CORRECTS BYLINE TO BEN EARP FROM CHUCK BURTON - Charleston, <noindex srcset= S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof, second from left, is escorted from the Shelby Police Department in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. Roof is a suspect in the shooting of several people Wednesday night at the historic The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Ben Earp)" width="300" height="225" />

By George Jonas, with permission of the author

Was the racially motivated mass murder in a historic black church last week in Charleston, S.C., an example of domestic terrorism? Some say yes, some say no, and some say what difference does it make? Shooting nine human beings who have done, or threatened to do, you no harm is capital murder in South Carolina, the U.S. jurisdiction where this massacre occurred, making the killer a candidate for the death penalty. This is a fact, whether we allege that 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof is a domestic terrorist or just a hate-filled and particularly vicious mass murderer.

True as this is, definitions matter. Like street signs, they may be unimportant to a person in a familiar location who recognizes landmarks and knows where he’s going, but they’re vital to a first-time visitor. In the labyrinth of political philosophy, we’re all easily lost and can use every road sign that may be available to us.

Terrorism is a pejorative term. Are all violent acts we abhor terrorism? No, but some people like to use the word with calculated sloppiness as if “terrorism” were a synonym for abhorrent acts.

Conversely, can any crime, no matter how vile and violent, that happens to serve a cause with which we sympathize amount to terrorism? Of course it can, but many resist it. This is the key reason we haven’t yet arrived at a philosophical or legal definition that is universally accepted.

Nothing excuses terrorism. A non-binding 1996 UN resolution came closest to delineating the moral meaning of the term when it declared that, Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.”

It’s easy to call terrorism by some other name when it serves a cause we endorse or sympathize with, but saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter is just adolescent sophistry.

We often use the phrase to appear sophisticated when we’re merely being dishonest or hypocritical.

Terror is what terror does. It’s not true that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but it’s true enough that squeamish or cowardly individuals (or institutions from the “New York Times” to the CBC or NPR) may call a terrorist they fear, or whose politics they find attractive, a freedom fighter or at least a “militant” -- while calling a genuine freedom fighter they dislike (for an ideological reason) a terrorist.

But it shouldn’t be hard to identify the historic “zealots” of Judaism as terrorists simply on the basis of what they did; nor is it difficult to recognize the “assassins” of Islam or the “provos” of Irish independence. They’re all terrorists. And it’s means, not goals, that define an act of terror.

Terrorism is most neutrally defined, I think, as an act of violence threatened or carried out by a nongovernmental agent or agency against a noncombatant person or persons for a political or ideological purpose. For this reason, carpet bombing urban centres in wartime, causing inevitable civilian casualties, morally reprehensible as it may be, depending on circumstances, couldn’t be described as “terrorism” -- not even with the word “state” stuck before it.

An SS officer serving the Third Reich could be a war criminal, fully deserving the hangman’s rope, but not a terrorist. Nor were the would-be assassins of Adolf Hitler terrorists: the Führer of wartime Germany was anything but a noncombatant.

Does terror work? Not all the time, but then diplomatic measures, economic sanctions and conventional warfare don’t work all the time either. In most historic examples, terror succeeds in bringing about at least some of the political change its perpetrators desire.

Terror is victorious when it persuades the terror-stricken that they’re motivated by a sense of equity

What’s the mechanism of politically successful terror? Is it just a matter of scaring people badly enough? I don’t think so. For terror to work scaring people is necessary but not sufficient. Even the in-your-face terror of a totalitarian state — fascist, communist or theocratic terror — requires more than fear to function. For the asymmetric terror of the weak — Basque, say, or Chechen secessionists — fear serves only as kindling to ignite an illusion of sympathy.

No one likes to think of himself as a coward. Simply scaring people might even get their backs up. Most prefer to think they’re yielding to the terrorist’s demand, not because it’s safer or more convenient, but because it’s the right thing. Asymmetric terrorists hit the jackpot when they convince their targets that they haven’t been swayed by fear, but by a desire for justice.

Terror is victorious when it persuades the terror-stricken that they’re motivated by a sense of equity. When victims who meet the terrorists’ demands think they’re acting out of an abundance of good will, rather than an abundance of caution, terror is triumphant.

Gunmen massacring worshippers in churches or Unabomber-types blowing up civil servants in office buildings have never achieved this. Domestic terrorists or not, they’re usually dismissed as individual madmen, raising questions of mental hygiene rather than political philosophy.

The only public-policy change the loathsome monster of Charleston may achieve is the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitols of the American South, 150 years after the Civil War.



George Jonas was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1935, the son of Dr. Georg M. Hübsch (1883-1972), a lawyer, composer, and former member of the Viennese State Opera, and Magda Hübsch (1905-1997) whose first husband, Julius Jonas, went missing at the Russian Front in 1942. After attending the Lutheran Gymnasium between 1945 and 1954, Jonas worked briefly as a program editor for Radio Budapest. Following the Hungarian uprising of 1956, he emigrated to Canada, where he did freelance work as a print and broadcast journalist until the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation offered him a staff position in 1962. Working as an editor and producer on staff and contract for the next 34 years, Jonas produced his last show for CBC-TV in 1996. Since then he has been a freelance writer/producer based in Toronto. In 2005 he was appointed Senior Policy Advisor to the Aurea Foundation, for which he co-created the semi-annual public affairs series, the Munk Debates, featuring such participants as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger, among many others.

In addition to 16 books, some of which have become national and international bestsellers, Jonas has written three works for live stage (The European Lover, a one-act opera, with music by Tibor Polgar, directed by Leon Major, first performed in 1965; The Glove, a one-act opera, with music by Tibor Polgar, directed by Alan Lunn, first performed in 1973; and Pushkin, a full-length stage play, directed by Marion Andre, first performed in 1979). Jonas has also written and/or produced and/or directed over 200 dramas and documentary dramas for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, including the award-winning radio and TV series, The Scales of Justice (1981-1996). A film, Sword of Gideon, based on Jonas's book Vengeance, and directed by Michael Anderson, featured Michael York, Colleen Dewhurst, Lino Ventura, and Rod Steiger. Another film, Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Eric Bana, was nominated for five Academy Awards for 2005.


THIS GUEST COMMENTARY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE “National Post Newspaper” on June 24th 2015:



Proudly powered by WordPress   Premium Style Theme by