Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What is "Terrorism," Anyway?

From CBS News Hilary Clinton testifies about Benghazi:

"We had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or because of guys out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans? At this point what difference does it make, Senator?" Clinton asked Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., when asked why the administration initially gave an inaccurate version of the events that took place.

What difference, indeed. After the attacks on the embassy in Benghazi, and the administration's reaction to it, there were a lot of people asking whether it was a terrorist attack or not. What was never clear to me was why this was an important, or even meaningful, question to ask.

If it was a protest that turned violent, that certainly can be taken to be an act of terrorism. But people seemed to take this question to be turning on the difference between a pre-planned attack, and a spontaneous uprising. I don't see how a definition of terrorism would require premeditation, but even ignoring this, the whole question is just a bad one. Because the attacks could have been premeditated and used the protests as a cover. Then is it an act of protest or an act of terrorism? Well, both; but it seems like a spontaneous protest can also be conceived of as an act of terrorism, and a premeditated terrorist attack can be a form of protest. So what mileage are we even getting out of these distinctions?

Perhaps it seems I'm being pedantic, but this is important. This question featured in the second debate between Romney and Obama is a prominent way, and Obama won by technicality.  But doesn't it all skirt the real issue any? The questions we should ask in cases of these sort are: Who committed these crimes? Were they committed in a way that offers us any insight into future crimes? Was anyone negligent in failing to prevent these crimes?

All of which are much more important questions than the quibbles over whether it was a terrorist attack or not. And the larger point is this. People often don't realize when they are asking empty questions. Often they think they are asking something that they might think is implied by the form of their question, but it is not. And if you're not asking the right questions, especially if you're not asking the right questions of people who are predisposed to disagree with you, you are not going to get any meaningful answers. You're just wasting time.

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