Earth Liberation Front members convicted of arson in Oregon have had their sentences “enhanced” because the government decided to charge them under the overbroad terrorism laws. According to the government, any activity that attempts to influence the conduct of government through “force or violence” is an act of terrorism. Imagine10 people burning their draft cards in the public square as a protest to war, or five priests and nuns illegally entering a missile base and pouring blood on a nuclear warhead, or a small group of militants tearing up the railroad tracks leading from a munitions factory. Each group committed a crime, each destroyed property,and if arrested, every member would be charged, tried, and punished. But calling any of that terrorism distorts the meaning of the word and is a slippery slope towards authoritarian rule.
A useful definition of terrorism might be something like this: terrorism is warfare deliberately waged against noncombatants — or innocents or civilians — for the purpose of intimidation or provocation in a political struggle. Terrorists intend to effect change through violence and bullying, and in that way, to undermine policies they oppose.
Acts of terrorism can be inflicted on people by an individual or group, a party or faction or religious order, a gathering of insurgents, or an established state. No one — individual, group, sect, or state — has a monopoly on terror as a form of combat. Even a casual nod at history reveals just how pervasive a tool it has been: the Roman legions, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks all used massacres, pillaging, burning of homes and farms, and mass rape in the service of empire, as did the Incas and the Aztecs, and later the Spanish who overwhelmed them both. In modern times, the founders of Israel used terrorism against the British and the Palestinians; the Palestinians use terrorism against Israel; and Israel currently employs terror in the service of settlement and occupation. In our own national story, terror is a defining signature of the Indian wars, Sherman’s “March to the Sea,” and the bloody war in Vietnam. If we use a stable and consistent definition, then it is a fact that the overwhelming number of terrorist events in the world today are caused by established governments, notably our own.
Members of the Earth Liberation Front were convicted of arson, a serious crime. If what they did was terrorism, then terrorism has come to mean any act in opposition to the rulers.