Freedom-Fighting Terrorists? Confusing Tactics and Motives

Counter-terrorism is challenged by the lack of a universal definition for terrorism.  The commonly held axiom “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” makes terrorism highly subjective.  It all depends on the eye of the beholder, so we can’t really agree on a definition for “terrorism”.  The problem with the “terrorism-freedom fighter” debate is that it confuses two extremely different concepts: tactics and motives.  Freedom fighting is a motive.  It involves the use of military tactics like guerilla warfare and insurgency in a broader struggle for liberation from some opposing force.  It dictates the end goal and the reason why the group is fighting, not how it does.

Terrorism is different.  Terrorism is a tactic.

To be fair, it’s easy to see where the confusion comes from.  Terrorism is used to terrorize, but that is exactly the distinction. Most people agree that terrorism involves some sort of violence directed at people not involved in combat or counter-terrorism efforts that is carried out to force some sort of political change through mass terror.  But achieving terrorism?  That’s about as doable as completely peaceful coexistence, no matter what the bumper stickers say. Terrorizing the enemy into a specific outcome is a tactic.  It’s part of why groups decide to use suicide attacks or airplane hijackings.  Groups don’t decide they want to achieve ‘terrorism,’ but they can harness terrorist tactics.  Groups can work to achieve freedom, but not terrorism.

Here’s the thing, though: freedom fighters and terrorists are not mutually exclusive categories.  Using terrorist tactics effectively makes you a terrorist.  But if we look at terrorism as a tactic instead of a mentality, we see terrorists can also be fighting for freedom.  Just look at the American Revolutionary War.  It is the classic underdog story of disadvantaged colonists fighting for independence from a foreign empire.  From an American perspective, the Patriots are the classic example of freedom fighters.  Our U.S. history classes like to focus on events like the Battle of Trenton, where Washington marched his starving and ragged army across the Delaware River and humiliated the Hessians sleeping off a massive Christmas dinner.  We remember the innocents killed during the Boston Massacre.  We cheer for Patrick Henry’s defiant challenge, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

And yet there are also stories about Patriots who burned down the houses of British supporters, who publicly beat and humiliated Loyalists, and who completely destroyed their crops.  Mobs in Georgia, New Jersey, and Connecticut repeatedly attacked loyalists, hauling them from their houses, pouring hot tar on them, and covering them with feathers.  In 1776, while Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence, John Roberts was attacked, tarred and feathered, and eventually burned because of his support for the British.  The message the mobs were sending was clear: if you oppose our independence movement, you get the same treatment.

Of course, because we’re Americans, we like to conveniently forget to talk about those incidents.  It doesn’t paint the glorious American Revolution in a very positive light, and Americans are nothing if not patriotic.  And sure, those incidents were the minority.  For the most part, war back in the 18th century was a much more civilized (for lack of a better word) undertaking than the mass slaughter of the 20th century wars.  Most of the Revolution was fought in pitched battles between the Redcoats and the minutemen.  But the Patriots who showed up in the dead of night to tar and feather anyone suspected of supporting the British were still employing terrorism –– violence against non-combatants to advance a political agenda.

Terrorism in the American Revolution was obviously not the standard modus operandi.  Just because it happened doesn’t mean that we can’t glorify the men in the Continental Army.  Most of them were really there just to fight for their independence.  And even the ones who were actually involved in 18th century terrorism were freedom fighters.  Freedom fighters who used terrorism.  They’re not incompatible if we understand the difference between a mentality and a tactic, a cause and a means.  If we try to justify terrorists as freedom fighters, all we are doing is mistaking these concepts.  So you call them a freedom fighter, and I call them a terrorist.  But your freedom fighter is still using the same terrorist tactics as my terrorist.