The blurring of terror

Last week’s despicable act of terrorism that killed five Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria was rightly condemned by the international community. What was missing in the media, however, was the labeling of the attacker as a “terrorist.”  For as long as I can remember there have been liberal media outlets that substitute the word “terrorist” with “militant” — even though the two terms are neither equivalent nor synonymous. I sometimes have attributed these word substitutions to an editorial naivety about being “objective” when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but more often than not it can be attributed to an anti-Israel bias. So last week’s coverage was, in reality, no different from what I expected. The issue this time is that, due to recent Israeli actions, I am now hamstrung in my efforts to counter this media bias.

Israel’s alleged decision to murder Iranian nuclear scientists (and, reportedly, its dealings with the terrorist group Jundallah) has made it more difficult for advocates of Israel to show a clear distinction between legitimate military operations and terrorism. If terrorism is defined as the intentional targeting of enemy civilians, and Israel indeed killed Iranian scientists, then either Israel has unwisely expanded the concept of what constitutes a legitimate military target. Either way, this does not bode well for Israel.

As for the Iranian scientists, one might argue that once they were recruited to work on a militarized project for the government of Iran they became part of Iran’s military apparatus — legitimate targets for assassination, especially given the stakes involved and Israel’s lack of other options. This argument sounds reasonable at first blush, but upon further review it sounds eerily familiar to the arguments set forth by Hamas (and formerly the PLO) when committing acts of terrorism against Israelis. Their arguments have always been that Israel is a militarized society in which nearly everyone is conscripted into the IDF with reserve duty commitments later in life to prepare them for potential war. Thus, there are, in effect, no Israeli civilians. They also always argue that given the high stakes involved — the plight of the Palestinians — and the lack of military options against the mighty Israeli army, they have no other choice when choosing their targets.

If Israel took the step of murdering Iranian scientists, it unwittingly gave legitimacy to the past and future conduct of its enemies. It furthermore blurred the definition of terms that are highly important to Israel’s public image on the world stage and to the retention of the moral high ground.  This is all beside the fact that, strategically speaking, the Iranian assassinations did nothing to deter Iranians from pursuing their nuclear aims (reports state approximately 1,300 Iranian university students applied to switch their majors to the field of nuclear sciences following the assassinations).

We mourn the innocent lives taken from us last week in Burgas. We fight to carry on their memory by ridding the world of the scourge of terrorism. This fight may have been made harder by the alleged actions of Likud and Bibi Netanyahu.

About the Author
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania