Terrorists and Freedom Fighters: There IS a Difference

Despite our desperation to believe otherwise, there is a difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Those who spend the effort to think rationally can distinguish the difference. Those who don't distinguish the nuances between the two make it easier for terrorists to thrive. We may even be thought of by the rest of the world as terrorists themselves, and perhaps rightly so.
When I first heard the statement that "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" shortly after the attacks on 9/11, I was incensed. How could this possibly be true? A terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist, it seemed clear to me.

Since then, though, I've discovered much more nuance. Terrorism and freedom fighting can be easily distinguished from each other by rational people. While terrorism is never justified, freedom fighting is. The only kind of person who cannot recognize the difference, is one who is prejudiced and unadulterated by nationalistic, tribalistic, or knee-jerk political passions. Islamic extremists are affected by such passions. Fox-news-watching Americans are, unfortunately, similarly motivated.

Fighting for freedom is essentially defensive in nature, while terrorism lashes out (or advocates lashing out) offensively. Based on this definition, Saad al Buraik, who breathed out the following threats against the United States, is a terrorist
I am against America until this life ends, until the Day of Judgment.

She is the root of all evils, and wickedness on earth.

My hatred of America, if part of it was contained in the universe, would collapse.

Quoted in Holy War on the Home Front, by Harvey Kushner, p. 66

Saad al Buraik should be banned from the United States for such diatribes. Nearly everyone can agree that the words of al Buraik constitute an advocacy of terrorism. Yet if we recognize al Buraik for what he is, why, then, do we think it is okay for American patriots to similarly proclaim their hatred for Muslims and that Islam is the root of all evil? It's because we don't understand the nuances.

National and international struggles are aided and shaped by public opinion. Because nearly everyone born into this life is motivated by the Light of Christ (Doctrine and Covenants 88), nearly everyone has a keen understanding of right vs. wrong. Thus nearly everyone is a rational person when it comes to distinguishing between the struggles of terrorism and freedom fighting. A failure of the United States government to understand the fundamental difference between the two plays directly into the hands of exremists--the irrational few--on both sides, and eventually turns even the rational observers and participants against us.

In his book Russia and the Arabs, Yevgeny Primakov points out that even supposedly vicious Soviet communists understood the role of public opinion in the struggle for power
In my own nation of Russia, as in the Soviet Union, many people divided terrorists into those fighting for "just" causes and those who employed terror for "unjust" causes. Now our eyes have been opened by the terrorist acts of Chechen separatists. But even well before [this], both Russia and the former Soviet Union took a firm stance against the Palestinians' using terrorism to fight for their rights.

Russia and the Arabs, p. 16

As the Soviets met with various Palestinian groups, the Palestinians told them that hijackings and other acts of terror were calculated to bring the Israeli government to the bargaining table in an effort to find accommodation and compromise. The Soviets regularly pointed out to the Palestinians their mistaken thinking, however, that
terrorist activity was not only unacceptable but also counterproductive, as it had the effect of rallying Israelis around their government.

If only the United States could understand this concept. The inability to separate terrorism from freedom fighting has won the US a plethora of enemies. Because of our inability (or lack of desire) to distinguish the nuances, America is far less safe than we were ten years ago. It is in large part luck that we haven't suffered additional terrorist destruction on American soil. Ironically, we have created our own "ticking time bomb", of which pundits are so fond of prognosticating.

For a short time following the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, America garnered the sympathy of nearly everyone in the world, proving that most people are rational. It didn't take long for the United States, however, to squander this sympathy. We wasted the world's respect because we don't understand the nuances of terrorism and freedom fighting. Far too many Americans think that the United States is justified in do anything it wants around the globe. Most of the rest of the world, being comprised of rational people, thinks otherwise. Much of what the United States has accomplished in the Middle East is interpreted by much of the rest of the world as varying acts of terrorism.

In his book Operation Dark Heart, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer tells of an episode in Afghanistan where an assumption was made, in the absence of hard evidence, that high-level members of al Qaeda were holed up in a "safe house". Against Shaffer's advice, the supposed safe house was struck with several missiles. Soon thereafter it was proven that no terrorists had been there, but that, rather, several innocent women and children had been killed by American fire. Against all evidence, as well as the preponderance of world opinion, the United States claimed that al Qaeda had used the innocents as human shields. The world, however, saw through the charade. This one event was far more damaging to America than any single terrorist attack, and yet there have been several similar American missteps in the Middle East. Each such mistake causes world public opinion to swing away from thinking of America as a freedom fighting nation and toward viewing us as a nation of terrorists.

To some extent, they might just be right. It's time for Americans to recognize that the way we are perceived by the rest of the world--because it is often reasonable and rational--is a perspective that we must take into account. It is not just Americans who are rational and reasonable. Unfortunately, some Americans, including those in prominent places (in both major political parties), are demonstrating that we are, in some instances, less resonable and rational than the rest of the world.


  1. Well, I beg to differ on a few counts. Terrorism, I would agree, can be clearly defined and the US Army Field Manual did so some years back. Terrorism is the use of deadly force or the threat of deadly force against civilians in order to achieve a political goal. Terrorism is always wrong whether it takes the form of a suicide bomber in an Israeli street or an Air Force bombing civilian targets in Hiroshima, Dresden, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The main problem we have in defining terrorism is our unwillingness to use it to describe our own government or its allies.

    Freedom fighters, on the other hand, cannot be so easily understood. Generally speaking, a group of people who are struggling to overthrow an oppressive dictatorship or a foreign occupier may qualify, but such people do not have governmental power. Whether they would institute a free and democratic government should they win their struggle is a matter of conjecture and virtually impossible to determine while the struggle is going on. Some who claim to be fighting for freedom employ terrorist methods and therefore deserve the label terrorist even when their struggle might benefit US interests. On the other hand, the regimes against which those groups are fighting might employ terrorist methods to put down the rebellion, in which case those governments are terrorist.

    I also would make a distinct difference between speech that is hate-filled or intensively negative opinions about a government and terrorism. Mr. Al Buraik certainly hates America but saying so is not a terrorist act, although it may incite others to commit such acts. It is irresponsible perhaps, but we need to be careful to distinguish between speech and action.

    Your closing point is quite correct. If America claims to be fighting a war against terrorism and is committing terrorist acts while doing so, then the entire world can readily see that we are hypocrites and liars. Of course, our government is not about to be honest with us about the rationale for the ongoing occupations and their increasing encroachment on civil liberties. Keeping us afraid of terrorists has many benefits for those in power.


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