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Oldspeak

It has become a tedious cliché to compare some aspect of society to that depicted in George Orwell‘s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, tedious though it may be, I do not think people can be reminded too often of his brilliant Newspeak. The specifics are not really important, what matters is the precise link made between methods of expression and the thoughts to be expressed. As he expounded earlier in his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell believed that languages deteriorated under dictatorships. This is a result both of the reduction in free thought, which leads to narrowing of the language through disuse, and – more importantly – of the converse: a clever dictatorship will change the language spoken by its people so that only thoughts supportive of the dictatorship can be expressed.

The idea that thought and language are intimately linked is an old one, but it found its most rigorous expression in modern linguistics as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Neither Edward Sapir nor Benjamin Whorf ever went so far as to claim that language completely determines human thought but they argued cogently that our conceptions of reality are mediated by the language that we use to express them. This is certainly closer to linguistic determinism than the view espoused by Noam Chomsky, which holds that humans do not think in natural languages but rather in ‘mentalese’, a universal mental lanugage that is imperfectly translated into natural language when we wish to communicate an idea. As is usually the case, I think the truth of the matter lies somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes. Certainly, although we can think things that we cannot express and experience things that we cannot describe, our thoughts are at least guided by the linguistic structures that we habitually employ.

And so it is that I am disappointed whenever I hear someone regurgitate the phrase, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” It is usually said by someone who would consider themself to be opposed to the War on Terror. It is, one presumes, meant to imply that those people that the West typically portrays as evil terrorists may not in fact be evil at all but may instead, in the eyes of others, be honourable heroes. Thus we cannot be certain in our moral absolutism and should not condemn the suicide bombers. However, in practice it achieves the complete opposite of this goal and leads to the further demonisation of those called ‘terrorists’.

‘Terrorist’ and ‘Freedom Fighter’ are not two different terms for the same thing. They do not differ only in nuance and one is not a euphemism for the other. Furthermore, not only do they designate different things but they don’t even designate the same kind of thing.

A terrorist is a person who engages in terrorism. Terrorism is an attempt to use terror to achieve a goal. It is a methodology, a technique. A terrorist may aim for any goal he wishes, it is not his ultimate goal that makes him a terrorist but rather the means he employs to get there. The first recorded use of the term ‘terrorism’ was in 1795, to describe the activities of the French government during the Reign of Terror. This description was not disputed by the French. Indeed, Robespierre said that the basis of a popular government in a time of revolution is “virtue and terror – virtue, without which terror would be barbaric; and terror, without which virtue would be impotent.” Among those who have been described as ‘terrorists’ are the Jewish paramilitary organisations that bombed hotels and assassinated government officials in the British Mandate of Palestine and the Maquis who resisted the Nazi occupation of France. The sole defining characteristic of the terrorist is that he attempts to induce a course of action in his enemy by causing terror. It does not matter how he causes terror or what the course of action he hopes to induce is. Considered objectively, there is no reason to suppose that terrorism is automatically abhorrent. The military doctrine of Rapid Dominance, developed at the United States of America’s National Defense University, explicitly recommends a tactic of Shock and Awe. The authors of the doctrine wrote, “the ability to Shock and Awe ultimately rests in the ability to frighten, scare, intimidate, and disarm.” Clearly they are recommending the promotion of terror in their enemy in order to achieve their goal. That is terrorism. But is it wrong? I do not intend to enter into a lengthy moral argument here but there is certainly a strong case that could be made in defence of such an action. Would it not be better than a protracted conflict? It should also be noted that one of the first groups of people to be called terrorists in the European press were the Russian revolutionaries, who thoroughly approved of the term. When Vera Zasulich shot and wounded a Russian policeman, she did not kill him but declared, “I am a terrorist, not a killer.”

In contrast, ‘Freedom Fighter’ does not describe someone following a certain methodology but rather someone who works towards a certain goal. One is a freedom fighter if one fights for freedom. It does not matter how they fight, just that they are attempting to obtain or defend someone’s (usually their own) freedom. A freedom fighter might also employ terror or they might not. They might also employ long-range artillery or they might not. Those fighting for freedom are often dispossessed, so they may find that terrorism is the most effective way that they can fight, but beyond such coincidence there is no inherent link between terrorism and freedom fighting. The very fact that someone might be both a terrorist and a freedom fighter at the same time, or might be one and not the other, should be enough to convince that they describe different kinds of things.

However, when one claims that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, one suggests that they are both terms describing the same kind of thing. One implies a dichotomy that does not exist. One says, “Either you are a terrorist or you are a freedom fighter.” This has three highly undesirable implications. First, it implies a moral judgment is being made. Rather than just describing what a person is attempting to do or how they are attempting to do it, one is declaring the rightness or wrongness of those actions. If the very same person – doing the same things for the same reasons – can be a terrorist to one person but alternatively a freedom fighter to someone else, then clearly we are not talking about something objective. We must be talking about morality. Further, the context would usually imply that freedom fighting is good and terrorism is bad. Second, if you are a freedom fighter then you cannot also be a terrorist. So, if you can establish your credentials as a champion of freedom then all your actions are automatically excused, at least to some extent, because you cannot also be an evil terrorist. Never mind that you attack civilian targets in order to demoralise and terrify your enemy, if you are fighting for freedom that is not terrorism and therefore is not evil. Third, if you are a terrorist then you cannot also be a freedom fighter. It does not matter whether or not you are oppressed or what crimes have been committed against you, if you are a terrorist then you cannot be fighting for something as noble as freedom because you cannot also be a freedom fighter, so you must be evil. I do not think that the sort of person who says “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” would intend these three implications.

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