BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week at the United Nations a week long debate over a global strategy to combat terrorism. The big question? How can the world defeat an enemy it can't define? British ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock.
SIR JEREMY GREENSTOCK: Increasingly questions are being raised about the problem of the definition of a terrorist. Let us be wise and focused about this. Terrorism is terrorism.
BOB GARFIELD:But as the saying goes -- a saying ever more fraught with dangerous political implications -- one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
The delegates at the UN agreed that the mass murders committed in New York and Washington were acts of terrorism, but there was no agreement on similar acts committed in other places for other reasons.
Malaysian ambassador Hosmi Agam [sp?].
AMBASSADOR HOSMI AGAM:Acts of pure terrorism involving attacks against innocent civilian populations which cannot be justified under any circumstances should be differentiated from the legitimate struggles of peoples under Colonial or alien domination and foreign occupation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So we proceed to the latest installment in our occasional series called Word Watch. This week, it's terrorism. Steven Sloan [sp?] is the author of The Historical Dictionary of Terrorism and a professor at the University of Oklahoma. He says the roots of terrorism are as ancient as the idea of empire.
PROFESSOR STEVEN SLOAN: We often look at, for a start, the zealots who used daggers to spread consternation among Roman occupiers during the-- biblical period -to spread fear to a broader audience - the general public - which is a major theme of terrorism because it's aimed at those who survive, and obviously that has a profound impact on what we just experienced.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When did the word "terrorism" first appear?
PROFESSOR STEVEN SLOAN:It really appeared during the French Revolution -- what was called The Great Terror -- under Robespierre. What Robespierre did was focus on the emergence of state terrorism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mean terrorism committed by the regime.
PROFESSOR STEVEN SLOAN: That's right. The systematic use of terror to enforce compliance through the regime's dictates.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How has the concept or the word become part of world history since then?
PROFESSOR STEVEN SLOAN:During the Russian Revolution, the-- well before the Russian Revolution, too, you had Russian anarchists who practiced terrorism, and it was interesting! A number of them were very careful not to get civilians targeted. As a matter of fact on occasion they would not have missions because of that. So they initially tried to be more selective.
Certainly the word I think has really become very significant. I would use in the modern age the-- Munich Massacre as the beginning of modern terrorism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By the Munich Massacre you mean an extremist group that targeted the-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
PROFESSOR STEVEN SLOAN: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- Israeli wrestling team at the Munich Olympics.
PROFESSOR STEVEN SLOAN: That's exactly right. And the reason it became a defining moment -- well I think was twofold. One, the terrorists were using as their mode of operations aircraft -- in essence they were delivery systems to launch attacks at an area far away from the disp--their disputed homeland.
But secondly, and I think this is much more significant -- the Munich Massacre spread fear and intimidation to a global audience because through the medium of television the--perpetrators got their message across to a global audience, and I think that's what was particularly significant about it.
And also-- the Germans could not effectively react to that, and in the deaths that followed, which included the Israeli athletes, we understood that we had a long way to go to deal with what was then a very new threat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Professor Sloan, thank you very much.
PROFESSOR STEVEN SLOAN: It's a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Steven Sloan is a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma and co-author of The Historical Dictionary of Terrorism. William Salatin [sp?] is a senior writer for Slate.com. Welcome back to the show!
WILLIAM SALATIN: Thanks!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Bush administration has declared war on terrorism and in a speech following the attacks the president described the terroristsw as people who quote "hate our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other." But that, whether or not we wish to argue its truth, is rhetoric for public consumption! If we were to apply that standard to our war on terrorism how would that affect the coalition we're trying to create?
WILLIAM SALATIN: Well let's start with the most basic core of the coalition in the Middle East. That would be the countries of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. All 3 of those countries, if you look at the most recent State Department human rights report, have violated all of the principles that President Bush enumerated in his speech. They violate the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of vote; their secret police abuse human rights. So right away we're not defining our coalition by all the countries in it upholding those values.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:When you look at countries like China and Russia -- the Chechan rebellion has been responsible for acts of terror throughout Moscow and throughout Russia -- you have an Islamic independence movement causing a lot of trouble for the Chinese -- they regard these at terrorist movements and they would like the coalition to regard them as terrorist movments. Will that cause a problem? That broader definition?
WILLIAM SALATIN: Yeah. Imagine that there is some kind of ideal definition of "terrorism" that's really accurate and fair -- you could apply it around the world. Even on that assumption, that definition is like a tightrope, and you can easily fall off on either side of it. You can get pulled by coalition politics in the direction of making your definition too narrow. For example, we need the Syrians and the Iranians in our coalition, so we tell them look, right now we're just going to define terrorism as Osama bin Laden. Our definition of terrorism does not include Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad which you guys support. On the other hand we've got countries like Russia and China which want us to broaden the definition of terrorism and start throwing into it people like the Chechan rebels against whom we hold the Russian government responsible for atrocities but somehow now we're supposed to look the other way and allow the Russians to perpetrate these atrocities because hey, those rebels must be terrorists too, right? We wink at Vladimir Putin while he persecutes the Chechans in exchange for his support against bin Laden.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:President Bush may have tried to address this a bit in his speech when he talked about pursuing terrorist movements of global reach. Now that would presumably leave out the Chechans and leave out the Islamic independent movements in China!
WILLIAM SALATIN: Yes. That definition would in principle leave out the Chechan rebels. But that's just principle! What's happening in the real world is that the Bush administration has already started changing its language about our objections to the Russian persecution of the Chechans to basically say -- be nice --please, Russia be nice to the Chechans rather than our objections being stated in much stronger and more substantive terms.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So how do journalists deal with this loaded word as they proceed to try to cover a war with an enemy that is so difficult to identify unless we simply identify the enemy as the people who protect and carry out the desires of cells run by Osama bin Laden? That's pretty darn specific.
WILLIAM SALATIN: We're not going to settle this question any time soon, and instead of trying to determine the meaning of that word at the outset, we should constantly ask our government officials to square the term as they're using it with American policies. For example we could say to our Pentagon and State Department spokesmen, wait a minute --we're forming a coalition against terrorism but you're trying to include Syria which support Hamas or you're trying to include Iran which supports Islamic Jihad. Are they not states that sponsor terrorism? How are you preventing them from continuing that kind of terrorism? Those kinds of questions will at least keep our government honest and my bet is that if we keep asking those questions, the way that the government uses the term will change or the government will have to modify its policies to make them consistent with the words that it's using.