According to the book The Eleventh Day:The Full Story of 9/11 what is terrorism? Can one significantly distinguish between terrorism and other forms of political violence? 

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In their study of the events leading up to and following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan do not so much argue about definitions of “terrorism” and about the distinctions between terrorism as viewed from one perspective and legitimate armed struggles as viewed by another, as simply allow the figures portrayed in their book to speak for themselves.  To the extent that many of those figures are considered terrorists by the governments of the United States and most of Europe, Summers and Swan make certain that the views of those individuals and the organizations they represent, mainly al Qaeda, are given a full airing.  They do this not through proselytizing on their behalf, but by quoting these individuals directly from interviews and trial transcripts.  To many followers of Islam, any intrusion into the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of the religion, and to lands once or currently occupied by Muslims by non-believers is a cause for struggle, including armed struggle.  Resistance to Western or Judeo-Christian or communist influences is a sacred cause for such individuals.  While not necessarily representative of the more than one billion Muslims around the world, violence in the name of that cause is widely acknowledged as legitimate and organizations like al Qaeda, Lashkar e-Taiba, Jemaah Isamiyah, and others enjoy considerable support across the Near and Far Eastern regions of the world.

In addition to distinctions between terrorism and legitimate acts of political violence, Summers and Swan emphasize through their telling of the history of the events in question that the post-9/11 “war on terror” waged by the United States was in itself a form of terrorism, insofar as torture was used during the interrogations of captured terrorists like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, the latter the self-avowed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.  In their “Acknowledgements” at the end of their book, in which the authors express gratitude to those who assisted in compiling information, they include the Italian government officials who sought to indict American officials for kidnapping – or executing special renditions – of suspected terrorists seized on Italian territory:

“In Milan, Italy, deputy chief prosecutor and counterterrorism coordinator Armando Spataro gave us a first glimpse of the brutal injustices meted out in the name of the War on Terror; Bruno Megale, deputy head of counterterrorism, described police surveillance operations in northern Italy before 9/11.”

Furthermore, Summers and Swan, as noted, provide a historical and political context in which to view the perspectives and actions of those deemed terrorists by the United States and its allies.  The 1993 bombing attack on the World Trade Center, a plot masterminded by Ramzi Youssef, later captured and extradited to the United States to stand trial, provided an early opportunity to understand the motivations behind such acts – motivations that would be insufficiently understood and appreciated in the United States:

“I am a terrorist and I’m proud of it,” he [Youssef] had declared in court. “I support terrorism so long as it is against the United States government and against Israel.”

Hence, the notion that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  Part II of the book, titled “Distrust and Deceit,” focuses on conspiracy theories regarding the 9/11 attacks, during which the authors quote numerous individuals convinced that the attacks were masterminded by the United States Government and/or Israel to provide a pretext for exerting military control over the Middle East.  While not subscribing to such theories, Summers and Swan, by devoting so much attention to these conspiracy theorists, further illuminate the disparate perspectives regarding political violence.  Resistance to dictatorships or to corrupt regimes is presumably legitimate, as our Founding Fathers concluded, so the use of violence against governments that purportedly lie to their citizens and provoke wars for illegitimate reasons provides justification for violence.  Summers and Swan, again, do not claim to subscribe to such notions with respect to 9/11, but do amplify the distinctions existing throughout the world regarding legitimate and illegitimate acts of political violence.

One can distinguish between terrorism and other forms of political violence depending upon one’s perspective.  Governments freely and fairly elected by their publics enjoy a degree of political legitimacy that morally insulates them from political violence waged against government policies.  In contrast, political violence waged against dictatorial regimes, whether of the Left or the Right (in the latter category, think Spain under Francisco Franco and Chile under Augusto Pinochet) is inherently justified because such regimes lack legitimacy.  That is the easy answer, however.  Many Islamic extremists are motivated in no small measure by the existence of Israel, a Jewish state in the midst of the Islamic Ummah, or community, stretching from Morocco in the West to Indonesia and the southern Philippines in the East.  The Jewish presence in the region currently known as Israel and the Palestinian territories, however, predates the birth of Islam by many hundreds of years, and the creation of a Jewish homeland was the response to thousands of years of persecution against Jews wherever they lived, culminating with the Holocaust.  In short, if one believes Israel has a right to exist, then Islamist terrorism directed against Israel and its supporters is not legitimate political violence. 

During the Vietnam War, violent opposition to the U.S. role in Southeast Asia arose in the United States.  The Weather Underground, in particular, felt justified in carrying out acts of political violence against what its members viewed as illegitimate policies by the U.S. Government.  Yet, the U.S. Government enjoyed legitimacy by virtue of its democratic and constitutional nature, and the U.S. role in Vietnam had enjoyed bipartisan support for many years.  Whether organizations like the Weather Underground, therefore, were appropriately considered terrorists is, again, a matter of perspective.  To this educator, those organizations were terrorists, arguments regarding the Vietnam War notwithstanding.