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Is One Person’s Terrorist Another Person’s Freedom Fighter?
Terrorism: a widely discussed topic, with many having passionate views on the subject and the terrorists behind it. Freedom fighters: an example of the good in this world, people fighting for their rights under the oppression of dictators and corrupt and violent leaders. A stark contrast, surely? With today’s political climate and terrorist activity, are a terrorist and a freedom fighter the same thing?
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a ‘terrorist’ as ‘a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’. A ‘freedom fighter’, according to the OED, is ‘a person who takes part in a revolutionary struggle to achieve a political goal, especially in order to overthrow their government’. There are certain phrases in both these definitions that should be highlighted. For example, in the definition of a terrorist, the OED says that terrorists use violence and intimidation in ‘pursuit of political aims’. The definition of the freedom fighter is also based around achieving a ‘political goal’. This similarity in definitions demonstrates that the line between terrorist and freedom fighter might not be as clear cut as we would like to believe. However, I do not believe that we should adhere to what the dictionary says, as the dictionary cannot account for things such as context and social factors that we humans can when defining terrorism as opposed to freedom fighting.
Take Nelson Mandela. A great man, fighting for the ending of the apartheid against the black population of South Africa by the minority white government. What started for him as a peaceful protest against the government slowly turned into more violent acts, with the 1960 Sharpville Massacre proving to be the final straw for Mandela’s attempts to achieve his goals through peaceful means. Many remember Mandela not only for his peaceful acts, but for his more sinister, violent acts too. He is famously quoted as saying ‘There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of shadow again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires’. After the massacre, Mandela and some others founded ‘uMkhonto weSizwe’ (known otherwise as the MK), translating to the ‘Spear of the Nation’ – a group considered by the South African government at the time to be terrorist, and indeed they were using terror to fight back against the government. The MK conducted bombing attacks on various political and economic targets, even after Mandela’s arrest in 1961. This is an example of when freedom fighting transcends from more peaceful acts to more violent ones, in the hope of gaining what the freedom fighters want. Mandela, in this sense, can definitely be considered a terrorist, as what he was doing fits the OED definition of ‘terrorist’ very well. However, the important question to ask here is can these attacks be justified? Do the ends justify the means? Mandela chose to go down the path of violence after the peaceful protests made by the South Africans were met with violence and death. There was very little choice in Mandela’s mind, and many agree that if he hadn’t gone down the path of violence the apartheid in South Africa would’ve lasted for much longer than it did. This, I believe, is an example of justified violence in order to achieve equality between the coloured and the government in South Africa.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, more commonly known as Che Guevara, was an Argentinian freedom fighter who would fight alongside Fidel Castro in the guerrilla war he was fighting against Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator. Guevara would play a key part in the war, leading troops against Batista’s forces and becoming a military advisor to Castro. After Batista was overthrown by the revolution in 1959, Guevara was put in charge of the La Cabaña Fortress prison, where it is estimated between 156 and 550 were executed on his orders. Later that year, he was also put in charge of the Cuban national bank. Guevara left Cuba in 1965 to try to start a revolution in Bolivia, however this didn’t succeed as, with only a small force of guerrilla soldiers, he was captured and executed by the Bolivian army. Guevara is seen by many around the world as an example of radical left freedom fighting. Prior to meeting Castro, he had been travelling widely around South and Central America, and as a result saw the widespread poverty, oppression, hunger and disease. This, coupled with his interest in Marxism and Communism, led to him believing that armed revolution was the only way to end poverty and get rid of the dictator Batista. This is why he is seen by many as a freedom fighter, as he worked to overthrow the dictatorship that was currently in place in Cuba. However, he was also seen by many to be a terrorist after his actions both against Batista and against his own troops. He was a harsh disciplinarian, sometimes shooting defectors and deserters, who were considered traitors. Guevara was much feared amongst those under him for his brutality and ruthlessness. In this sense, he appears as a cruel, sadistic terrorist, as there are examples of terrorist organisations, such as ISIS, who treat deserters and defectors with the same level of contempt.
There are many more examples of what we in the West, and indeed in other parts of the world, consider to be freedom fighters. However, it is important to take into account that different people, for varying reasons, will have different beliefs and views on the world. That knowledge is key in answering this question. Both Ghandi and Mandela were considered to be terrorists in their time, however their work has changed the course of history, in my opinion, for the better. On the other hand, there are men and women who left a much sourer note on world history.
Osama bin Laden, the man behind various terror attacks (most notably the 9/11 attacks), is considered by most to be a terrorist, and it’s clear to see why. Starting militant acts just after he left college in 1979, he would go on to form al-Qaida, one of the most infamous terrorist groups in history. Very few people would want to call him a freedom fighter. However, those very few people do exist, namely the people left in al-Qaida after his death. His son called on the ‘oppressed Muslim masses’ to ‘rise in rebellion against oppression and tyranny’ and ‘revolt against the agents of the Americans’. These extreme Islamic jihads view bin Laden as a freedom fighter as they believe that what the Americans do in the Middle East go unreported and unjustified. This lead to bin Laden’s first thought about attacking the World Trade Centres. He saw towers being destroyed in the Lebanon War, with innocent civilian lives taken, and decided that America should ‘taste some of what [the Lebanese civilians] are tasting’. This harrowing quote from bin Laden, speaking in 2004, demonstrates perfectly why in some groups he is thought of as a freedom fighter with the expulsion of American troops from Middle Eastern soil at his heart. In this sense, if one sees the Americans as being in the wrong, then it is possible to consider someone who is typically seen by Westerners as a deplorable terrorist, as a freedom fighter, fighting for his country and his beliefs.
Another very recent group considered to be terrorists by those it affected is the Irish Republican Army, or IRA. The IRA were first formed in 1917, and were comprised of the Irish men who didn’t want to fight for the British. From that point onwards the IRA would split into different branches, some more political and some more violent than others. All of these groups would eventually lead up to ‘The Troubles’, the name given to the guerrilla war between the IRA and its various branches against British rule of Ireland. This ‘war’ which started in 1968 is deemed to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. However, splinter groups would continue to operate indefinitely, such as the Real IRA, which still hasn’t officially disbanded. The IRA were fighting the British as they believed that the British didn’t have the authority to control Ireland. This drew many divisions in Ireland, especially between Catholics who were mainly Republicans – wanting Ireland to be a republic with no British influence, and Protestants who were mainly Unionists – wanting Ireland to stay under British command as it had been. This divide caused friction and conflict internally in Ireland and in Britain, with the IRA conducting many bomb attacks in major cities in England, in an effort to get Margaret Thatcher to remove British troops and command from Ireland. These bombings were widely perceived, especially amongst the British and Irish Unionists, as terrorist attacks, and it is clear why. The IRA were using what could be argued to be ‘unlawful violence […] in the pursuit of political aims’ – the removal of British control from Ireland. However, there is also a view of the IRA and these bombings as freedom fighters, bravely fighting the British in order to remove them from their country and stop their command of Ireland. The IRA’s actions fit the definition of a freedom fighter, however their use of ‘unlawful violence, especially against civilians’ also meets the criteria for terrorism, as these bombing attacks were mainly against civilian targets. On the other hand, the British military were also committing what the Republicans considered to be terrorist acts, particularly Bloody Sunday – the killing of thirteen unarmed male civilians at a proscribed anti-internment rally in 1972. This is arguably very similar to Mandela’s response to the Sharpville Massacre – the unjustified killing of unarmed civilians by the oppressive force, in this case the British military, which caused violence to ensue from the oppressed. However, the crucial difference in the case with the IRA is that prior to Bloody Sunday, the IRA were using violence in the form of bomb attacks, whereas Mandela wasn’t.
In conclusion, there are many examples of what we in the West would call freedom fighters or terrorists. We, with our Western morals and standards (arguably largely based on Christian values), know what we consider to be good and what consider to be bad and, albeit it differs slightly from person to person, we can still very easily obtain a general consensus of what constitutes bad versus good. Therefore, I think many would agree with me if I stated that Mahatma Ghandi was a freedom fighter. He fought against the British colonial control of India, and eventually achieved his goal of an Indian controlled India. Mahatma Ghandi was, in my opinion, a great man, and is a fine example of freedom fighting, as no matter what the British tried to do to him, or whatever struggles and troubles he came across, he always advocated one message above everything else: the use of nonviolence and peace. This, I believe, is fundamental to freedom fighting: the use of peaceful protest against an oppressive government or regime. Another good example of peaceful freedom fighting is Martin Luther King Jr. A key figure in the Civil Rights Movement, King lead the oppressed black people in America to fight for equal rights. His example of always preaching nonviolence would be continued even after his death in 1968. The constant nonviolence shown by these two men make them, in my opinion, examples of men who cannot beyond any doubt be considered terrorists, as their nonviolence sets them apart from many others who have been considered freedom fighters. However, when considering freedom fighters, I believe that it will always be possible to find a viewpoint that, within reason, considers them as terrorists. I also believe that it will always be possible to find a viewpoint, again within reason, that considers terrorists as freedom fighters, as long as violence is a recurring theme. Whilst some may say that violence shouldn’t be a defining factor if the ends justify the means, I say that the idea of justification is merely different from person to person. Where one person may see a freedom fighter’s actions as justified, another may not. Therefore, as we cannot ascertain a definition of justification for violence that everyone will agree on, people will continue to react to violent actions differently, and so I think that yes, one man’s terrorist is definitely another man’s freedom fighter.
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