Sunday, February 17, 2013

One more time: Terrorism and the English Language

"... for Owl, wise though he was in many ways, able to read and write and spell his own name WOL, yet somehow went all to pieces over delicate words like MEASLES and BUTTERED TOAST.”
A.A. Milne

The Supreme Court of Canada has somehow gone all to pieces over the word “terrorism.”    On the other hand as Glenn Greenwald said, the New York Court of Appeals is even more confused.  That’s Greenwald’s problem but he’s an American  and more than equal to it

Meanwhile, I’m a Canadian fan of Canada’s Supreme Court and independent judiciary.  I like to think the Supreme Court judgement of 2008 [2008 SCC 28] laid it on the line, forever and unanimously:

The principles of international law and comity of nations, which normally require that Canadian officials operating abroad comply with local law and which might otherwise preclude application of the Charter to Canadian officials acting abroad, do not extend to participation in processes that violate Canada’s binding international human rights obligations. 

And I have no doubt the legal reasoning in [2012 SCC 69] is equally impeccable.  And yet somehow the main problem isn’t dealt with.  The main problem is that terrorism is a useless concept.  Even if it were clearly defined – which it isn’t – “terrorism” however defined is a crime covered by the Criminal Code of Canada as it existed at the time of the Air India bombing in 1985, international criminal law as it has existed in Canada since 1998, and in any other example you care to mention.

The formulation of  “terrorism” in the Criminal Code of Canada Section 83.01 (in force since 2001) is in two parts:  the first lists crimes that were already crimes under international conventions; the second is of violence against people or destruction of property, the destruction having to result in violence against people, also crimes.  The only distinction between these (terrorism) crimes and existing crimes is the motive, the motive being "in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.”

And yet, the motive is useless.  Timothy McVeigh undoubtedly had a motive for blowing up a federal building in Oklahoma, but there is no evidence it had any effect on anybody, within the meaning of the Criminal Code of Canada, and I’m sure it was already a crime in Oklahoma to blow up buildings, particularly without warning and with people inside. Also, McVeigh was crazy. Similarly, the planting of bombs on Air India Flight 182 in June 1985, apparently the work of Sikh terrorists in British Columbia (“a Canadian atrocity” as Justice Major put it), must have had some kind of undefined motive (revenge possibly) but the bombing had no political or other effect on Canada, India, Air India, or anybody else (within the meaning of Section 83.01) except that airport security was increased.  It was however a crime at the time, and the guys who did it also crazy.  

Nevertheless, the Indian Army did not invade Surrey, BC, in “self-defence” (like NATO in Afghanistan) to “root out” the source of terrorism in Canada, even though the Canadian government and its agencies incompetently ignored warnings that the bombing was going to happen.  I’m imagining an Indian Bob Gates:  “We’re in British Columbia because we were attacked from British Columbia.” 

I’ll go off on a tangent here to point out that it’s hard to find  the Air India final report, as opposed to Stephen Harper’s propaganda about it, which I speculate is due to Justice Major’s conclusion that the current government (Harper’s)  – as well as previous ones that weren’t Harper’s  – obstructed the work of the commission.  I thought that obstruction of justice was also a crime under the Criminal Code of Canada (Section 139.2). I don’t think this is entirely tangential given that Harper is obsessed with crime and we’re discussing the definition of terrorism as a crime with which the Canadian government is also obsessed, although incoherent about the definition.

Anyway, the only successful terrorist operation I know of was 9/11, in the sense of deliberately causing civilian casualties for a political or military purpose, and having that purpose achieved.  A handful of guys from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, armed only with primitive weapons, brought down some American icons and lured the USA into land wars in Asia that have bankrupted America financially, morally, and politically.  On the other hand, although 9/11 was obviously criminal (mass murder), it fails to meet the necessary but not sufficient test of “terrorism” for the purposes of Canada’s Criminal Code Section 83.01(b)(i)(B):
“ whole or in part with the intention of intimidating the public, or a segment of the public, with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act, whether the public or the person, government or organization is inside or outside Canada...”

In these terms, 9/11 fails to meet the test because it neither intimidated a civilian population, nor compelled any government or organization  “ do or to refrain from doing any act...”
I suggest that “terrorism” as now defined in law – anybody’s law – is sloppy, useless, and corrupt.  The term short circuits higher cortical function in politicians, citizens, and the judiciary, and connects the primitive brain directly to the gonads.  The killing of civilians is murder, whatever the motivation.
Meanwhile, the fundamental justice of British parliamentary democracy has not changed.  As Winston Churchill said:
You might however consider whether you should not unfold as a background the great principle of  habeas corpus and trial by jury, which are the supreme protection invented by the British people for ordinary individuals against the State.  The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and whether particularly to deny him judgement by his peers for an indefinite period, is in the highest degree odious, and is the foundation of all totalitarian Governments whether Nazi or Communist.

The uses of the words “terror,” “terrorist,” and “terrorism” have been the most political, dishonest, and brainless debasement of English in the last three decades.  Or on the other hand they have been the most effective, if the desired effect is what George Orwell said about democracy:

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.

So we can transmogrify Orwell into the present context:

In the case of a word like terrorism, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call an act terrorism we are condemning it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that they oppose terrorism, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.

Of course the Security Council Resolution 2085 (adopted unanimously on December 20, 2012) conveniently doesn't define “terrorism”  either, or what in fact the goals are for involvement in Mali, how the UN will know when the goals are achieved, what the criteria for withdrawal are, and what “all necessary measures” are.  Would this include another “no fly zone”?  The last “no fly zone”  in Libya resulted in the current problem in Mali.  Conveniently at the UN, there is no institutional or individual responsibility for the consequences of the resolutions, or even accounting.

In the interests of clear thinking, maybe we should talk less about  terrorism and more about crime; in fact, only crime.  Unless of course crimes are committed by governments  “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause.”  In that case as Orwell said:  “In power politics there are no crimes, because there are no laws.”