Who Do You Think Of When You Hear The Word ‘Terrorist’?


The blunt use of the term belies the complex and conflicting histories of those it has been applied to, writes John Salisbury.

The word ‘terrorist’ is bandied around by politicians and social commentators with extreme casualness. The effect on the greater social psyche is devastating. It is a word that demands caution and nuance in its use. The media are well known for their selective use of words, chosen carefully for their positive or negative connotations. Some who wield guns are referred to as ‘freedom fighters’ while others are labelled ‘terrorists.’ The difference between these two types of people is complex and subjective.

In 1942, two Czech soldiers were parachuted into their homeland by a British military plane. Jan Kubis and Jospeh Gabcik had a special mission to fulfill; in a highly planned joint initiative the men assassinated Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich.

Heydrich was the man appointed by Hitler to be in total charge of Czechoslovakia in 1941. He was one of Hitler’s favoured sons. He was brutal and oppressive, ruling with fear and his own form of terror.

Following the murder of Heydrich, Hitler ordered massive reprisals. Revenge against anyone who was family or friend of the two Czech men was also swift and brutal. Gabcik and Kubis were hunted down by the German government as terrorists and died after some valiant resistance.

But how would we describe those two men? Were they ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’? History is written by the winners and these men have been held up as heroes by all after Germany’s fall. There has already been one Hollywood film created about the actions of Kubis and Gabcik (another is on its way), but according to the Oxford Dictionary’s definition, these men were not heroes, they were terrorists.

The African National Congress was a group on America’s terrorism watch list for decades. They were most active in the 1970s – 1980s and were not removed from the American watch list until 2008.

It was from among this ‘terrorist’ group that one of last century’s most revered and respected figures emerged. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in jail on trumped-up charges relating to his activism seeking enfranchisement for all citizens of South Africa. Mandela was proudly a member of the African National Congress from the early 1960s and eventually became President of South Africa in 1994 as a continuing member of the group. Most remember him today as an almost godly figure.

new matilda, mandela
A Nelson Mandela bust in London. (IMAGE: Paul Simpson, flickr)

A look through the history books of East Timor reveals a similar story.

Indonesia invaded and annexed the former colony in 1975 against the wishes of the East Timorese people. Some of the Timorese formed into resistance movements termed ‘terrorists’ by the Indonesians. A long and brutal military conflict ensued between the occupying Indonesians and the Indigenous ‘terrorists.’

Xanana Gusmao was the leader of the Indigenous resistance. He was imprisoned after being captured by Indonesian soldiers but later went on, like Mandela, to become President of a newly independent East Timor. This ‘terrorist’ went on to successfully and legally lead his people. The world now largely considers the actions of Gusmao and his resistance movement as legitimate and courageous.

Today the word ‘terrorist’ is most often used to describe Muslim men and it is used daily to describe the Palestinian men fighting for their beliefs in the heated Israel-Palestine conflict. Today’s Israel sternly condemns the methods of ‘terrorism’ used by Palestine but it was not very long ago that the people of Israel were reliant on terrorism themselves. In British mandated Palestine, post World War II, the Jewish insurgency terrorist groups the Irgun and the Stern Gang were the ones using “unlawful violence and intimidation […] in the pursuit of political aims.”

They blew up the King David Hotel, killing ninety-one civilians. Soon after, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was deeply affected by the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo by the same Israeli terrorist groups. Wanted posters went up throughout Palestine for the capture of members of these groups. They were considered violent outlaws. Two of the men wanted for their acts of ‘terrorism’ were Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Both men later became Israeli Prime Ministers. Today, in the history books of Israel, these men are considered heroes who served and founded their country.

These historical examples remind us that ‘terrorists’ aren’t born, they are made. We don’t wake up one day and decide that we will out of nowhere become one. Something has propelled us to take up arms: a foreign occupying power; a denial of human rights and equality; a grave injustice that the world has been blind to for some reason.

If the Japanese had succeeded in occupying Australia instead of just bombing Darwin in World War II it seems reasonable to imagine that some of us would have also formed resistance movements. ‘Terrorists’ could have fought guerrilla campaigns from the Dandenongs in Victoria or the Blue Mountains in New South Wales.

And so to now address the most obvious recent use of that dreadful word to describe some of our fellow human beings. I have heard it said that ‘not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.’ The Germans, British, Afrikaners and Indonesians might disagree in other times. We feel rightfully outraged when we hear of innocent civilian victims in Paris or Brussels but the media and our politicians don’t encourage the consideration of a broader perspective.

The West’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the starting point for so much of what is still an unfolding disaster. Our Middle East interference over many decades has consequences. Paris and Brussels are some of those consequences. The outrage we feel at random explosions can probably be seen as an act of revenge for some equally outrageous act of indiscriminate violence in which Muslims or Kurds have been victims. Social media lights up with messages of sympathy for the European victims of Paris and Brussels but is largely silent for the Muslim victims of terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Beirut.

Terror is not, however, only employed by those who are disenfranchised or occupied. It is also a method of violence used by governing bodies to take or maintain power.

Following the Heydrich killing in 1942, over 500 Czechs were put in front of firing squads by the Gestapo as vengeance. Furthermore, two Czech villages were bombed out of existence as a display of force designed to terrify anyone considering insurgency in the future. So brutal was the German response that no further acts of ‘terrorism’ were undertaken by Czech resistance fighters up to and including the fall of the Reich in 1945. The local population were too scared, too terrified.

And so we come full circle to today’s politicians and media organisations. They now frequently use the word ‘terrorist’ to instill fear into the hearts of voters. We are taught to be afraid of all Muslims as their religion has become synonymous with ‘terrorism’ and illogical, unfathomable acts of random violence. Israel has sought, successfully, to portray Hamas as a terrorist organisation. This in spite that Hamas won internationally supervised elections in January 2006. When Israel drops its deadly payload of bombs on Gaza we can only imagine the terror that is inflicted on those huddled masses.

Do we really think that the aim of these bombing campaigns is to do anything other than intimidate and petrify the Palestinians? State sanctioned terror is every bit as frightening. But the media and those in power would have us believe that only Hamas is thought of as the ones doing the terrifying.

Some of you, in reading this, may think that I am a terrorist or a terrorist supporter. If that is true then I think I have made my point: the word ‘terrorist’ is grossly overused. It simplifies and distorts at the expense of otherwise trying to understand complex human issues that deserve a much more nuanced approach.


John Salisbury is a 61-year-old self-funded retiree with a life long interest in issues of global injustice. John was born in New Zealand but is a 40-year resident of Melbourne.