2009

On listing "terrorists"

Terrorism is once again in the news. The end of the Tamil Tigers, pioneers of suicide bombing, is nigh in Sri Lanka. In the United States, increasingly disturbing revelations about the Bush administration's use of torture in their "war on terror" is riling tempers. And our government leaves Canadian Abousfian Abdelrazik to rot in the Sudan because it has concluded, against all evidence, that he's a terrorist.

But if I'm going to talk about terrorism, I should first define it. To me, it means the use of terror against a civilian population to coerce it into adopting a certain political position. A definition is necessary because the word tends to be applied highly selectively, used by governments and others to demonize some individual or group they find disapprove of.

Essentially, terrorism is a military tactic, like an air raid or a blitzkrieg. It is sometimes called the weapon of the poor because it tends to be used by those who lack formal militaries, the Palestinians for example. Nonetheless, it is used by a range of agents, some poor, some not so poor. The greatest terrorist attacks in history, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were carried out by the United States, the richest, most powerful nation on Earth. and a democratic nation it is important to note. Probably the greatest use of terror overall has been by governments against their own people.

We consider terrorism to be particularly repugnant because it's directed at civilians rather than military personnel, i.e. at innocents. This is a finer distinction than it immediately appears, however. In modern warfare, most casualties are civilian. Consequently, when a nation decides on military action, it is consciously deciding to kill civilians. Distinguishing terrorism from conventional war is, therefore, somewhat arbitrary. Whether you die from a specifically terrorist attack or from collateral damage in a war zone is small consolation to the dead.

This reveals the rather arbitrary nature of terrorist lists. Placed on a list, an individual or organization becomes a pariah, not to be dealt with in any way by respectable people, possibly under threat of prosecution. The Canadian government has listed the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization, and therefore put them beyond the pale, and they have indeed done terrible things, but then so has the government of Sri Lanka, including the systematic repression of the Tamil people, yet with them we maintain full diplomatic relations. We have also put the Palestinian organization Hamas on a terrorist list and that both lacks logic and adds to the difficulty of creating peace in the Middle East. Yes, it has a military arm and that arm has used terrorism, but it also has a social arm that has brought much needed social services to the Palestinian people, and it has a political arm that is willing to participate in the democratic process which it has done with great success. To categorize a comprehensive organization such as Hamas as a terrorist organization makes no more sense than categorizing the United States and Israel as terrorist states because they have also used terror when it suited their purposes.

Listing groups as terrorists can at times be downright perverse. For instance, al-Qaeda and Hamas get lumped into the same do-not-touch category, yet have little in common. Hamas is an organization willing to subject its political and ideological goals to negotiation and democratic process. As a major player in Palestine, it can and should be a participant in the Middle East peace process. Al-Qaeda on the other hand answers only to God and therefore does not negotiate and pursues its ideological objectives only by violence. Hamas has goals amenable to reason, al-Qaeda does not. Hamas can be treated as a political entity, al-Qaeda only as a criminal organization. Treating Hamas as if it were al-Qaeda is a folly that leads only to hostility and lost opportunity, an action neither useful nor justified.

The situation with individuals is parallel. Abousfian Abdelrazik has broken no law, yet our government abandons him in a foreign land. The ostensible reason is that he is on the UN blacklist, yet the very placing of an individual on the blacklist egregiously violates due process. A government simply submits a name to the Security Council along with supporting details. The government doesn't have to publicly identify itself (in Abdelrazik's case it hasn't) and no formal standards of evidence are required. If there is no objection within five days, the person is added to the list. Their assets are frozen and they are not allowed to travel internationally. The person doesn't get a hearing and can't submit evidence to refute the allegations. They are guilty until proven innocent.

In Abdelrazik's case, the RCMP and CSIS have both vouched for his innocence, but our government remains unmoved. They do this to him because he is accused of being a terrorist; he'd be much better off if he were accused of being a common criminal. And that of course is how such situations should be dealt with. If he is suspected of committing a crime, subject him to due process; if he isn't, treat him as an innocent man. The same applies to groups who practice political and ideological violence. If they commit crimes, treat them as criminals. The law has ways of dealing with members of a criminal organization.

Listing is an arbitrary process that does more to confuse and subvert the search for peace and security than it does to enhance it. It should be abandoned along with the curious construct, the "war on terror," that gave it life.

1 comment:

  1. I agree entirely. Unfortunately, most constitutions allow habeus corpus to be suspended for the public safety... and that's your point. By intentionally declaring the matter to affect public safety (whether actually justified or not), the accuser can suspend habeus corpus.

    I think the accuser should have some stake in the matter. For example: "I know X is a terrorist, and if I'm wrong, then I'll take his place in jail." Put into practice, I think some of the Americans who did just this should be tried in a fair manner. If they're never tried, they had nothing at stake and no incentive NOT to accuse.

    N.B. I mean a trial, not an investigation where no one is convicted, nor do I mean a witch hunt to ensure conviction - I can't know the outcome of the trial beforehand, or it wouldn't be a fair trial would it?

    This incentive would make a distinction between alerting law enforcement to a potential crime vs. suspension of rights. Those who suspend those rights had better be certain they're right, and minimize or mitigate the impact when they're wrong.