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The Moral Imperative

 February 24, 2002

Gerald M. Steinberg


Shortly after the atrocity of September 11, the global head of news at Reuters in London pointedly re-emphasized his agency's policy of not using the term "terrorists" to describe the perpetrators of this or any other evil act. Stephen Jukes explained that this term is relative, subjective, and emotive -- "we all know that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter".

Reuters, followed by the venerable BBC and a torrent of other news organizations (including the New York Times and NPR), adopted the terms "activists" and "militants". People who preach hatred, strap explosives to their bodies or hijack airplanes to murder as many people as possible became "activists" -- the term also used to describe demonstrators protesting environmental pollution.

As a result, as far as the "politically correct" media is concerned, there are no terrorists in the world. This Orwellian distortion of the English language was fundamentally wrong-headed. The cliche equating terrorists to freedom fighters is fundamentally wrong these terms are neither identical nor interchangeable. Terrorism is one of the few terms in international law and common practice among democratic nations on which there is an accepted and logical definition.

According to this definition, embodied in the legal codes of the US, Canada, and other democratic countries, terrorism consists of the random killing of civilians and non-combatants for political or ideological objectives. While the terrorist regimes in Syria and Iraq, may seek to divert attention by creating different definitions, this effort is clearly self-serving lacks any moral or legal validity. Planes directed into buildings, suicide bombing in Israeli cities, and firebomb attacks in Northern Ireland are all examples of random killing of non-combatants.

Freedom fighters (defined as the good guys) do not use such tactics. They may strike opposing armies, communications centers, and other physical targets, but if they target shopping centers or schools, they are terrorists. This definition -- as in the case of murder -- is quite clear and does not require deep thinking or extraordinary intelligence. However, to distinguish between terrorists and freedom fighters, or the use of military power to defend against aggression, it is necessary to make moral judgments. And this is precisely what the head of Reuters, the BBC, NPR and other journalists and many academics are unable to do. 

The inability to differentiate between good and evil, aggression and defense, and the absurd claim that such variations are entirely subjective and judgmental, reflects a fundamental moral blindness. Instead, many journalists, particularly outside the United States, ridicule the clear ethical distinctions made be President Bush, and the labeling of Arafat and his followers as terrorists.

Years ago, many European politicians and pseudo-intellectuals sold their moral souls to the devil, in order to justify business deals, (and the huge kickbacks and side-payments that they bring), to oil-rich dictators and mass terrorists such as Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. Morality became irrelevant. A few months ago, when the Arab and Islamic nations gathered in Durban to condemn Jewish self-determination as "racism", many NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, as well as governments in Europe and Canada were with them.

In sharp contrast, the Bush Administration, to its credit, took no part in this very blatant example of international evil and immorality. For people with a sense of morality and some basic knowledge of the real world, the definition of terms such as terrorism and murder are neither subjective nor dependent on particular political environments. Effort to substitute morally neutral words, such as militants or activists, to describe unspeakable acts of brutality are, in themselves, acts of moral complacency and acceptance of the unacceptable.

The terrorism of the Palestinians in their drive to destroy the State of Israel, or of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in their war against the US and the West, are clear examples of unmitigated evil. No grievances, real of imagined, can be used to justify the random murder of civilians with the goal of intimidating and frightening these or any other societies into accepting political or ideological goals. To paraphrase Stephen Jukes from Reuters, "we all know" (or at least should know) that this unethical code of conduct reflects moral bankruptcy and is leading the descent into barbarism.