Glenn Reynolds admiringly reproduces this letter to the editor from Sheldon Cohen, a U of Tennessee philosophy prof:
Regarding the declaration by British Liberal Democrat Graham Watson, “Terrorist organizations in one country can be freedom fighters in another,” in a Nov. 27 article:
I have heard this true but inane statement, or a variant, one time too many. Yes, one man’s terrorist can be another man’s freedom fighter, and the man who to the jury is a murderer, to other people might be a meal ticket or perhaps a beloved nephew. None of which changes the fact that the murderer is a murderer, and the terrorist a terrorist. To some people Attila the Hun was one of the best-dressed people of the Fifth Century. So what?
Mr. Graham should attempt to substitute actual thought for mindless slogans. It’s hard, but with discipline and application, can be achieved.
While Mr. Watson may not be expressing himself with the utmost perspicacity, I think Cohen, for all his discipline and application, may be missing the underlying point.
The point is, at bottom, linguistic, having to do with the conventional pragmatic force of the word ‘terrorist.’ ‘Terrorist’, like ‘murderer’, is not purely descriptive, but is also a moral category. It implies wrongdoing, that we are justified in condemning the subject. However, by the dictionary definition, any violent political insurgent, whatever the justice of their cause, is a terrorist.
Just suppose Minneapolis is conquered by evil occupying Manitobans who forcibly evict all the citizens from their homes and buildings and push them across the river into St. Paul. The overpowering Manitobans establish a cruel and tyrannical regime, denying dignity and basic rights to the Minnesotans. Wishing to loose themselves from the chains of the wicked northern horde, but lacking an organized military, the Minnesotans have little choice but to enact a campaign of guerilla violence to instill terror in the hearts of their dark northern overlords.
Now, because the Minnesotans’ insurgency amounts to “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons,” they are dictionary-terrorists. Yet ever since the word acquired an unmistakable moral valence, the use of ‘terrorist’ implies moral illegitimacy, which is flat wrong in the case of the Minnesotans. ‘Freedom fighter’, on the other hand, implies something noble, worthy and just. Being both a murderer and a favorite nephew is like being both green and round. But, pragmatically, being both a terrorist and a freedom fighter (in virtue of performing the same acts) is like being both beautiful and hideous (in virtue of the same disposition of features).
Applying ‘terrorist,’ like ‘murderer’, requires a moral judgment. To pretend ‘terrorist’ to be purely descriptive while using it for moral effect is a sophistical tactic for forestalling careful reflection on the appropriateness of the underlying judgment. ‘Terrorist’ is one of those words, like ‘fascist’, that tempts the substitution of loaded language for actual thought.