Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Terrorists and Patriots

Sometimes important lessons are contained in mere coincidences.

On April 21st Massachusetts celebrated Patriot's Day with colorful reenactments of the Battle of Lexington, the first skirmish in the bitter Revolutionary War. British troops fought a deadly engagement with a rag tag band of militia men from Lexington and the surrounding areas. We call those militia men “patriots”; today the British media would no doubt call them “terrorists.”

Quite by accident, the same issue of the Boston Globe that reported the reenactment of the Battle of Lexington with full color pictures of the death by bayoneting of a Lexington patriot, printed a letter harshly disapproving of Jimmy Carter's meeting with the leaders of Hamas. Hamas, the letter insisted, is an organization of terrorists; meeting with terrorists endangers our security.

Here is the definition of “terrorists” as used by the FBI: "the unlawful use of force or 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." This definition fits Hamas; it also fits the heroes of the Battle of Lexington who used violence, not sanctioned by law, in order to coerce a government—the government of George III-- in order to promote political objectives, namely the establishment of an independent state for the American colonists..

The parallel does not merely serve as a rhetorical flourish but reminds us of the situation of some groups we now call “terrorist.” Consider the situation of the British colonists in North America in the 1770s. Dissatisfied with the government of the British king, George III, the colonists decided to declare their independence as a separate country. They understood, no doubt, that the British government would not surrender the vast lands on this continent without a fight. By declaring their Independence, they invited a military confrontation.

This confrontation which began in Lexington was not a regular war, as we usually define it, because it was not a struggle between two countries, each with its legitimate government. In the eyes of Britain and of the world, the government of the 13 colonies, such as it was, was not legitimate because America was a part of Britain. War made by the colonists on Britain was not a legitimate war; the colonists committed acts of terrorism.

Now apply this understanding of the American colonists to Israel and Palestine and to Jimmy Carter's conversations with the leaders of Hamas.

The parallel to the Palestinians is instructive. While Palestine was still a British colony—just like the 13 original states-- the British government declared in 1917 that a Jewish state would be allowed in Palestine. (The actual diplomatic language was a bit more ambiguous.) That state was established in 1948 in Palestine. Some Palestinians became Israeli citizens; the majority of Palestinians fled or were driven out—depending on who tells the story. But at any rate, while Israel established its state, the Palestinians were left without one.

Since then the Palestinians have sought to establish their own state but have not managed to do so, so far. They live in territory controlled by another state—Israel. If they resist the Israeli army, they cannot do so as regular troops of their own state. They cannot but act as terrorists—according to the FBI definition—or give up resisting.

The parallel between the Lexington patriots and Hamas makes clear what people mean when they say:” Hamas are terrorists; we must not meet with them.” What they mean is: Palestinians should not resist but accept Israeli rule passively. In the 1770s there were no doubt staunch Englishmen who said the same thing about the rebellious colonists.

The important lesson is this: Subject populations who have no state of their own, but are a part of someone else's state tend to be voiceless and invisible. Such subject populations, ignored and overlooked, tend to resort to violence to make themselves heard. One does not approve of that violence if one tries to understand its purpose, to emerge from invisibility. In order to reduce violence, restive populations who have no state of their own, but may well be entitled to one, must be met with a willingness to negotiate in good faith. Once a Palestinian state exists, violence will be reduced to a minimum.

The same is true elsewhere—and the parallels are instructive: in Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan and in Tibet. The moment that Tibetans resort to violence their actions too will fall under the definition of terrorism, along with Hamas and the American patriots.

Perhaps we need to be more careful before we condemn people as terrorists. Perhaps we need to call fewer people terrorists and support more groups in their efforts to gain their own, proper government.