This is an ambiguous word. A very easy one to use and a very hard one to define, and in recent years has led to juridical labyrinths and massive resorting to hypocrisy. In the West the technically acceptable definition mainly follows the British Terrorism Act 2000, which among European ones is the only one to attempt a full definition.
According to that law, actions involving “serious violence against a person” and/or “serious damage to possessions” and/or “a serious risk for the health and security of the population, or part of it” are terrorism. So as to be defined as ‘terrorism’ these actions must be addressed at “affecting the government or intimidating the population or part of it”, and have a defined objective of “promoting a political, religious or ideological cause”.
The definition appears to be impregnable, but in fact it involves an enormous problem: it can be applied to most wars fought in the past decades, even if the most ‘right’ and the less destructive. For example, there is no doubt that NATO’s attack on Serbia in 1999 involved “serious damage to possessions” and was intended to intimidate part of the population, the one loyal to Milosevic, to bend the overall will to the political objectives the Atlantic Alliance had established. And yet NATO’s was, in spite of the three or four probably intentional attacks on civilians, the less ‘dirty’ of all wars fought in the 20th century, above all for the care used almost at all times by the allied command in avoiding victims among the population (500 civilians killed in 70 days).
The lesson one might learn is that it might provide a contribution to clarity to exclude from the list of ‘terrorist activities’ those causing only “serious damage to property”. This however would not eliminate further dilemmas. Was the Churchill of 1943 a terrorist when he ordered the bombardments (pointless) of German cities in the name of a “Supreme emergency” defying the Second Protocol of the Geneva Convention that forbids parties at war from all behaviour addressed “against the civilian population as such”, hence “acts of violence the objective of which is to spread terror among the civilian populations”? Are G. W. Bush and Chirac potential terrorists when the threaten to answer a terrorist attack with an atomic weapon, thereby burning alive hundreds of thousands of defenceless people, whose only fault might be that of being the subjects of a bloodthirsty tyrant?
To avoid embarrassment a number of European legislations, for example the Italian one, avoid defining the nature of ‘terrorism’, which they do however sanction. This is not however a wise solution, as proved by the raging controversies that have appeared within the Italian judiciary between two schools of thought, and that concern the network of Muslim immigrants who organised travel arrangements from Europe to Iraq for their Islamic brothers wishing to fight against the ‘Coalition of the willing’: according to one group these aspiring warriors were ‘legitimate combatants’, in spite of the fact that guerrilla warfare methods are usually appalling; the others instead considered them ‘terrorists’ and as such punishable, although there was no evidence that once in Iraq, they would have killed civilians to spread terror. While Europe appears lost on this subject, Muslim countries are in no better shape, as confirmed by the manner in which the OIC, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, appeared incapable of deciding whether the Palestinian kamikaze who massacred Israeli civilians were terrorists or not in spite of it appearing obvious.
For the moment international institutions have been incapable of agreeing on shared solutions to solve this impasse. The United Nations has debated for thirty years the subject of what should be considered ‘terrorism’ and what instead should be considered ‘a battle for national liberation’ (this last expression intentionally excluded from the Convention against terrorism approved in 1999 by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference). The countries adhering to the Statute of Rome, referred to by the International Penal Court, have postponed defining the word ‘terrorism’, which is currently still not included in that Code. The Council of Europe’s outline decision harmonises the laws of individual EU countries on the subject of terrorism and renders more effective coordination between police forces, is also open to the “Serb paradox” mentioned previously; furthermore, it refers to national legislations issues that are of extreme importance, not least the precise definition of the crime ‘association with a terrorist organisation’, a problem that the Italian judicial has already come up against.
If the theory appears confused, practice is often ambiguous. First of all because the line between ‘terrorism’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ is not always a clear one. Since the beginning of this new century a rejection of violence committed by armed organisations against powerless civilians has increased greatly, while the hegemonic ideologies of the 20th Century justified them. This new sensitivity has also among other things increased cooperation between police forces. Sensitivity for violence committed by the repressive apparatus of states has instead declined in a worrying manner.
After September 11th various police states have been able to avoid international disapproval by siding with the Bush administration in the ‘war on terrorism’. And yet it was not the terrorism of armed organisations but rather ‘state terrorism’ that killed the highest number of civilians during the 20th Century. Furthermore, a number of democracies considered themselves authorised to approve emergency legislation against terrorism running the risk of encouraging the police’s liberty. It is worth remembering that democracies too can practice terror, as proved by century-old history, by the fighting methods inaugurated by democratic Athens in the Peloponnesus war against non-democratic (but non ‘terrorist’) Sparta, and the methods used in Kashmir both by the Indian and the Pakistani armies.
A shared definition of “terrorism” will probably only be approved when both States and the armed organisations that oppose them will agree that even those who fight the worst possible enemy for the best of causes must pose limits to its “military” conduct. This limit must inevitably consist in the respect of fundamental human rights, guaranteed by a form of international justice. All in all this consists in finding a difficult exit strategy from the reigning doctrine of the Lesser Evil, according to which Machiavelli absolved an extremely ferocious Cesare Borgia, who nonetheless «with his cruelty had resettled the Romagna Region, uniting it and returning it to peace and faith».