One Man’s Terrorist is Not Another Man’s Freedom Fighter
In May 1986, in a Radio Address to the Nation on Terrorism, President Ronald Reagan stated “terrorists are always the enemies of democracy. Luckily, the world is shaking free from its lethargy and moving forward to stop the bloodshed.” 30 years later and one need only to open their Facebook to know that terrorism is more rampant and deadly. The world has yet to ‘shake off’ that same lethargy that President Reagan spoke about. Often in a discussion about terrorism and the need for an effective counter-terrorism policy, the conversation abruptly ends when someone uses the phrase “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.” As if to say we can justify their actions, what you think is evil, I see as heroic. We see things differently, we won’t agree on an implementable policy. Conversation over.
But we make a grave mistake when we use this catchy phrase. When we discuss armed conflict and war, we must distinguish between motive and method. Labeling someone as a “freedom fighters” is describing their motive, their aim, and thier intention. As Reagan said, freedom fighters seek to “liberate their citizens from oppression and to establish a form of government that reflects the will of the people” (1986). A terrorist is someone who engages in an act of terrorism. While the exact definition of what a terrorist act actually involves is not yet internationally agreed upon that doesn't change that it is a method of war, not a motivation. Those seeking to make a change, whether they are motivated by religion, nationalism or any other aim, can do so without carrying out a terrorist attack. Freedom fighters that engage in terror are, simply put, terrorists.
Why does this distinction matter? Firstly, on a practical level, equating terrorism with freedom fighting promotes inaction. It thwarts effective antiterrorism policy because it allows people to justify terrorism for a good cause. It prevents international cooperation, as each state is able to make political excuses. In the ever increasing global world, this cooperation is critical to fighting terrorists but impossible if we can’t distinguish the motive from the method.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the sentiment that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter erodes our society’s moral compass. While I tend to pride myself on nuanced analysis, believing that there is always more than one side to a story and definitely more than one angle from which to approach an issue, I also believe there are red lines. I believe there is good and evil, right and wrong. And though not many things fit perfectly on one side of those scales, maiming and murdering innocent people does. It’s evil. Period. There is no justifiable “good cause” for mowing people down with a car or strapping on a suicide belt and walking into a crowded restaurant.
The moment we believe that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter is the moment we lose any semblance of right and wrong in this world. If we can justify blowing up children for the sake of national liberation, what in this world can’t we justify? Sun Tzu's “The Art of War” explains that in war it's more important that you know yourself, than it is to know your enemy. We must follow our moral and human instinct to discern right from wrong or else we risk becoming the very terrorists we claim to be fighting.
If our generation wants to move our world forward, if we as millennials want to look back in 50 years and claim responsibility for putting an end to the madness currently overtaking our world, we need to be willing to bravely draw red lines. We need to stop making moral justifications for inhumane behavior. If we are ever going to win the fight against terrorism, it is time that we recognize that one man’s terrorist is NOT another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s terrorist is another man’s terrorist. In the hopeful words of Reagan: “With good sense, courage, and international cooperation, our struggle against terrorism will be won.”