Defining Terrorism

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shinsengumi

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One of the courses I'm taking this semester is a course at the law school entitled Terrorism and the Law. One of the readings assigned for this week (of which there is nearly three hundred pages of reading due for the first week of classes alone!) discussed the difficulty of defining terrorism.

So, what exactly is terrorism? To whom should the label of "terrorist" be applied?

Under these vast questions are other factors to consider that may impact a definition of terrorism, such as the role, if any, played by religion, whether or not sovereign states can be terrorist actors, psychology and self-perception, terrorist tactics, terrorist targets, and the like. As I'm very interested to hear the kinds of definitions and the approaches that others may come up with, I'll hold off on providing my own definition until after a few members have forwarded some possible definitions.

Who knows? Maybe in our little discussion we may be able to do what intellectuals and policymakers have consistently failed to do by reaching a consensus on what constitutes terrorism.

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Hmm well i really don't know but from what i have seen from t.v there a bunch of bastards that bomb people .

  • Jan 26, 2006

kawaiiguy

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From Dictionary.com:
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.

...that really doesn't help much. By that definition, a lot of acts would be considered terrorism. Labor strikes, for one, could be considered a terrorist act. Although not violent, they do aim to damage a certain party. Heck, during the NYC Transportation strike, someone was killed as an indirect result.

"Terrorism" is a term that's just as easy to define as "racism." Before you can say affirmative action, someone will claim that an action is racist and should be stopped by legislation.

While there may be acts that are "clearly" terrorist acts (like blowing things up), those actually performing the actions don't alway see them as such. After all, they blew up a building because it was the right thing to do. The people in the building were "clearly" instilling fear on another group of individuals and infringing on their beliefs.

Everyone is a terrorist to at least one other person in this world.

...I'm a pessimist.

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shoujoboy

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I'm honestly at the point I believe the word terrorist is just a buzzword. Granted there are legitamate people out there who get their jollys off of killing people and there are those that will do anything in their power to forward their cause but at this point I think that the word 'terrorist' is just thrown around entirely too much. Not only do I hear it everyday in the news but beings that I am in the military I hear everyday at work. I get the point that we are fighting against a group that wants to kill us, but I tend to find it funny that if there is a power outage in rural Kansas it may be the work of terrorists. I'm honestly surprised when we have retrospectives of the Columbine killers they aren't referred to as terrorists.

I think the most likely case is that in these times we have been exposed to so much bad stuff that maybe our definition has become blurred. Over the course of time we eventually become desynsitized to certain things and this may be one of them. So ultimately I say this, the word terrorist can't be defined because it is an ever changing word and what it means to us today may not fit the description tomorrow. Then again my description could sound retarded.

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  • Jan 26, 2006

AWOL

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The recent events of bomings are not the only case to defining Terrorism. People now tend to see terrorists as people who invade and attack another country due regard to racism, which is not the only reason for such acts.

In Sri Lanka history, because of failed negotiations between the Tamils and the Sinhalese to give the Tamils independence in a state, a group of young Tamils formed into a guerrilla organisation, the The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or the Tamil Tigers, which used force to make themselves heard, by killing innocent Sinhalese AND Tamils alike. The Tamil Tigers were soon labeled as Terrorists, though the fight did not start through Religious differences, but political unrest and difference in idealogies.

Though the term 'Terrorists' still remain controversial, we can safely say that Terrorists are people who use force as a way to get attention, and to instigate a poltical reform which they feel discrimated about. To use force I mean as would be threats, and by threats we would mean taking innocent lives.

I have come to this conclusion due to the simillarites of such acts throughout history; they almost always begin with people being unhappy over a political matter.

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Terrorists are just a Bunch of People that cause fear/terror/Death in a huge ammount by any ways nessicary i/e Hostage taking Bombing Coup de tat ect ect they suck...lol

  • Jan 26, 2006
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People kill each other, some for a purpose, thats of course bad. But a terrorist kill a lot of people with no particular reason. Just like 9\11, trainbombs i Spain or the bombs on underground in London.
Terrorists kill people beacuse "why did i bomb a train? It's ofcourse beacuse my god told me to".
Terrorist bomb beacuse of the belives and religion. Some kill beacuse they don't like each other.
There are also terrorists that don't kill. They take a hostage and demand the relase of a leader or somthing.
I would call a person who kill a person a criminal. But i would call people who kill a lots of people and go and blow them self up i a coffee shop terrorists

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EternalParadox

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Quote: But a terrorist kill a lot of people with no particular reason.

These people do have a reason. "I bombed this train because it is in accordance to my view of my duties to God" is a reason in and of itself. It is a faith based logic, and the end result of that logic means killing us. To say they kill for no reason is, I think, a gross mistake and only furthers the basic misunderstandings and ideological rifts that are the roots of these conflicts.

There is a very interesting article by Stanley Fish titled "Don't Blame Relativism." Fish defends Postmodernism as a valid philosophical interpretation of the current world events. Moral absolutists have condemned relativism as condoning September 11 and subsequent attacks. Fish argues against this misinterpretation and argues that using a supposed "universal standard of morality" and the label "terrorism" is in fact counterproductive in the fight to end the conflict.

A key passage from this article discusses the use of the term "terrorist" or "evil" :

... How many times have we heard these three new mantras: "We have seen the face ofo evil." "These are irrational madmen." "We are at war against International Terrorism." Each is at once wrong (in the sense of being inaccurate) and unhelpful. We have not seen the face of Evil; we have seen the face of an enemy who comes at us fully equipped with grievances, goals, and strategies. If we reduce that enemy to the abstraction of "Evil," we conjure up a shape-shifting demon, a wildcard moral anarchist beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach of any counter-strategies we might devise.
...
And International Terrorism cannot be the name of what we are up against. Strictly speaking, terrorism is the name of a style of warfare, and those who employ it are not committed to it but to the cause in whose service they adopt terrorism's tactics. It is that cause, and the passions informing it, that confronts us. Blaming something called International Terrorism - as if it were a career choice or a hobby detached from any specific agenda - only confuses matters, as should have been evident when President Putin of Russia insisted that any war against International Terrorism must target the rebels in Chechnya."
- Source: The Responsive Community, Volume 12, Issue 3, Summer 2002, pages 27-31. Full text found here.

I would agree with Fish that using the term "terrorism" really does not help us fight against our enemies. Truly, to define "terrorism" we would be focusing on the act committed and not the goals driving those individuals. What we need to do is to understand their cause, to "know our enemy," and then seek to address those issues in such a way that we then eliminate the desire of individuals to resort to acts of terror as a means to voice their grievances or achieve their purpose. Our goal is not to define Terrorism the word, but to end the underlying conflicts that have terrorism as their physical manifestation.

EternalParadox
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  • Jan 26, 2006

SekiRyuu

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the use of non-conventional tactics to terrorize the "enemy", and make him so scared that he can't fight

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crsg

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Perhaps the word has something to do with being associated to not only killing people (with or without reason) but killing people that are innocent (meaning, are not involved with what they are doing other than purely existing and being at the wrong place at the wrong time).

shinsengumi

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Quote by crsgPerhaps the word has something to do with being associated to not only killing people (with or without reason) but killing people that are innocent (meaning, are not involved with what they are doing other than purely existing and being at the wrong place at the wrong time).

If that is the case, what is the difference between a suicide bomber in Jerusalem and, say, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the majority of casualties were civilian and not military in nature? Could acts by sovereign states such as the United States therefore be considered terrorism?

s h i n s e n g u m i
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SekiRyuu

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our firebombings of tokyo, dresden, and other cities, including the dropping of nuclear weapons, technically are terrorism--we were inflicting terror on the citizens of that nation in order to scare the locals enough to demand their government to surrender

germany did it to britain as well, with the V1 and V2

blitzkreig warfare could probably be considered terrorism as well

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LigerZSchnider

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You guys are trying to "water down the word terrorism" and to whom it is associated to. Simply put, IMO, terrorism is an means to disrupt a government or change society through acts of violence. War and terrorism are two different words, not to be conjoined and accepted. When a country declares war, such the case of the countries involved in WW2, its is a collective agreement (to some it means a majority of people decided it was best) of the people of that country to engage in hostile acts towards another country. When it comes to Guerrillas, it is only a group or an organization that is trying to overthrow a government, by attacking the government itself, not attacking its own people or others. Terrorist doesn't care who they attack, as long as people will fear them to the point of disrupting their own government, and way of life, to have the group subside their violent attacks. And not only Muslims are known for only terrorism......there are also Eco-terrorist.....individuals who will use acts of violence against innocent people for the name of the planet. Unfortunately, these people fail to grasp the knowledge that in order to make a positive change to their will, they have to make change WITHIN the system or society...... legally and morally. The IRA proved that it can be done, from being terrorist to being part of the political arena in Ireland, and now The Hamas in Israel has that chance to make change, legally and morally........I like to see that they follow the IRAs new example.

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  • Jan 27, 2006

shinsengumi

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Quote by SekiRyuuour firebombings of tokyo, dresden, and other cities, including the dropping of nuclear weapons, technically are terrorism--we were inflicting terror on the citizens of that nation in order to scare the locals enough to demand their government to surrender

Here I have to disagree. I do not believe that the label of terrorism can -- or should -- be applied to sovereign states, because there exists a subset of international law that is the law of war. At least in theory, governments are constrained by international law, as LigerZSchneider noted. International law ranges from treaties down to tacit acknowledgement of the extant norms in the international system, and international law, as recognized by Hugo Grotius and subsequently codified in documents such as the Geneva conventions outline the rights and responsibilities of countries in times of war.

Governments therefore are constrained in what they can or cannot do during times of war by international law and may suffer consequences for violations of international law. This is not the case with terrorists. What, then, are terrorists, and what constitutes terrorist activities?

I believe a terrorist action to be an act causing or threatening tangible harm to an impersonal target with coercive intent to change existing norms that has psychological rammifications that extend beyond the individual target or targets conducted by a non-state organization whose members are not regular soldiers wearing uniform or other identifying insignia.

Let me explain.

I chose harm rather than violence in my definition because as someone who deals regularly with computer security issues, I believe in the possibility of cyberterrorism. By "impersonal target" I meant that while a Palestinian suicide bomber may kill a number of Israeli teenagers when he blows himself up in a busy mall, he has nothing against the teenagers themselves, but rather uses them as a symbol of a greater target, some set of existing norms that his action is intended to help change, be it foreign occupation or the dominance of some other ideology. The psychological rammifications are the root word of the word terrorism, namely the terror or fear propagated by terrorist acts.

The last two elements are particularly important in my mind. First, non-state actors are not bound by international laws and the laws of war, and nor do they claim to be. Having their actions being carried out by individuals who are not (at least at the time of their perpetrating terrorist activites) regular soldiers in uniform and insignia not only allows them to blend in with civilians and therefore make their actions seem both more cowardly and more nefarious, but also takes them outside the dictates of international law (e.g. the Geneva conventions) on the conduct and rights of regular soldiers. Therefore, just as they do not respect the rights of civilians and the rules of conduct in war outlined in international law, they are not eligible for the protections afforded regular soldiers in that self-same body of international law.

Does that make sense? This is something I am jotting down hastily without much consideration, so if there are aspects of terrorism that I have not encompassed, please let me know.

s h i n s e n g u m i
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Do not expect to be applauded when you do the right thing, and do not expect to be forgiven when you err, but even your enemies will respect commitment, and a conscience at peace is worth a thousand tainted victories.

EternalParadox

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Rather than "non-state," is it more accurate to say that the organisation in question cannot be effectively prosecuted by the terms and methods prescribed in international law? In cases in which a state organisation steps out of the effective jurisdiction of international law, or disregard any ruling handed down, then there is little difference between such an organ of state from other groups. Whether an organisation recognizes international law as such and whether it is afforded protection under these laws are irrelevant when the terms cannot be effectively applied. A state organ can exercise coecive intent for psychological damage through physical harm easily, and sometimes with even more capabilities. But by the fact that international law can be ineffective in prosecuting these actions, I think in such cases the state organ is an equal "terrorist" as other non-state groups.

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  • Jan 27, 2006

shinsengumi

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Quote: Whether an organisation recognizes international law as such and whether it is afforded protection under these laws are irrelevant when the terms cannot be effectively applied. A state organ can exercise coecive intent for psychological damage through physical harm easily, and sometimes with even more capabilities.

Indeed, by definition a soverign state does have a monopoly on legitimate domestic coersion within its boundaries in respect to its own laws. However, let me add a qualifier to this discussion and limit the discussion to international terrorism where either the terrorist actors or a significant source of their logistical support comes from outside of a state in which they operate.

In this definition of terrorism, if a state or state organ does indeed exercise harmful or threatening coersive action on another state, then that state is in violation of international law regardless of if it subscribes to the common interpretation of international law, because they can be brought to trial and given punishment by courts of arbitration such as the International Court of Justice and/or be subject to political and economic sanctions either by individual states or by blocs. Non-state actors cannot be put on trial in these means because they cannot be called before the ICJ and because traditional political and economic sanctions simply cannot be targeted at them.

In fact, even if a state does perform acts of violent coersion at home, it can be found in violation of human rights and also be called to account by the international community under international law.

The point is that terrorists operate outside of the traditional sociopolitical and economic framework that has traditionally guided diplomacy and statecraft, often simply because their ideology refuses to acknowledge the existing norm. The existing body of international law provides a fairly exhaustive set of guidelines constraining actions by sovereign states, but terrorists are not individual states, but rather organizations operating without borders acting in disregard to accepted conduct in their acts of violence.

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Mordin

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The way I see it, terrorism is a tactic of psychological terror gear toward the cutlural structure of a state by inflicting large amount of deaths toward its population. It usually perform under the mindset of fighting off an occupying force that is threatening its existence. We usually see it in conquering nation, the allied resistence in WWII in the German controlled countries are a form of terrorism. Of course, the word depends on your own prejudical view, we call certain groups freedom fighters such as the cases in some of our CIA build up in Latin American in the cold war era, or terrorist in the Irsih-Britain conflict.

In a sense there is no definition to the word, it is depend upon on which side of the conflict you supported. Of course religion, cultural, nationalism all factor into how we see terrorism, but at the end it is a still a mean to an end toward some form of resistence, in our current world, global terrorism is a clash of extreme disagreement over how the world should look, the extreme factions in the current world order is fighting for their beliefs and survivial in the world, certain extreme islam faction believe the west's cutural and economic prowess will wipe out their way of life, and thus in respond certain west faction want to control the development of the Middle East to maintain the west's security. Of course the resoure called oil also fuel the conflict ;) This struggle had been fought since Alexander the Great took the middle east, it isn't new, the only difference is we have bombs now instead of fire :)

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  • Jan 27, 2006

tanteikun

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Well, in my definition and correct me if I am wrong.

In my mind, for an act to be constituted as terrorist activities, two criterias must be present at the same time.

1) One such act must be aimed mainly at achieving a psychological imbalance, rather than material, terrestrial advantages.

2) The target of an act is random and impersonal with a huge level of impact.

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  • Jan 27, 2006

EternalParadox

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Mordin makes a very good point that on certain levels, "terrorism" is defined by one's own prejudices.

However, I think the point of shin's assignment is to focus on overarching characteristics that groups who practice these tactics have in common.

Quote: 2) The target of an act is random and impersonal with a huge level of impact.

I'm not sure that "random" is a necessary qualifier. It is true that a suicide bomber would not have a name and picture of who he wants to be killed by his bomb, but I do think that the target of harm is specifically chosen for certain psychological and political effects.

Allow me to clarify.

Al-Qaeda did not choose the individual persons who would die on those planes and in those buildings on September 11. However, the target of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were deliberate choices rather than random selection. These two landmark sites have have important symbolic values. The Twin Towers symbolize America's economic prowess; the Pentagon is the hallmark of American military might. To attack these two locations indicate a deliberate decision to maximize psychological trauma by destroying the symbols of fundamental American institutions.

The March Madrid and July London railway bombings I believe are also deliberate chosen locations. In both cases, the target is a heavily crowded commuter train. The time is the height of rush hour. Going to work each day is an integral part of the "norm" in western society, and thus by attacking this social institution, the perpetrators hope again to undermine a fundamental aspect of life.

The resulting impact is impersonal, that I agree. However, the target I do not believe is random. These people have a strategy and will not "randomly" bomb a place just for the heck of it. The target are chosen for their political, economic, or social value, the undermining of which would then result in the psychological ramifications these individuals desire.

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  • Jan 28, 2006

Acyx

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The entire planet's lost it's mind in this terrorism schtick. It used to be that Bin Laden and contemporaries were considered complete and total ultra-religious wackjobs, apparently the pro-terrorism mindset has spread since then. I myself would cite the prior definitions offered by Shin as being a quite possibly correct observation of the definition of terrorism (perhaps the only thing we do agree upon, if even that), although in slight deviation to the thread, I disagree that we are handling the matter in the best of manners possible.

Compare it to the Hydra from ancient Greek Mythos, if you cut off one of it's heads, another two regenerate from the stump. As time has worn on, the U.S. and of course many of the other western nation's foreign policy on the matter of terrorism has generated more of these figurative heads on the beast than it has effectively removed. Americans in particular who were at first welcomed as liberators are now seen overwhelmingly as belligerent and imperialistic by many of the same people whom we sought to free from their respective oppressions (Taliban, Baath Party). Perhaps it is just my own and somewhat shared opinion that in order to at least partly curb the problem of international terrorism or insurgency, our foreign policy must be re-assessed and be improved.

It's as Thomas Paine stated, faction can be eliminated by removing it's causes. The cause is not how we live or what God we worship, it's how we treat and interact with the rest of the world. Aside from Bin-Laden and initial lunatic following, if we alienate or exploit a particular section of the planet, for per-se oil or other monetary gain at that people's expense, it will invariably generate faction, and sympathy for terrorism's cause. Compare it to throwing a wrench into the spokes of a large and complex machine. Initially the mechanism will lock up onto the wrench and stop function until removed, if it is left in the machine for longer than the initial jamming, invariably other components will fail and break, and grind it to a standstill. The same in essence can be said of terrorism and/or guerrilla warfare, if you're desperate enough, and express the willpower necessary to wear down the opposing side, eventually something will have to give.

Now I do not sympathize Osama Bin Laden's or Al Qaeda's cause, although it is the mindset or appeal of Osama Bin Laden as a rebel against the western imperialists that we need to stop providing reinforcement to if we are to emerge from these times as a unified people (and I hope to the God that I worship that we do), as sickening and vile of a thing as terrorism is, it cannot be treated or solved by merely treating it's symptoms or conducting patchwork repairs, foreign policy must improve, lest we weather more bloodshed.

Humanity has reached a crossroads in it's history, on the one hand we may choose peaceful coexistence, on the other we may choose violent coannihilation. It's either one, or the other. Choose wisely.

"And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, "O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy." And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large chu..."

  • Jan 28, 2006
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There's not much point in defining terrorism, except to draw up artificial distinctions between actions. It doesn't matter whether someone dies in a cafe from a suicide bomber, or from being accidentally shot by a soldier. Either way, they're just as dead.

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Quote by minebannThere's not much point in defining terrorism, except to draw up artificial distinctions between actions. It doesn't matter whether someone dies in a cafe from a suicide bomber, or from being accidentally shot by a soldier. Either way, they're just as dead.

Well, philosophically, I would agree with the point that death is death and one method should not be necessarily judged as "better" than another on the basis of one side's ideals
However, practically speaking, the reason why defining terrorism is such an important issue nowadays is because its lack of definition is hindering the ability to define who is a criminal and therefore can be prosecuted and punished in a legal and political sense.

Now, I don't really agree with this idea, but a recent class speaker introduced the idea of defining terrorism using still-existing definitions of piracy...
I know...I know... it sounds crazy and antiquated, but he did a good job selling his idea (it's when you considered the practicalities of the resulting actions that the idea ran into problems)
Basically, he suggested that terrorists be defined as "pirates"- legally defined as "enemies of the human race"
He claimed that the only "terrorists" who could not already be prosecuted under domestic criminal law for things like murder are those who are not affliated with any country and therefore commit their "crimes" against "the human race"...in other words "civilization"
The problems that people raised in class were: that very few people are really completely not associated with a country (even if you used strict citizenship guidelines) and that the human race would be defined by power...therefore western civilization
Another issue that was brought up is that after the implementation of this rule, the speaker suggested that all countries were then able to hunt and capture the "terrorists" regardless of where they were in order to bring them to justice without the prior consent of the countries they were found in
Of course...this brings up the point that only powerful countries (ie the US) would be able to really do this...and whether this would truly be justice

I haven't really described the finer points of the speaker's argument, but I was wondering what people think of this proposal as one of the few concrete legal suggestions on defining terrorism

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The only way you can avoid being prosecuted by any country is by being outside any country, ie. spending all your time in international waters...

You're a criminal if you've broken the laws of the country you're in. Simple as that. If I was running a country, and another country tried to hunt down someone in my country who hadn't broken any of the laws in my country, then that would be an act of war. And if they had, then the police of my country would deal with it themselves.

It sounds like your speaker is trying to obliquely justify the CIA's practice of kidnapping people around the world and sending them off to be tortured.

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my 2 cent
victors write history books
the vanquished read them

let me tell u a story
a small country in the balkans in around 1380 fell to the ottomans(ironicly they were muslim) now for the next 450years...imagone how long that is ...quite longer than US history...for those years people resisted they organised groups to raid ottoman suply satations.
now who were those people if u had asked a turk(ottoman) hed say "soon to be dead thives" if u asked a balkan person thed say something allong the lines thugs as well.
well the TRUTH is that they were thieves who changed history....
the 50 years after those 450years people got sick of the ottomans and made the thugs more powerfull and eventually there was a masive revolt...
now today those thugs/thieves are called freedom fighters
and all who stood agaist them were "traitors"

to me terrorist is a tag/ term, also indiscriminate violence(aka what a terrorist is ment to do) is often from the view of the beholder. to an Iraqi B52's are as much a terrorist weapon as 9/11 is to USA....

be pessimistic so that youll never be disapointed and will live a happy life.

  • Feb 03, 2006

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