Saturday, February 2, 2013

Terrorism by definition

On Friday, February 1st of 2013 at the U.S. embassy in Turkey, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the entrance gate to the facility, also killing a guard and wounding another person (both Turkish). Before the day was out, the Administration had labelled the action a terrorist attack. Needless to say, various pundits and news orgs were quick to point out an obvious dichotomy here, as compared to the Administration's immediate response to the Benghazi situation last year: the bombing in Turkey was immediately called a terrorist attack, unlike the attack in Benghazi.

Let's be crystal clear on the facts in this regard. According to FactCheck.org, the Septmber 11, 2012 attack on the Benghazi consulate that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. citizens was not referred to as a "terrorist attack" by Jay Carney, President Obama, nor anyone else in the Administration until September 19th:
Matt Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, was the first administration official to call it “a terrorist attack” during a Sept. 19 congressional hearing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did the same on Sept. 20. Even so, Obama declined opportunities to call it a terrorist attack when asked at a town hall meeting on Sept. 20 and during a taping of “The View” on Sept. 24.
That's a full eight days after the attack. The next day, spokesmodel Jay Carney referred to Benghazi as a terrorist attack for the first time, as well. Up until this moment, the Administration seemingly avoided that descriptor--along with avoiding calling the attack "pre-planned" or "pre-meditated"--at all costs, generally by noting that "the incident was still being investigated" or some such thing. So yeah, there's an obvious inconsistency from the Administration and it's pretty easy to chalk it up to Election concerns and to protecting a phony narrative about the Middle East.

Be that as it may, what interests me more are Carney's comments about Benghazi on September 26th--over two weeks after the attack--as compared with his comments about the bombing in Turkey. On September 26th, Carney said the following, after being asked if there was a reason why Obama would not refer to Benghazi as a terrorist attack (my boldface):
The President spoke eloquently I believe about the attack that took the lives of four Americans at the United Nations General Assembly, and I think made very clear that it is wholly unacceptable to respond to a video, no matter how offensive, with violence, and it is wholly unacceptable, regardless of the reason, to attack embassies or diplomatic facilities and to kill diplomatic personnel.

The President -- our position is, as reflected by the NCTC director, that it was a terrorist attack. It is, I think by definition, a terrorist attack when there is a prolonged assault on an embassy with weapons.
Now, here is Jay Carney speaking about the bombing in Turkey--again, on the same day it occurred--after being asked if the President considered the bombing to be a terrorist attack (my boldface):
The act--a suicide bombing on the perimeter of an embassy is by definition an act of terror. It is a terrorist attack. However, we don not know at this point who is responsible or the motivations behind the attack. The attack itself is clearly an act of terror.
Set aside the obvious game-playing we all know is going on here with the attempt to retroactively make "act of terror" and "terrorist attack" qualitatively the same, as to justify over a week of hedging by the Administration with regard to Benghazi. Instead, focus in on the use of the term "by definition" by Carney.

Something is true "by definition" when it must be true because of the terminology being employed. And frankly, I use the term a great deal. For instance, I used it here:
An intrasession period is--by definition--a break during a called session of Congress.
In this piece, I'm discussing intersession periods and intrasession periods, with regard to sessions of Congress. The fact I am quite correctly pointing out is that an intrasession period occurs within a session, that it is distinct from an intersession period which occurs between sessions. This is why the term--intrasession--exists, to differentiate the period from the other sort. Thus, the definition of "intrasession period" presupposes the fact I noted. That's what it means for something to be true by definition (or "as a matter of definition").

So what about the things Carney cites? Are they true by definition, or not? Since Carney wants to equate "act of terror" with "terrorist attack," we're going to let him and assume the terms are equivalent. Thus, we have the general term being considered: terrorist attack. And we have two things that Carney says are true by definition (meaning the term presupposes both):
1) A suicide bombing on the perimeter of an embassy; and...
2) A prolonged assault on an embassy with weapons.
So now the question is, how is "terrorist attack" defined? Obviously, it's an attack. But what makes a given attack a terrorist one? Simple, the goal behind it. From Merriam-Webster Online, the definition of terrorism:
Systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.
I realize people argue over what is and what is not terrorism, but I can't imagine any objections to the above general definition. It's both concise and complete. Thus, a terrorist attack is one intended to create such a climate in order to serve a political agenda. And in that regard, it seems quite obvious that both Benghazi and Turkey are, in fact, terrorist attacks. But are they such by definition? Were they terrorist attacks because how they were carried out, alone (Carney's criteria)?

No, of course not. Why? Because it's easy enough to imagine a bombing or an armed attack that would not be a terrorist attack, since both could be easily initiated by persons not intending to create a "climate of fear." A suicide bombing could be the act of lone individual who simply wants to "go out with a bang" (forgive the joke; I am not trying to make light of suicide). And a prolonged assault with weapons? How about if it happened in the course of a war? That's not terrorism if its an engagement of military units, thus it wouldn't be a terrorist attack.

In short, Carney doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. Saying "by definition" can be a good rhetorical tool, as it suggests authority and knowledge on the part of the speaker (that's why I use it, after all). But when it is used improperly, it's evidence of exactly the opposite, at least to people who actually pay attention to what is being said, as opposed to those who nod their heads like sheep solely for political reasons.

But the real kicker is what makes both of these events terrorist attacks: again, it's the reason for, the goal of, the action. Those things are not a given; they need to be determined via actual evidence or the specific circumstances of the actions. And in both cases, evidence and circumstances indicated clearly--within hours, not a week or more--that they were terrorist attacks. These were simple conclusions to draw, but they were not true as a matter of definition. Exactly the opposite.

Cheers, all.

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