Glenn Greenwald does the service of contrasting Tom Freedman’s (approving) analysis of Israel’s tactics in Gaza, versus one of the standard definitions of terrorism. Freedman, on the Gaza campaign:
Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians — the families and employers of the militants — to restrain Hezbollah in the future.
Israel’s military was not focused on the morning after the war in Lebanon — when Hezbollah declared victory and the Israeli press declared defeat. It was focused on the morning after the morning after, when all the real business happens in the Middle East. That’s when Lebanese civilians, in anguish, said to Hezbollah: “What were you thinking? Look what destruction you have visited on your own community! For what? For whom?”
In Gaza, I still can’t tell if Israel is trying to eradicate Hamas or trying to “educate” Hamas, by inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population. If it is out to destroy Hamas, casualties will be horrific and the aftermath could be Somalia-like chaos. If it is out to educate Hamas, Israel may have achieved its aims.
The U.S. Department of State, in 2001:
No one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance. For the purposes of this report, however, we have chosen the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d). That statute contains the following definitions:
The term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant (1) targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience. . . .
(1) For purposes of this definition, the term "noncombatant" is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty.
Feel some dissonance? There seem to be three ways out.
First, simply assume that States can’t do terrorism (as the State Department does, by omission). Second, assume that “legitimate” States (ours and our allies) can’t do terrorism. The first means going back to the pre-Nuremburg (Westphalian) standard that governments owe nothing to civilians—their own, or anyone else’s. The second denies the idea of universal standards of law: law is what we impose on them, not something that applies to us.
Actually, classical realists have been facing this problem for millennia. Their answer: the world sucks; deal with it. Morality and law are for members of a community. Those fighting for survival must—and should--observe no limits on what they do to survive.
Intellectually, the answer is elegant. Ugly, yes, but clear. However, it completely obscures the question “survive as what?” If there is any meaning to life beyond simple survival, it is necessary to consider what brutality does not only to the victims, but to the brute.
We live in a world where moral absolutes have to give ground to the realities of what can be done. Sometimes, very, very rarely—there can be an evil so horrendous and options so limited that one must accept the responsibility for doing things that would normally be unthinkable. But even then, we are still responsible, and should be willing to pay for our crimes. Otherwise, we slide down a slope of self-justification that brutalizes ourselves almost us much as the harm we do to others. For a freedom-loving society, the goal has to be not only to provide “security” at any cost, but to achieve liberal security—protecting our lives while maintaining the values that give those lives meaning.