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Mandela Was a Terrorist

2013 December 6
by Ian Welsh

That’s just a fact.  He was also the father of his country, and I believe he was a great man and a good man.  In 1985 he was offered release from jail if he would unconditionally renounce violence, he refused.

One might want to think about the fact that a great man and a good man was a terrorist.

Today, Emptywheel asked:

what leader currently considered a terrorist will be globally celebrated upon her death 50 years form now?

The obvious answer will be environmental “terrorists.”

The problem here is the word terrorist is meaningless.  A word we use to demonize others.

  • George W. Bush, probably responsible for 500,000 Iraqi deaths and a pile more Afghani deaths is not a terrorist despite what he did to, say, Fallujah.
  • George H. Bush, his father, who bombed Iraq’s infrastructure into smithereens (sewers are not a military target), is not a terrorist.  Sanctions intended to break the will of a people, that cost the lives of tens to hundreds of thousands of children, are not terrorism.
  • The firestorm of Tokyo, meant to break the will of the Japanese people… was not terrorism.

The founders of Israel were mostly terrorists.  Many American patriots in the Revolutionary War certainly committed acts of straight up terrorism.

Terrorism seems to be different from what governments do only in that it is not sanctioned by government and kills a lot less people.

One could say “only political violence sanctioned by a State is legitimate” and that would be far closer to the real meaning of “terrorism” as we use the word.  A terrorist is someone who does, less effectively, what the State does, without a State saying “this is ok”

Legitimacy is a larger question.  When someone commits political violence without State sanction they usually believe the State is illegitimate. Few people would, today, say that the Apartheid State was legitimate, and thus we slide on the fact that Mandela committed “terrorism”.  But he was on the State Department Terrorist list till 2008.

During the Vietnam War, when the US was killing Vietnamese in droves, was the US government legitimate? Was violence against Americans legitimate?  What about during the Iraq War?  What about today, as Obama drone murders children, and goes back for a double tap precisely to kill “first responders” (a war crime.)

When is violence legitimate?  Who is a terrorist?  If we want to keep the word terrorist as something more than a propaganda tool, do we have to acknowledge that sometimes terrorism is legitimate? If not, can we pretend that what States do that is no different except that it is sanctioned by a State?  Where do we change from Terrorist to War Criminal?  Mandela was a terrorist, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are War Criminals?  The difference being that Bush and Obama killed a ton more people without nearly as legitimate a reason as opposition to Apartheid?

Mandela committed terrorism, by any reasonable understanding of the word. He was also a great, good man.

We might want to think about that.

 

17 Responses
  1. Strangely Enough permalink
    December 6, 2013

    “Who is a terrorist?”

    Someone who cannot afford lobbyists powerful enough to avoid “material support” charges. The delisting of MEK seems pretty instructive.

  2. December 6, 2013

    Not just the environmentalists. Snowden, Swartz, Hammond, Manning, Assange.

  3. December 6, 2013

    Can’t add to what Ian or “Strangely Enough” or “rb” have said. All true. “Terrorist” is a political term. (The Confederates in the U.S. Civil War were certainly “terrorists,” but woe betide anyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line who says that!)

    Would just encourage a different placement of an adverbial phrase, from:

    A terrorist is someone who does what the State does, less effectively, without a State saying “this is ok”

    to

    A terrorist is someone who does, less effectively, what the State does, without a State saying “this is ok”

    Yes, I’m an insufferable schoolmarm.

  4. Stormcrow permalink
    December 6, 2013

    “Terrorist” is a political term.

    Actually, IMHO, it’s a political propaganda term, which is why I do not like to use it.

    When it is inserted into conversation, people’s brains turn off. Which is not a very good idea, when they are contemplating the use and misuse of armed force.

  5. David Kowalski permalink
    December 6, 2013

    Thanks, Ian.

    I’ve been exchanging e-mails with the administrator of your blog (probably you). I keep trying to avoid saying the obvious (other than Mandela is a great man and a good man) because in my mind it makes me sound like that reprobate Dick Cheney.

    In my uninformed mind, Mandela slowly reached a more peaceful front. He never stopped believing in revolution and strongly supported revolution in other countries but felt that he had gotten what he needed in South Africa and needed to govern. So Mandela put aside decades of damage and put on a face of limited friendship with a few selected whites. Good. He didn’t sell out he just acted like he had. Smart and shrewd man.

  6. December 7, 2013

    “If we want to keep the word terrorist as something more than a propaganda tool…”

    Oh, that ship has long since sunk. The word has been nothing more than a propaganda tool for a decade or so, along with “extremist, islamic jihadist.” and “islamofacist.”

  7. Everythings Jake permalink
    December 7, 2013

    But MLK was not, and they came for his true legacy as well. Norman Finkelstein’s Gandhi is a very different man from the one most have learned of from David Lean’s film

  8. Everythings Jake permalink
    December 7, 2013

    And of course, I should say, Gandhi’s Gandhi was probably neither of those, although Norman probably came a lot closer to the truth of it.

  9. Celsius 233 permalink
    December 7, 2013

    The world is a strange place, maybe always has been; Mandela found a way through the fog of opinions/propaganda to greatness.
    Is it deserved? I really don’t know. But I like the result.

  10. Phoenician in a time of Romans permalink
    December 8, 2013

    A terrorist is someone who does what the State does, less effectively, without a State saying “this is ok”

    Literally, in fact. Consider – Hamas is a proto-state whose activities are mainly governership. But it gets called a terrorist for attacking the people attacking the Palestinians, and thought of solely as a terrorist group.

  11. cripes permalink
    December 8, 2013

    Actually, i think the fog-inducing, propaganda use of the term “terrorist” dates back at least to 1970′s Isreal “PLO terrorists” weathermen, vietcong, montoneros, probably all the back to Sacco-Vanzetti and Haymarket. Political? Always.

  12. someofparts permalink
    December 9, 2013

    “We might want to think about that.”

    If you noticed any significant number of Americans wanting to think about anything besides the Superbowl in the last three decades please tell me more because I haven’t spotted it yet.

  13. Celsius 233 permalink
    December 9, 2013

    someofparts
    December 9, 2013

    If you noticed any significant number of Americans wanting to think about anything besides the Superbowl in the last three decades please tell me more because I haven’t spotted it yet.
    ~~~~~
    What an outstanding comment/observation. It certainly resonates with this one.

  14. David Kowalski permalink
    December 9, 2013

    For the last 30 years a lot of Americans, at least what are now the older ones ( now55+) like to moan about how everything used to be good and cheap and stuff today is shoddy, expensive, and tasteless. I used to own a condo in Florida where despite being 30 I referred to as the “token young person.” People assumed that my parents owned the place and merely let me live in it.

    One of my neighbors, a friendly women of 85 used to comment whistfully that the hamburgers in California were much tastier than the McDonald’s ones. I’m sure they were.
    Fresh ground beef and fresh vegetables will do that. There was also definitely tomato as the California burger of my youth (in NJ) contained a nice slice. No need for ketchup.

    Even today, I have gone back to eating burgers with a nice tomato slice (or grape tomatoes) with no ketchup. The tomatoes from the garden are really sweet and juicy.

  15. Celsius 233 permalink
    December 9, 2013

    @ David Kowalski
    For the last 30 years a lot of Americans, at least what are now the older ones ( now55+) like to moan about how everything used to be good and cheap and stuff today is shoddy, expensive, and tasteless.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~
    At 68+ I don’t look back in that way. I know it was all a construct, bullshit, and see it with a fair amount of clarity.
    The only ones fooled were willing…
    And, I don’t eat hamburgers or much of any other kind of meat. But good tomatoes are a treat; not to be found in stores…

  16. markfromireland permalink
    December 11, 2013

    I’ll note in passing that ‘terrorism’ was originally a technical term used by the Czarist government of Russia to describe a set of policies aimed at suppressing political dissent.

    My paternal grandfather was a terrorist. He commanded one General Collins’ flying squads. What today we would rather more accurately call a death squad. During our war of independence my grandad and his men would burst into the homes of British military and police officers, RMs (Resident magistrates), tax inspectors, and so on. And shoot them in front of the horrified and terrified gaze of any family members or servants present in the room.

    They succeeded brilliantly in their aim of making Ireland ungovernable and British civil service personnel such as police, magistrates, and tax officials, forsook large parts of Ireland long before the treaty with the British government was signed. Was that terrorism? I remember very clearly the day he was asked that question by somebody researching a book on the War of Independence, granddad had an unambiguous answer:

    “Yes of course it was, of course we were terrorists, I was a terrorist, and I’m proud of it, those men were the British boot on our necks and we killed them for it”.

    I’m grateful to him and his men and the men and women who fought for and won our independence from the British. I grew up free and in a free country because of them. He went on to help found our unarmed police during the height of the civil war that followed the British withdrawal from what was then the Free State. An Garda Síochána are an unarmed police force to this day.

    I’ll also note that during World War II that ANY resistance activity in ANY of the the occupied territories of the Reich was labelled terrorism. Whether it be armed resistance or the surreptitious painting of resistance slogans on wall – all was ‘terrorism’.

    Similarly in occupied Irak the American invaders labelled all resistance to their brutal and illegal occupation of the country and their cynically vicious tactic of targeting civilians as ‘terrorism’. The Irakis as I can vouch from direct personal experience had a very different view of who was the terrorist.

    mfi

  17. markfromireland permalink
    December 11, 2013

    I’ll see your:

    One could say “only political violence sanctioned by a State is legitimate” and that would be far closer to the real meaning of “terrorism” as we use the word. A terrorist is someone who does, less effectively, what the State does, without a State saying “this is ok”

    And raise Hizballah, and to a lesser extent the Jaish-al-Mahdi.

    mfi

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