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{Published on Dateline: Latin America, January 6, 2015}

I am not a listener or a visitor of “Democracy Now!,” but I know about the views of co-host Amy Goodman, having had the chance of reading some of her columns on the Athens News during a past life of mine in Southeast Ohio. Recently, though, a segment of a past show – a transcript of which was shared with me by one of my Facebook friends – left me thinking.

The segment, moderated by Goodman and Aaron Maté, was a critique of the plethora of terrorism analysts that were recruited by the major networks and cable news channels to talk about the recent Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, condemned by many as a terrorist attack. It turned out to be a scathing criticism because one of the guests, journalist Glenn Greenwald, hinted that the analysts’ claims to expertise were fraudulent because terrorism has no single, accepted definition. To Maté’s question about whether he habitually uses the word “terror,” he responded:

I generally avoid it. I mean, you could probably find instances in my writing where I’ve invoked the term, usually just ironically or to refer to the fact that somebody else is using it. But I do think that until we have an understanding of what the term means, it really is a term that ought to be avoided.

Later, he stated:

The term [terrorism] is incredibly malleable, because it’s typically just meant as a term that says any violence we don’t like is something we’re going to call terrorism. And at this point it really just means violence engaged in by Muslims against the West. That’s really the definition of the term “terrorism”, the functional definition.

And before the show went to break, tying with a prior claim of his that the analysts are basically on the payroll of the US government and, therefore, share “the conventional orthodoxies of the American government about terrorism,” he concluded that terrorism is “a term that is so muddled and confused in terms of how it’s used, and it is used for very specific agendas and very ideological purposes.”

I agree with that conclusion. First, it is validated by a bona fide scholar of terrorism, Martha Crenshaw, who insists that its use as an insult is based in part on the morality of political systems and the values to be defended. Second, it shines at its brightest when seen against one of the many ways terrorism has been defined. This one pays attention to its alleged pattern:

[T]hey use force or violence, menace or terror to carry out a criminal project, whether individually or collectively, with the aim to alter public order or to expose society’s safety to danger. Everything that damages people or fills them with terror; who causes serious damages or losses to the environment, communications, transportation, goods, private property; blocks public authorities, cult places, schools, or prevents them to carry out their work; or prevents the laws and rules to be implemented.

This definition was not given by the US government, but by the Bolivarian Government of Venezuela. It appears in page 19 of a publication produced by its Ministry of Communication and Information entitled “Respect Venezuela,” which talks about last year’s protests in Caracas and elsewhere — very disapprovingly, of course. Some of the people behind those protests were indeed violent, but in this publication the Venezuelan government does not differentiate between violent and non-violent demonstrators — all of them are equal franchisees of terrorism. Moreover, they are presented as thugs who followed sinister guidelines allegedly set by a former US military officer, Gene Sharp. In reality, Sharp never served in the military. He actually spent time in jail as a conscientious objector during the Korean War and was hailed by the über-progressive (and chavista-friendly) Nation as a champion of non-violent political action, and any connection between him and the CIA or foreign intrigue altogether was denied repeatedly by Sharp himself and in a 2008 letter signed by left-wing icons Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, among others.

“Respect Venezuela” also describes the street blockades set by opposition supporters, known as guarimbas, as an example of the terrorist pattern described above because they infringe on basic human rights and kill or maim people. Indeed, the list of what the Venezuelan government considers acts of terrorism, according to the 2012 Organic Law Against Organized Delinquency and Funding of Terrorism, is quite broad: “attempts against people’s lives, attempts against physical integrity; massive destruction of public facilities, transportation systems, infrastructures including information systems, public places, or private properties that endanger human lives; economic damages; take of public or merchandise transportation means; the use of fire guns or explosives; liberation of dangerous substances; the setting of fires or explosions that endanger human lives; perturbation of water or electric supplies, or of any other essential resource (see page 20 of “Respect Venezuela” if you think I am lying).” On the surface, at least, this is not too different from 18 USC 113B in the type of activity to be considered an act of terrorism, and a major complaint from the American left has always been that the US government has invoked this section of the law with the purpose of criminalizing domestic dissent. That is bad in the US, but not in Venezuela, where the guarimba is considered to be violence chavismo and its supporters do not like. So you see, Mr. Greenwald, terrorism means more than just Muslim violence against the West. For the Venezuelan government, denouncing its opponents as terrorists follows the logic described by Crenshaw – it is all about defending the values of chavismo and imposing the morality of its political system to any real or alleged troublemakers — nothing different from what Greenwald and the American left believes the US is doing. So how come the US is the only one to be blamed for being fast and loose with the concept of terrorism?

What I find even more curious is that some of what has happened in Mexico around the ongoing and still saddening case of the Ayotzinapa 43 would be considered terrorism in Venezuela. Commandeering a truck and slamming it onto the main gate of an army base could count as seizing a vehicle normally used for the transportation of goods to destroy public property. Burning government buildings to the ground orsetting the presidential palace on fire could also count as destruction of public property. And yes, commandeering buses, as The 43 were doing before their disappearance, could not only be an example of illegally seizing public transportation, but a violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects freedom of movement within the borders of a state. I am NOT saying that The 43, their relatives, and their supporters are terrorists, but that they could be treated as such if they did things like these in Venezuela under the current interpretation of its 2012 anti-terrorist law. Anyhow, Mexico seems to have come up all of a sudden with a law similar to Venezuela’s, since a demonstration held last November in Mexico City demanding justice for The 43 – where the presidential palace was set on fire – ended with the arrest of 11 demonstrators under charges that include terrorism.

Finally, Venezuela’s case becomes more difficult to make when we bring in what Crenshaw and Maryann Cusimano Love, in a co-authored book chapter, consider to be “some core of agreement about the definition of terrorism” beyond its pejorative use: “Terrorism can be defined as organized and purposive political violence that is perceived as unacceptable by society because of its cruelty and unexpectedness” and “typically refers to force against noncombatants, which violates centuries of natural law and international law regarding the rules of war [emphasis in the original],” although “not all uses of violence by groups labeled as terrorist may not be terrorism.” Pages 22 to 25 of “Respect Venezuela” give a list of the allegedly terrorist actions committed by the guarimberos (mostly vandalism) that do not constitute deliberate violence against non-combatants. And if we are to believe that al-Qaeda’s spin-offs in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula are not representative of Islam as a whole, why should we think that people like Lorent Saleh represent the Venezuelan opposition as a whole?

Harvard sociologist Lisa Stampnitzky, another guest of “Democracy Now!,” made statements that warrant separate attention. To a question about what was missing from the analysts’ own take on terrorism, she answered, in part,

if you look at when people were first starting to talk about terrorism in the early 1970s, they were talking about it in a very different way. […] There wasn’t this assumption that acts of terror as a tactic were necessarily something that was done by people who we think are evil. There was not this moral overlay over it. And this has come to be understood as so basic to understanding of terrorism now that it really clouds any attempt to understand the issue.

Stampnitzky might be just talking about what other people thought about terrorism way back when; hence, I will give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she does not really think like that personally. But the problem with leaving morality out of the discussion is that the resulting reasoning, which assumes that anybody or any group who commits an act of terrorism should not be held accountable for employing force against non-combatants, is outright callous. Consider this case: On the evening of July 16, 1992, in what became known as the “Tarata bombing,” two trucks packed with ammonium nitrate/fuel oil exploded in a Lima street, killing 25 people, injuring another 155, and destroying or damaging 183 homes. The attack was carried out by the Peruvian Communist Party-Shining Path, a Maoist-inspired group intent on overthrowing the government and implanting a communist system, and was part of a larger offensive in which about 50 people were killed in 37 prior bombings between January and July of that year. If the reasoning that comes from Stampnitzky’s statement is applied to this case, Shining Path are not necessarily evil or they followed a legitimate tactic under the rules of war; hence, they are not to be liable for this action (as they eventually were during the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2001-2003).

Yes, terrorism is a malleable word. For the powers-that-be in Venezuela and the typical guest of “Democracy Now!,” (and maybe even the typical reader of The Nation), the word “terrorist” is an epithet well deserved by those who disagree with “the people,” but not applicable to, say, Hamas. Double standards like these are what I detest the most about the Latin American radical left.