During a visit to the United States last week, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni made some comments about terrorism that we do not often hear anymore. Unfortunately, these comments received little attention in the media. Mr. Museveni, who took up arms to oust Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, noted that:
Freedom-fighting is not the same thing as terrorism. If you are oppressed, if you are colonized, you should fight for your freedom. You can fight using peaceful means, like Gandhi did. You can use arms, like we did. That, however, does not make me a terrorist.
If I target non-combatants deliberately, however, then I am a terrorist.
Thank you, President Museveni, for reminding us of this important distinction at a time when we in the United States have lost some of our clarity on this issue. Public discussion of the tragic events in Israel over the past week exemplifies how confused our view of the war on terror has become. Almost every account I have read equates the Palestinian attacks on Israel and the Israeli response. The term “cycle of violence” is trotted out time and again to summarize the actions of both sides. What is lost in the discussion is the fact that in all of its operations this week, Israel has targeted operatives and leaders from Hamas, a group openly committed to terrorism. Hamas, on the other hand, has targeted innocent Israeli civilians on their way home from work and school. Sadly, last week was a “successful” week for Hamas — a bus bombing for which they have claimed responsibility killed 17 Israelis and wounded over 100.
Given the muddled state of the public discourse on this issue, let us revisit the basics. Terrorists seek to kill innocent civilians. When they kill innocents, it is neither a mistake nor an unfortunate byproduct of conflict — it is a mission accomplished. To the terrorists, an attack that leaves dead civilians in its wake is a success; an attack that leaves scores of dead civilians in its wake is a great success. Such “victories” are often greeted by dancing in the streets of the communities from which the terrorists have come.
When the United States, Israel and other victims of terrorism respond to terror, they seek to kill and disrupt terrorists and thereby prevent future attacks and loss of innocent life. The United States and Israel take great pains, to the point of endangering their own soldiers, to prevent or at least minimize innocent casualties. When innocents are killed in such operations, it is a mistake, a terrible byproduct of war. The deaths of innocents are a cause of regret and recrimination, not celebration.
There is, therefore, no “cycle of violence” in the U.S. war against al Qaeda. There was a terrible act of terrorism committed against innocent Americans on September 11 followed by U.S military operations against those responsible. Our troops have sought out the terrorists and their leaders wherever they may hide, from caves in Afghanistan to a dusty dirt road in Yemen. We have engaged in pre-emptive attacks on those who plan terror because not to do so would be to permit the spilling of more innocent American blood at some point in the future.
There is also no “cycle of violence” in Israel’s war on terror. There are repeated terror attacks from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, followed by Israeli military responses to prevent more such attacks. Earlier this month we witnessed some long-awaited movement towards peace under President Bush’s strong leadership at Sharm el-Sheikh. Yet, immediately thereafter, Hamas and its brethren terror groups demonstrated in clear words and in bloody deeds that they would not be a party to this peace process. They removed themselves from any reconciliation.
A stretch of farmland in my home state remains scarred to this day from the impact of an airplane that fell out of the sky on September 11. As we all came to learn, a great struggle took place on that plane before it crashed in a Pennsylvania field. There was certainly violence on that plane that day. But there was no “cycle of violence” there. There were merely terrorists and the heroes who stopped them from accomplishing their mission. For all I know, my colleagues in Congress and I owe our lives to those brave men; the Capitol was a likely final destination of that hijacked plane. In honor of those American heroes, and all of the Americans who have fallen in our just war on terror, I will never permit the line between terrorist and defender to be blurred. Moral clarity is necessary for what will no doubt be a long struggle against a ruthless enemy.
Sen. Arlen Specter is a Republican from Pennyslvania.