What is a terrorist?

The proposed “Anti-Terrorism Act of 2005” defines terrorism as “the premeditated, threatened and actual use of violence or force or by any other means of destruction perpetrated against persons, properties, or the environment, with the intention of creating or sowing a state of danger, panic, fear, or chaos in the general public, group of persons, or segment thereof, or coercing or intimidating the government to do or abstain from doing an act.”  The key word is fear.  A terrorist is someone who threatens or actually uses violence and force to create a climate of fear and panic.

By this definition, former Commission on Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano could be charged with terrorism.  On June 7, 2004, he was caught on tape talking about the abduction of the family of a municipal election officer who offered to testify about electoral fraud committed in Tipo-Tipo, Basilan.  He bragged that he had called an officer in the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP) to pick up members of this person’s family to use them as a “bargaining chip.” The election officer, a woman by the name of Hadja Rashma Hali, had indeed come to Manila to execute an affidavit.  A few days later, however, she withdrew her testimony. She had been effectively terrorized.

A voice widely believed to be that of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was also caught on tape in a separate conversation with Garcillano. GMA: “Did you get my text about the Tipo-Tipo?” Garcillano:  “Oo Ma’am, that’s what I’m fearful about…We’re asking people to look for her so we can control her.”  GMA: “She’s probably already being held by them.” Garcillano: “She is here.  That’s why if it is possible, we’ll have her family call her up.”  Garcillano told her of the plan to silence Hali using her family, and GMA did nothing to stop him.  That makes her an accessory to terrorism.

I am sure this conclusion can be reasonably argued, especially in the light of the Arroyo regime’s penchant for using coercive means to deal with the daily mass protests demanding her ouster from the presidency.  The so-called Calibrated Preemptive Response that Malacanang has recently adopted as a policy can be seen as an example of illegitimate use of police power to sow fear.  It occupies the same conceptual bench as George W. Bush’s doctrine of “preemptive defense” against international terrorism.

Yet no court of law will probably indict Garcillano and GMA for terrorism.  There is nothing even faintly redeeming about plain abduction in the service of electoral fraud, or about police brutality in the service of personal political survival. We more or less have a clear idea of what terrorism means.  It is typically associated with acts of defiance and violence in the service of certain political objectives, usually of groups fighting against perceived or real oppression. Because acts of terrorism are often integral to liberation struggles, defining the concept in precise terms has eluded even the best minds in the United Nations.

In a lecture he delivered in Manila in 2002, the Austrian legal scholar Dr. Hans Kochler made this observation: “Because of the lack of consensus among member states on the basic criteria defining terrorist acts and on the characteristics distinguishing them from acts of national liberation (eventually providing special exemptions for certain movements under anti-terrorist conventions), there exist only implicit – or ‘operative’ – definitions.”  There are many such definitions, but none, he says, has been able to distinguish adequately between terrorism and legitimate acts of resistance against foreign occupation or national liberation.

One can immediately appreciate the difficulties that this lacuna poses.  How are we to treat the daily bombings in Iraq targeted against the American occupying forces and their civilian surrogates? Should we view them as acts of terrorism, as the Americans do, or as acts of legitimate resistance by the Iraqi people?  Was the American embargo against Iraq that led to the death of at least half a million Iraqi children a legitimate act of war, or was it an act of terrorism by a bully state?

I think that what should be condemnable – whether we are talking of terrorism or of crimes committed in the course of war – is the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians.  But for this, we may not need a new anti-terrorism law.  There are enough existing laws that prohibit and punish such acts.  If one is needed at all, as Kochler argues, it should be harmonized with existing laws, in order to avoid applying one set of laws to ordinary crimes and another one to a special set of “terrorist” acts.

In this manner, Kochler says, “acts of national resistance would not be criminalized per se (as is often attempted by states when they are in the position of occupying power), but would be judged according to the same rules as acts of regular warfare by a national army.  Both state and non-state actors would be held to the same standards of international humanitarian law.”

As in the global arena, so also in the politics of societies, the promulgation of special measures like the anti-terrorism law brings with it the danger of its easily being used as a comprehensive instrument of unaccountable power.  It would be a mistake to put a law like this in the hands of a regime that grows more vicious by the day as it desperately fights to extend its life.

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