Some have attempted to define Terrorism as acts of violence perpetrated by non-state militaristic organisations against non-combatant civilian populations, and in some cases at least this is true. Terrorism, however, is more than this. It is not a behaviour in itself that can be readily identified or defined. Rather, it is a label used by those in power to discredit certain groups who have turned, for any number of reasons, to politically motivated violence, and it is worth noting that ‘politics’ is rarely included in the many recycled definitions of terrorism. Undoubtedly there are groups that rightly deserve the discredit and opprobrium such easy definitions give them, but – and as history has shown repeatedly – there have been times, like the American and French Revolutions for example, when terrorism has been employed against the state and civilians and has later been justified.
In fact in international law it is a well-known principle that people have the right to rebel against unjust or tyrannical government, and even to armed resistance against a foreign invader. This convention or principal is important to this discussion in that it underlines the sometimes unavoidable nature of violence. Those subjected to governmental injustice or oppression, and the victims of foreign invasion and occupation did not invite it upon themselves, but their liberation oftentimes demands violent resistance. While passive, non-violent resistance has to be the preferred option such a course of action stands little hope against mass murder and genocide. Sometimes violence is the only available response, and the label of Terrorism will be used by the aggressor as the legitimate state agent.
So given that Terrorism now has the same potency as a means of defamation on the international stage as the word Paedophile has on a housing estate, can we ever justify the terrorist as a freedom fighter? To begin with it has to be acknowledged that violence must only ever be a last resort. One cannot claim to be a hero with a gun when other reasonable routes to conflict resolution are or were available. People have and do make this case against the Provisional IRA in its armed struggle during the Troubles in the North of Ireland. Peace did come, and that peace was won after dialogue, and so critics of the armed struggle point out that diplomacy was always an option. Yet this was not the case. Margaret Thatcher said repeatedly that her government would never negotiate with terrorists, and by treating the IRA as terrorists qua illegitimate combatants she excluded the possibility of resolution through dialogue.
Peace in Ireland was brought about by negotiations only after violence forced all the parties to the table, but it must be conceded that Downing Street could have come to the table at any time. It pursued a policy of peace by annihilation; a check which it ultimately could not cash. It can be said therefore that IRA violence paid off in that it did play a significant role in bringing about a more just peace in the North, but to say that the violence was justified is quite another matter. Certainly it can be said that the terrorist can, in such circumstances, be vindicated as a non-state agent bringing an oppressive and intractable government to book. I am not sure if we can ever justify the horror of violence, but in the real world we can at the very least say that it can be and has been the lesser of the available evils.