The Use And Abuse Of “Terrorist”

This week on Al Jazeera’s website, Manuela Picq, a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College, warns against the government of Ecuador charging indigenous rights activists in the country with terrorism:

It’s becoming tricky to identify “terrorists”, at least in Ecuador. They are not members of criminal organisations, they don’t spread fear or target civilians, nor have a politically motivated agenda. According to President Correa, “terrorists” are those opposing Ecuador’s development. So today’s “terrorism” might just look like indigenous peoples peacefully taking over the streets, with their ancestral knowledge and values, to demand environmental and social rights.

In Ecuador, “terrorists” are indigenous peoples from the Amazon and the Andean highlands fighting to preserve access to water in their communities. Old penal codes written in times of dictatorship are being revived by leftist presidents to repress indigenous activists. As “terrorists”, they are labelled as enemies of the state, and arrested – by the very president that claimed leftist credentials and staged his inauguration in overtly ethnic style.

Picq is correct that indigenous rights activists in many Central and South American countries are being labeled as terrorists, allowing regimes to apply strict anti-terror laws against them. However, her op-ed also highlights a larger problem: the politics of the terrorist label.

Since 9-11, governments around the world have eagerly started labeling opposition groups as “terrorists”, often as a pretext to applying the full weight of the domestic security apparatus. This tactic is not new, but almost certainly has gained prominence since the United States started using terrorism to justify the bending or breaking of numerous domestic and international laws.

Terrorism denotes a specific tactic: violence perpetrated by a non-state group with the intention of creating fear to further a religious or political cause. Yet many governments now apply to term to any opposition group, from indigenous rights organizers, to Arab Spring protesters, to Zimbabwean activists. The simple fact is that nowadays “terrorist” has come to denote nothing more than “a group or persons a government disagree with”. This might be considered a reprehensible but rather unimportant trend if it wasn’t also often used as an excuse to apply violence against those groups.

Given it’s widespread abuse, consumers of news and the international community must have a new vigilance against the abuse of the terrorist label. It is said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but in today’s world they just might be a democratic protester or environmental activist instead.

Photo credit: ItzaFineDay