“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In counter-terrorism circles, this phrase has gone beyond cliché and often relates to the terrorism of decolonization or terrorism as perpetrated from the 1960s to the late 1980s. But in light of Nelson Mandela’s death, we are reminded of the subjectivity of the label terrorist.
This is not a new subject. Terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Yet it is a label that carries the same weight of a scarlet letter, and it sometimes outlasts those who assigned the label. in Mandela’s case, it is often overlooked that he was officially considered a terrorist until 2008, as was the ANC. Because Nelson Mandela and his comrades fought the unjust regime of the apartheid, or just fought the regime, he was labelled a terrorist. The same for Gandhi, declared terrorist by the British Parliament in 1932. Two of the most worshiped and widely respected political figures of the 20th century may not have survived such a label today.
It would be hard to imagine either Mandela or Gandhi described as “lacking morals”, “blood thirsty” or having for sole purpose “to kill civilians”, as terrorists are often described today. Yet the regimes they fought truly considered them as terrorists and repressed or punished them accordingly. Like many prominent figures labelled as terrorists, it only enhanced the mythology around them, and strengthened their support.
Other historical figures also labelled as terrorists – but later redeemed – include Menachem Begin (very active in the Irgun), Malcolm X, Abby Hoffman, Jacques Lanctôt, Yasser Arafat, Larbi Ben M’hidi (leader of Algeria’s FLN), Nguyen Binh (leader of Vetmin fighters in Indochina), Patrice Lumumba. All of these individuals were considered terrorists at some point or another, yet history remembers them in a much gentler light.
“Terrorist” is not a label to be used lightly. The power it contains, the violence and horror it represents, the judicial and judiciary consequences it contains are all elements that are nearly equivalent to a death sentence. And the same logic should apply to the use of counter-terrorism laws, especially detention powers. If the label of terrorist is used indiscriminately, it becomes diluted and loses its meaning, which is why it is essential that it be used with discretion.
As long as all agree on what a terrorist is, of course. Otherwise it’s just another subjective interpretations of someone’s disturbing political actions, making the label not only quaint, but ridiculous, especially when figures to whom it was applied, like Nelson Mandela, are later elevated to sainthood.