What is terrorism?

For nearly a decade, I've been very clear about how I define this word: terrorism is the use of violence against civilians for political leverage.

Examples: bombs in mailboxes blowing up innocent men and women in London and Montreal to bring international media and political attention to the IRA and FLQ, respectively. If you care not about innocent human life, these methods were actually efficient in the short run. Of course, they are evil, perpetrated by evil men, and I believe in the long run they fail because it is hard to gather friends and supporters when your heart is pus and bile and your mind is cracked with hatred.

The PLO has engaged in terror. By my definition, the Oct. 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole was not a terror attack -- I would term that a guerrilla attack. While suicide bombings of a Tel Aviv restaurant is terror.

This definition I feel is important, much more so than in the USS Cole case. The definition should not be molested or forgotten. On Jan. 30, 1972, British Para's in Ulster shot 27 civil rights protesters, killing thirteen, including two teenagers and a priest. All who were shot were unarmed; five were hit in the back. No one has been charged.

My definition has two tests: that the act is against civilians and it is for political leverage. Clearly, Bloody Sunday meets the first test; on the second, it is unclear whether it was murder or terrorism. 

But the result of Bloody Sunday is key: a two-decade long, bloody and unnecessary terror campaign by the IRA. If we call it terror only when fighters are not uniformed, we leave an ethical vacuum that is filled with death.

I think my definition gels with a more general sense of justice; while Brits sick of IRA terrorism may have irrationally supported their Paras in 1972, an emotionally sober, disinterested party could only find it disgusting. Irrationally supporting terrorism carried out by men with uniforms and very long, clear chains of command is extending the evil into the population. It cannot stand long. A civilian population that accepts this is bending the bar too far and it must return to centre or snap. I believe that large civilian populations are usually good.

Justice is a difficult, difficult subject -- always being trampled on by heated emotions, inflamed by propaganda. Rational thought -- as Pierre Trudeau might say -- must trump emotional nationalism and the cult of victimhood.