Mistreating `terrorists' multiplies their number

January 10, 2002|By Jim Anderson

WASHINGTON - When President Bush mobilized the nation in a war against terrorism, he put the nation on a quasi-war footing.

But he also demonstrated that the Law of Unintended Consequences is still in effect: Recent history in other countries shows that strong actions intended to quell what is designated as terrorism can create deep political unrest and, ultimately, more terrorists.

By declaring that terrorists - proven or only suspected - are outlaws and enemies of the state, the administration has stripped them, in effect, of some of their civil rights. The debate about the justice or wisdom of that will continue for years in this country. But it has wider, more ominous implications, for the United States and others.

Taking the argument to the United Nations on Sept. 12, the United States broadened the scope to the international level, with the Security Council on Sept. 28 passing a binding resolution calling for all member states to combat terrorism. Washington even offered American legal experts to help other countries draw up their own anti-terrorism codes along the lines of the U.S. model.

But other countries are not always as fastidious as the United States about civil rights. It will be tempting under that rough rubric for some of the 188 other countries that agreed "to hold accountable" terrorists to punish non-terrorist political opponents.

India, for example, proposed a draconian "Prevention of Terrorism" bill that, like the American version, would permit prosecutors to eavesdrop on phone conversations between defendants and their lawyers. Whatever the intention, the effect would be to cripple a defendant's ability to answer the charges against him.

An important omission in the emotional aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks was that nobody offered a clear definition of terrorism. Clearly, hijacking an aircraft filled with innocent people and flying into a New York skyscraper also filled with innocent people is mass murder, as well as political terrorism, although the message was blurred.

Is a Palestinian kid in Gaza throwing a rock at an Israeli tank committing an act of terrorism? Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thinks so.

The word terrorism was first used during the French Revolution about the 1793-94 "Reign of Terror" of the Jacobins, who were then in power. It was a governmental policy intended to strike terror in the populace, mainly by indiscriminately sending hundreds of citizens to the guillotine.

A broader definition of a terrorist includes a person and group who attempts to further his views by coercion, intimidation or violence against a community for political ends.

A third, more restrictive definition holds that a terrorist is one who creates general alarm in society by attacking random groups - for example, customers in an Israeli pizza parlor.

Those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks are in these last two categories.

But now the word "terrorist" is being bandied about without defined specifics, turned into an imprecise brand that, under current U.S. rules, could include people with the wrong place of birth or religion or failure to comply with U.S. immigration regulations. Sometimes this shotgun approach works against the U.S. government.

It used to be U.S. government policy that an attack on a uniformed soldier in occupied territory was, by definition, not terrorism (think French resistance against the Nazis in occupied France). That's no longer U.S. policy regarding Israel and the West Bank.

The change created Arab anger against the United States because it removes a restraint on Israeli action in the West Bank.

The Palestinians believe the U.S. refusal to criticize the Israeli assassination of Palestinian radical leaders was a "green light" that led to further targeted killings by the Israeli military.

Does a Chechen's refusal or inability to supply information about a separatist comrade constitute sufficient cause for him to be declared an accomplice to terrorism and subject to gruesome interrogation and imprisonment by the Russian military? The Russian leadership apparently thinks so. In the need for support for the international campaign against terrorism, Washington is not prepared to challenge that Russian policy, as it had done in the past.

The Chechen case illustrates something else about a war on terrorism: It can create the very acts it's determined to wipe out. Some innocent Chechens and Palestinians subjected to brutal and unjust treatment became, in fact, terrorists, or at least accomplices to terrorism, as a response to their mistreatment by the Russians and the Israelis.

Nobody should question that the United States has the right to defend itself against terrorists, and should have been doing a better job of it before Sept. 11.

But the nation should also be aware that quashing civil liberties of citizens and aliens alike, branding them indiscriminately as terrorists and encouraging other nations to do the same is a formula for perpetuating the problem, not solving it.

Jim Anderson is a Washington-based correspondent who has covered the State Department for more than 30 years.

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