The definition of a terrorist

Posted: Jul 28, 2006 12:00 AM
Aren’t there a few things about which we can all just go ahead and agree? There have to be at least a handful. I would have thought that Hezbollah fitting the definition of a terrorist organization would be one of those things. I guess I would have thought wrong.

This week I read a blogger questioning whether or not Hezbollah meets the definition of a terrorist organization. I am not referring to a fringe anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist crazy either. I am referring to a recent blog entry posted by CNN correspondent, Tom Foreman, on Anderson Cooper’s blog this week.

Foreman pondered the question of how a terrorist should be defined by a news agency.

“What makes a terrorist?

I don't mean why do people starting bombing, and shooting and fighting from the shadows. I mean, for the purposes of news organizations defining terrorism, what should the definition be?

The United States and others clearly call Hezbollah a terrorist group: The source of countless raids, bombings and attacks on Israel; the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, which left 241 people dead; and the architects of all those displays in which young men cover their faces, strap mock bombs to their chests, and parade before the cameras pledging to kill any and all soldiers and civilians alike who oppose their cause.

All this makes Hezbollah, especially for many westerners, the very definition of a terrorist group.

But some people describe another part of Hezbollah. They talk about a group that is beloved in southern Lebanon for running schools, hospitals, social services, even clearing snow in the winter for some communities that the official government of Lebanon does not serve. They say these things make Hezbollah something other than a terrorist group: A quasi-government; a nation within a nation.

All of this is done for Shiite Muslim families. The Shiites in Lebanon have long felt economically and politically deprived, and Hezbollah clearly gives many of them a feeling of both military and social strength.

So for one side, Hezbollah is a killing machine bent on seizing by terror what it wants from the world; for the other side, Hezbollah is a brave force, fighting for the rights of its people.

So what should the standard be? If you ran a newsroom, how would you define who is called a terrorist and who is not? What, for you, is Hezbollah?”

When I first read that I did a full throttle Howard Dean style scream. Arrrrrggggh. I just don’t understand why it is so difficult for some to recognize terrorists and to identify them accordingly. I agree that it is important, and even necessary, for news organizations to report the other side of groups like Hezbollah so that the public can understand why so many in the Muslim world support them. But any good deeds done by Hezbollah cannot erase their participation in terrorist activities.

I asked my blog readers if Jeffrey Dahmer had been good to his family and donated to worthy charities and rescued stray puppies would that have made him any less of a cannibalistic murderer. No one argued that it would have. One reader offered the example of how shocked she was when her grandfather told her stories about his childhood in Chicago and how Al Capone was seen as a hero in the local neighborhoods, buying shoes for the kids and providing other assistance. She then noted that did not change the fact, however, that he was a vicious gangster.

Mary Katharine Ham, blogging at Townhall, wondered whether a Christian group she was familiar with would receive such treatment by the media if the leaders of that group decided to start strapping on bombs and blowing up all the non-Christians they encountered. The Christian group she referenced, after all, “brings spiritial guidance, mature friendship, and quite often, Cheetos and pizza and trips to Six Flags, to high-school kids all over the nation.” I couldn’t help but wonder how much pizza and Cheetos it would take to buy a Christian terrorist group the understanding that many are extending to Hezbollah.

Ham’s example of a Christian group serving Christian youth and the Hezbollah practice of assisting Shiite Muslim families reminded me of another organization that serves an exclusive group and of an experience I had growing up in an average suburb of a mid-sized North Carolina city. I was shocked to learn that the men in the nice family across the street were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The 16 -year-old son even proudly brought a picture of himself in full Klan costume to show my mom once. (I remember my sister told him she thought it was stupid and my mom wondered if that might earn us a burning cross wake up call the next morning. It didn’t.)

From what I saw, the appeal the KKK held for those uneducated men working in low paying manual labor jobs, was a title and a uniform and a chance to feel like they were better than someone else. The KKK took advantage of their need to blame their problems on someone other than themselves. That is not unlike some Islamic terrorist groups if you think about it. I can’t imagine that the KKK could ever do enough good deeds to cause those in the American media to question whether or not they should be defined as a hate group. Why is it so hard for some in the media to apply that same common sense standard to groups like Hezbollah and to understand that no amount of good deeds makes it okay for any group to engage in terrorism?

In answer to the question posed by Tom Foreman: when an organization is, as he described, "the source of countless raids, bombings and attacks on Israel," bombing U.S. Marines and engaging in "all those displays in which young men cover their faces, strap mock bombs to their chests, and parade before the cameras pledging to kill any and all soldiers and civilians alike who oppose their cause," it is appropriate to call them terrorists. There should be no question about that.