What do we mean by the term ‘terrorist’?

Nelson Mandela was 44 years old when he was arrested in 1962, and subsequently imprisoned for leaving South Africa without a passport. Two years later, while serving this sentence, he was infamously convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to launch violent revolution, and spent his prime in prison as a result.

These facts are frequently rehearsed. More rarely noted is that Mandela’s arrest was made possible by the CIA, which effectively handed him over to the South African security police by revealing his whereabouts and blowing his disguise. Mandela was a villain then. His anti-apartheid activism had a vaguely communist hue and threatened to undermine a friendly South African regime. Thus was he condemned. As a terrorist, no less. That much was made official during the Reagan era when Mandela and his party, the African National Congress, were added to the US government’s terror watch list.

Now, with Mandela on the brink of his 90th birthday, the scenery could not contrast more starkly. These days, the Queen meets him and London celebrates his milestone with a rock concert. Yet he officially remained a terror suspect until last week, when the US government finally removed his name, and that of the ANC, from its watch list. It rectified an absurdity that Condoleezza Rice said she found “embarrassing”.

At the heart of the debate is a lack of clarity on what we mean by the term “terrorist”. Mandela, you will recall, founded and led the ANC’s armed wing. In that role, he launched bombing campaigns on government and military targets. Is that terrorism? He took care to ensure no people would be killed in the attacks. Does that change your answer? It makes no difference under American or British law, where political violence qualifies as terrorism even if directed against property alone. Is that right? There are no easy, unanimous answers to such questions.

Some insist that terrorism connotes the targeting of civilians -- which would exclude IRA attacks against British soldiers. Others require the violence to be aimed at generating fear, rather than causing mass casualties. Some require the attack to be symbolic in character. And so on.

But the greatest source of incoherence is the irrepressible tendency to politicise the term. Put simply, terrorists are presumed evil and illegitimate by definition. Here it becomes a term of condemnation rather than description. That seems uncontroversial until one considers that it renders the definition of terrorism a political contest.

Inevitably, such political discourse becomes swamped by double standards: those whose cause we oppose are terrorists; those we support are not. The Mandela case sharply illustrates this phenomenon. His past actions cannot be altered, but his status clearly transforms in line with our own political orientations. A terrorist in one era becomes a champion in another.

Such convenient inconsistencies can only devalue the concept of terrorism in the long run, and undermine those claiming to fight it. Surely it would be wiser to accept that, however we ultimately choose to define terrorism, that definition should apply irrespective of the cause being served. The ghastly cliche that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter could then be consigned to irrelevance. It is entirely possible to be both. — The Guardian