- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

In his latest videotape, a grim and gaunt Osama bin Laden frankly admits to supporting terrorism but terms the slaughter of innocent Americans a "blessed terrorism."
And he contrasts that with the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan as a consequence of "evil" U.S. efforts to smash his al Qaeda network and the Taliban regime that was its host. In other words, according to bin Laden, there is good terrorism and bad terrorism, and the only difference is the purpose behind it.
Unfortunately, bin Laden is not alone in making such an argument. Even some people who forthrightly condemn the September 11 attacks and not just in the Muslim world subscribe to the idea that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. They point out, for example, that nearly every nation and people have resorted to the use of terror at one time or another in pursuit of their interests and sometimes for very good causes. Isn't terror just another tactic that everyone deploys in war?
We understand these arguments and appreciate that they carry genuine intellectual force. Yet we also are convinced that they are dangerously wrong. Indeed, we submit that it was precisely such rationalizations that made the attacks of September 11 possible in the first place.
The men who murdered executives, cooks, tourists, cops, firemen, rescue workers, flight attendants, secretaries and a host of other blameless people just going about their lives didn't wake up one morning and decide that one dead American was as good as any other.
They had absorbed this idea over time, from an intellectual climate that promoted it. They had heard the word "terrorism" applied to all manner of violence between sworn enemies. They'd almost certainly learned that "state terrorism" was any military or police action that checked their political aspirations.
They'd heard apparently respected writers and intellectuals argue that killing Israeli civilians, for example, was justified because Zionist society is a military society. And because they resented America's influence in the world and opposed certain U.S. policies, it was no great leap for them to persuade themselves, as bin Laden put it in a previous videotape, that "the Twin Towers were legitimate targets" because "they were supporting U.S. economic power."
It is time to tell the truth about terror. Terrorism is not just a way to describe a revolutionary movement we dislike or violence aimed at our allies and friends. Not every revolutionary is a terrorist, and not every terrorist is a revolutionary.
Terrorism is a very specific type of violence. It is the deliberate killing of innocent civilians in the name of a political cause. George Washington was a revolutionary, but he was no terrorist. Osama bin Laden is both.
In its war against Afghanistan-based terrorists and those who support them, the United States has made extraordinary efforts to spare innocent civilians. Nor have U.S. agents slit the throats of bin Laden's relatives or fellow countrymen though that would certainly send a message. Instead, American fighting men and women have been careful to distinguish between soldiers and noncombatants.
This moral distinction is not a recent invention. It is not an idea cooked up by powerful countries to undermine political movements they are trying to suppress. To the contrary, it boasts an ancient and venerable history, and was developed over hundreds of years as a way of protecting the powerless.
As early as the Middle Ages, knights were supposed to spare a long list of noncombatants: women, children, the elderly, the infirm, members of religious orders. And since the need to protect noncombatants from wholesale massacre grew even more urgent with the Industrial Revolution, the result was a series of international agreements spelling out the importance of civilian immunity.
Now the stakes are greater still. Today's terrorists potentially have at their disposal weapons of mass destruction. Thousands of unarmed civilians were murdered on September 11. In the future, millions of innocent lives will be at risk from fanatics who profess to see no moral difference between killing a child in a stroller and a soldier in a tank.
It is time for the civilized world to stop indulging arguments, however sleek and sophisticated, that seek to justify a form of warfare whose very purpose is to wreak indiscriminate slaughter on the unarmed and defenseless.
To those who say terrorism is too much a habit of armed conflict to be eradicated, we say there is no choice. Slavery once seemed like a permanent fixture of human affairs as well, but in one of the great achievements of history, resolute men and women abolished it over much of the world in a mere matter of decades.
Unfortunately, we may not have that much time today. So long as terrorists enjoy safe harbor anywhere in the world, they will pursue ever-more-deadly dreams. They will consider the attacks of September 11 as a prelude to more spectacular strikes against America and other despised democracies. In such a world, a "good" terrorist is indeed an obscene proposition.
It is time to expose the truth about terror, and to act forcefully upon that truth.

Rep. Eric Cantor is chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare. Former Sen. Frank Lautenberg is a board member of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute.

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