For years, the all-consuming international struggle against the scourge of terrorism has been hampered at times by the fact that no one has been able to provide us with a rock-solid, comprehensive definition of the term. What, exactly, is "terrorism?" Great minds have grappled with this question in learned journals, academic symposia, think-tank fora, government entmoots, and across the commanding heights of the media. The matter is of some moment, as any person or organization to whom this ill-defined label is applied automatically becomes a target for "the path of action," to borrow the stirring phraseology of former U.S. president George W. Bush.
Indeed, some cynics have advanced the notion that the definition of terrorism has been left vague deliberately, in order to retain the degree of elasticity necessary for the term's application where and when as needed to advance one's particular political or ideological agenda. Of course, those who lack the phrenological bump of cynicism would ascribe this confusion to the artless, inherent difficulties of semantic expression all too common to our human kind. In any case, there has been, as the saying goes, much throwing about of brains on the subject, and to little effect.
But now this intractable problem has been resolved at last. And as you might expect, the man who cut this Gordian knot is one of the towering and tireless intellects of our age: Bill Clinton. To my shame, I have only recently become acquainted with his breakthrough, which was published in the December 2009 issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The chagrin I feel at my ignorance is mitigated somewhat by the fact that Mr. Clinton's brilliant formulation seems to have been largely ignored. This is no doubt because it was embedded in the vast sea of verbal gems and dazzling aperçus that the former president poured forth in his charmingly voluble fashion.
(For instance, who could fail to be dazzled by this Clintonian insight: "Tom Friedman is our most gifted journalist at actually looking at what is happening in the world and figuring out its relevance to tomorrow and figuring out a clever way to say it that sticks in your mind -- like "real men raise the gas tax." You know what I mean?" For more on this gifted journalist and his remarkable turns of phrase, see here. Mr. Clinton also lauded "big thinkers on the question of identity" like "Samuel Huntingdon, who wrote the famous book, The Clash of Civilizations." Huntingdon's book has indeed been influential, perhaps decisive, in shaping the worldview of our leading statesmen and opinion-shapers – despite the petty quibbling from second-raters, like Nobelist Amartya Sen (author of Identity and Violence), who claim that Huntingdon's magisterial wisdom is in reality somewhat lacking in intellectual heft and moral substance; some go so far as to claim his work is actually shallow, reductive, highly toxic racist tripe. But of course Mr. Clinton and our great and good know better.)
Thus primed with these sprays and sprigs of genius from the emeritus statesman, it is no surprise when we stumble onto his definitive definition of terrorism, tossed off almost casually in the midst of a disquisition on just how long the clash of civilizations known as the War on Terror might last. Cutting to the chase, as is ever his wont, Clinton nails the truth about terrorism:
Terror mean[s] killing and robbery and coercion by people who do not have state authority and go beyond national borders.
Like a bolt of sunlight breaking through a lowering cloud, Clinton's formulation floods one's brain with sudden illumination. "Killing and robbery and coercion by people who do not have state authority" – that's terrorism. Killing and robbery and coercion by people who do have state authority is, obviously, something else altogether: humanitarian intervention, perhaps, or liberation, or preservation of national security, or maintaining great-power credibility, or restoring hope, or a pre-dawn vertical insertion.
In any case, and every case, if this border-transcending activity is done by people who have state authority, then it is legitimate, it is good, it is necessary, it is noble. And even if, sometimes, on rare occasions, mistakes are made during the killing, robbing and coercing done by people who have state authority, these mistakes are only ever the result of good intentions gone awry.
So there you have it: what terrorism is depends on who does it. Naturally, there are nuances and complexities that Mr. Clinton did not go into here; it was an interview, after all, not a scholarly monograph. Obviously, the legitimacy of killing, robbing and coercing by people who have state authority is entirely dependent on the state from which that authority derives. Only those states which by their cheerful acceptance of America's benevolent guidance and abiding friendship have proven themselves worthy can legitimately exercise their authority to kill, rob and coerce. All others must forbear – or else be branded "rogue states," purveyors of "state terror," which in turn makes them eligible for "the path of action."
We are all deeply indebted to former President Clinton for bringing his legendary acumen to bear on this perplexing problem. Not for the first time do we lament the passage of the 22nd Amendment, which has prevented this acolyte of Huntingdon and Friedman from continuing to guide the ship of state. We can, however, rejoice that his own acolytes, associates, aides and advisors – and even his marriage partner! – now surround and gird the current administration with their wise counsel.
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This story was published in the Baltimore Chronicle on January 21, 2010.