Who made the following threat? "If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the likes of which has never been seen on this earth."
1. Osama bin Laden.
2. Shimon Perez.
3. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
4. Harry Truman.
The envelope, please.
Answer: Harry Truman, 16 hours after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, August 6, 1945.
Was Harry Truman a terrorist for ordering the nuclear bombing of Japan? Many people think so; a lot more wonder about it. Obviously, it all depends on how you define "terrorist."
Here is how two Federal Government definitions of terrorist would handle the Truman case.
The FBI says: "Terrorism is defined in the Code of Federal Regulations as 'the unlawful use of force and 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.' (28 C.F.R. Section 0.85)"
Violence, intimidation, political objective: for those who want to characterize Truman as a terrorist, the FBI definition was made to order.
Well, almost. The only thing in his favor is the word "unlawful." That word does not save the day, however; it only postpones it. Unlawful according to whom? I doubt Japanese laws sanctioned a nuclear attack against it.
Verdict: guilty. Bailiff, handcuff the prisoner.
We come to the State Department's definition. The "term 'terrorism' means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents."
Before bringing Truman back into court, a few things must be noted:
(1) If "politically motivated" is accepted, then such events as Columbine are not terrorist attacks. American terrorists seldom claim political motives. The result: terrorism becomes a foreign phenomenon far from Main Street America. An inconvenient fact is thereby concealed: most terrorists come from Main Streeters, i.e., the middle class.
Also worth noting: the State Department defines one difficult-to-define word, "terrorism," in terms of another difficult-to-define word, "political." We are sent from Pontius to Pilate.
(2) The word "non-combatant" implies that, among other incidents, the 9/11 attack on the pentagon and the 1983 attack against American barracks in Beirut were not terrorist attacks. American soldiers will not accept that conclusion. Indeed, the Defense Department's definition of terrorism does not use the word "non-combatant."
All of which is confusing, to say the least.
Truman (1) had political motives and (2) thousands of non-combatants were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Therefore, Truman was a terrorist; America, a terrorist nation.
But wait: all is not lost.
(3) "Subnational groups" lets all national governments off the terrorist hook. I ask the State Department: if one of your officially-declared terrorist groups, e.g., Al Qaida, takes over a national government, are they by that fact alone no longer a terrorist group?
Verdict: Because he was the head of a national government, President Truman is innocent of all charges of terrorism. Bailiff, remove the handcuffs.
Where we are now: the FBI says President Truman is guilty. The State Department says he is innocent. Talk about an ambiguous result.
What is Truman -- really? We need a third definition.
A necessary warning: all definitions of human phenomena are partial and provisional. The two-paragraph definition that follows is no exception:
"A terrorist is usually a middle class rebel (1) experiencing magnified marginal or transitional conditions, who (2) voluntarily (3) goes through certain rites of passage, among which are (4) clique membership and (5) a deliberate decision to commit a criminal act that is almost always (6) violent and most often (7) murder, in (8) the name of higher intentions or convictions without (9) retaining consciously the ambiguity of his criminal act and his higher intentions/convictions.
He expresses powerful, unconscious, ambivalent emotions in two ways: (10) converting his intentions/convictions into fixed ideas or absolute truths, the opposite extreme from ambiguity, and (11) wielding uncertainty as a weapon. That uncertainty is total, as shown by the fact that (12) everyone -- allies, non-combatants, even himself -- is a potential victim."*
Under that definition, Truman is not a terrorist. He was not a middle class rebel who went through certain rites of passage. He did not make a deliberate decision to commit a criminal act. He did not wield total uncertainty -- in which American allies (among others) were potential victims of violence -- as a weapon. Finally, and perhaps most impressively -- and contrary to popular belief -- Truman was conscious of the ambiguity of the nuclear bombings and his intentions:
"Revisionist historians condemn Truman for his allegedly unrepentant decision to drop the bomb in 1945. In fact, Truman behaved like a man most shaken by the decision. He had directed that the bomb be used 'so that military objectives are the target . . . and not women and children,' and he was considerably disturbed when he learned that most of those killed at Hiroshima were civilians.
The day after Nagasaki he ordered that further atomic bombing be stopped. He told his cabinet, as Henry Wallace recorded in his diary, that the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn't like the idea of killing, as he said, 'all those kids.'"**
Encumbering definitions with vague nuances designed to expand agency jurisdiction ("any segment thereof," "political or social objectives"); acknowledging facts that go against one's theory or viewpoint but not doing anything with them; defining one abstraction by another; when one's argument is weak, resorting to the law or regulations (which one helped make) to rest one's case: such "bureau-pathic" reasoning is quickly clouding over the fundamental issue of what is a terrorist.
If you want to see how ambiguous the official definitions really are, apply them to a real life U.S. case. Example: was Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy's assassin, a terrorist? Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman notes that Sirhan "had a political motive (to protest against U.S. support for Israel) . . ." That motive makes Sirhan a terrorist, right?
Wrong. Hoffman dismisses Sirhan's politics not with evidence but a wave of the hand: "Sirhan acted entirely on his own, out of deep personal frustration and a profound animus."*** The requirements that a terrorist must have a political motive or be a member of a "subnational" terrorist group create unnecessary blind alleys, unfruitful dead ends.
As for why the government wants Sirhan defined as a common criminal and not as a terrorist: can you imagine the American public's outcry if an assassination comparable to that of Robert Kennedy happened today? Political complications both nationally and internationally mount exponentially if an assassin is regarded as anything other than a lone wolf nut case. Ditto for Lee Harvey Oswald.
Nevertheless, both agency definitions are highly successful. Underneath all the hubris for transparency and clarity, ambiguity is their real goal.
The reason is that in an ambiguous situation, he who is in a POSITION to know has the power.
*For an elucidation of this definition, see my four-part article, "A New Definition Of 'Terrorist.'"
**Arthur Schlesinger, "The Cycles of American History," Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999, p. 398.
***Bruce Hoffman, "Inside Terrorism," Columbia University press, New York, 2006, p. 37.
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a political consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. He worked for all levels of government, and for all three branches. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science.
He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion."