31 August, 2005: Let freedom ring

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There has been some discussion (mostly a week or more ago -- sorry, I've been distracted) on how Britain ought to treat people who condone or justify terrorism. For instance, in a recent consultation on the use of his powers to exclude or deport non-British citizens under various circumstances, Charles Clarke writes of his intention to chuck out anybody who is guilty of ``unacceptable behaviours'' including,

[using] any means or medium including: [list of media including the written word, public speaking, the internet etc.] [t]o express views which the Government considers [...] [j]ustify or glorify terrorism.

(Two brief comments. Firstly, I think we can safely say that by `justify terrorism' Clarke means `explain why somebody might think planting a bomb was a good idea' rather than `deserve to be blown up by a terrorist'. Secondly, I note that the British government is now singular. It used to be plural. Is all hope now lost, etc. etc.? cont'd page 94....)

Now, the question of what is meant by `terrorism' used to be a matter of opinion and the subject of frequent arguments, the cliché, ``one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter,'' and so forth. But happily the ever-busy Parliamentary draughtspeople at the Home Office have come up with a handy definition of terrorism which they've inserted in section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000: (the literal text is a bit tangled up with references to previous subsections; I've flattened it out here)

``terrorism'' means the use or threat of action where--

(a) the action [...]

(i) involves serious violence against a person,

(ii) involves serious damage to property,

(ii) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,

(iii) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or

(iv) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system,

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public [or...] involves the use of firearms or explosives, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(The Act further -- s.1(4) -- clarifies that actions may take place outside the UK, that persons, `the public' and `property' may also be foreign, and that `the government' can refer to the government of another country.)

Presumably when Charles Clarke refers to people condoning or justifying terrorism, this is what he means. Certainly he didn't offer any other definition in the document linked above.

Now, this definition passes a quick smoke test: the 11th September 2001 attacks were certainly `terrorism', as were the recent London bombings, IRA bomb attacks, the attacks by `insurgents' (or whatever we're supposed to call them) in Iraq, suicide bombings in Palestine and so forth. Good enough so far.

Unfortunately, as with biometrics and spam detectors, it's also important to consider the false positives. While the definition probably catches 100% of what most people think of as `terrorism', it's a bit broader than that.

For instance, when the IDF killed Ahmed Yassin, a terrorist, in an airstrike, that was terrorism, because: it (a) involved serious violence against a person, (b) involved the use of firearms or explosives, and (c) was done to advance `a political or ideological cause' (specifically,

[to make] a significant blow to a central pillar of the Hamas terrorist organization, and a major setback to its terrorist infrastructure

according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who ought to know).

Now, there are people who routinely describe the Israeli armed forces as terrorists (in my view silly, but there we go). So let's have a less contentious example.

For instance, in 2003, the armed forces of a number of countries, including Britain, invaded Iraq. This (a) involved serious violence against a number of people (as well as serious damage to property, endangering life, creating serious risks to public health, and interfering with various electronic systems), (b) was intended to influence the government of Iraq (either, if you believe the British story, into giving up its `weapons of mass destruction'; or, if you believe the American story, into not being run by Saddam Hussein any more) and involved the use of firearms and explosives; and (c) was done in order to advance a political or ideological cause.

Actually, maybe the war against Iraq wasn't the uncontentious example I was looking for. Let's instead consider D-Day, which (a) involved serious violence etc. etc., (b) was intended to influence the then government of Germany (into not fighting a war any more, or continuing any of its other murderous activities), and (c) was intended to advance an ideological cause; it was therefore an act of terrorism. Personally I don't agree... but that's the law.

Let us hope that our government follows its new policy of expelling or excluding the advocates and defenders of terrorism without fear or favour and that it does not try to discriminate between the terrorism of which it approves and all the rest. Alternatively, they could give up on the whole idea. Up to them, really.


Copyright (c) 2005 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.