Redefining terrorism

“Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

— official FBI definition

In one week, America will commemorate the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with speeches and prayer. The word “terrorism” will be repeated again and again as Bush and Company attempt to give new life to their war effort.

We’ve just returned from Colombia, the nearest front of this “War on Terrorism,” where we witnessed firsthand the war’s human toll.

We all share a sense of outrage and grief over the violence of Sept. 11.

Many of us, in fact, would like to expand that sense by making it a little more generous. Sept. 11 could be observed not only as a time to decry terrorism and honor our own dead, but as a chance to go further, recognizing and acknowledging our kinship with all nations that have suffered similar attacks.

Why hasn’t our government led such an effort? Because a role call of terrorist acts and their victims around the world would include hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of U.S. complicity and sponsorship, if not direct involvement — from Indonesia to Iraq, from Guatemala to Hiroshima.

The problem lies in what exactly is meant by “terrorism.” We take particular issue with the FBI definition quoted above — the one officialdom routinely falls back on, for example, when people insist that the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan constitutes an act of terror. So far, that campaign has resulted in several thousand civilian deaths.

The linchpin of this definition is the use of the term “unlawful” — a distinction that doubtless provides little comfort to the innocent victims of this war. All acts of war would be seen as acts of terror, were it not for the fact that their perpetrators considered them “lawful.”

Colombia is a perfect example. Over the last two years, the U.S. has given this South American nation almost $2 billion in aid, first under Plan Colombia, later through a regional package called the Andean Initiative. The bulk of that aid has been used for military purposes, subverting the chances for a negotiated peace process and genuine alternative development, and focusing instead on the methods of “lawful terror” preferred by the U.S.: helicopters, fumigation planes and military training. Our tax dollars are only adding fuel to the fire of a civil war that has raged for nearly 50 years.

Before Sept. 11, the U.S. war in Colombia was a “War on Drugs.” Afterward, it became part of the new “War on Terrorism.” Three armed groups in Colombia are on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations: the FARC and the ELN — both left-wing guerrilla groups — and the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group. The Colombian armed forces have, in fact, been guilty of terrorism as defined by the FBI, but the U.S. supports them anyway. All the armed actors have engaged in the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians. And as the authority of the Colombian state decays, the question of which acts or groups are “lawful” grows hazier.

Although the AUC is responsible for 80 percent of all human-rights violations in Colombia, this group has the open support of numerous elements — often entire brigades — of the Colombian army. This is no secret to anyone, not to U.S. lawmakers and certainly not to the Colombian civilians who see AUC members walking in and out of military barracks, handling the guns and eating the K-rations provided by our tax dollars.

Time and again during our visit, we saw a people terrorized by this war. We visited the community of Soacha, an enormous shantytown on the outskirts of Bogota, where thousands of Afro-Colombian families have settled. They have all fled violence of epic proportions; each can tell the story of an assassination, a military campaign, a massacre that left friends and family dead.

We visited the city of Barrancabermeja, where more than 1,000 people have been killed since the AUC took charge a year-and-a-half ago. Some are political assassinations; others are part of a social-cleansing campaign. Carlos, a gay-rights activist, fled to Medellin under threat of death shortly after we met with him. William Mendoza, president of the union that represents Coca-Cola workers, travels everywhere with armed guards; paramilitaries recently tried to kidnap his 4-year-old daughter out of her mother’s arms on a street corner.

The stories of intimidation and violence we heard are repeated in millions of lives, not just across Colombia but around the globe. And whether these killings are committed by guerrillas, paramilitaries or “lawful” armed forces, they are acts of terrorism, pure and simple.

[Asheville residents Willy Rosencrans and Melissa Fridlin recently spent two weeks in Colombia with Witness for Peace and School of the Americas Watch. They will give a presentation on their trip at Malaprop’s on Thursday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m.]

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