The United States has a long history of ambiguity over its responses to acts of terrorism. At times U.S. policy defines terrorism as a form of armed conflict that falls into the category of non-traditional wars such as guerilla warfare, insurrections, revolutions, rebellions, and insurgencies. These call for a military response. At other times it regards terrorism as a law enforcement issue that falls into the category of international crimes such as slavery and piracy. These call for law enforcement, prosecution, and penalty.
Some critics argue the back-and-forth shifts in U.S. policy are the result of changes in administration. Different leaders choose different interpretations. Others criticize the United States for seeming to apply each view according to no principles other than the dictates of interest and convenience.
Such critiques stand on a false assumption that terrorism falls neatly into one of these two approaches. Dividing into camps and arguing that the other side is wrong does not good for U.S. policy. Besides, taking either position would be incorrect, for terrorist acts are acts of war and international crime. They blur the line between war and law enforcement. Any response to be taken, whether preventative or punitive, must recognize terrorism’s dual nature and also be willing to blur the line.
Today’s debate on the nature of terrorism reveals the evolving nature of the international system. The growth of a common international identity and the devolution of capability from nation-states to other entities have eroded the previously firm distinctions between war and crime. For example, collective security, as a concept, is the recognition that sometimes acts of war are acts of crime, with great and small powers acting in concert and very much in a law enforcement capacity, with the goal of deterring and punishing major violations of the norms of international society.
Terrorism poses a challenge to the traditional sense of order. It combines the use of violence for political purposes – traditionally the right of nations – with the targeting of innocent civilians – traditionally the activity of criminals. Terrorism is a war crime in the truest sense of both words.
Recognition of this opens the door to asking, “Is not all war then an international crime?” The answer is, of course, no. Just as the use of violence in the protection of self, others, property, and principles can be justified in individuals, so with nations. It is the aggressive, the grasping, and the purposeless war that is moving toward recognition as an international crime. The ability to recognize the difference and restrain war to defensive purposes earns a nation great respect and, subsequently, increased international power.
The next administration has an opportunity to regain much of the presently waning U.S. moral authority by articulating a clear definition of terrorism as a crime against humanity, punishable by U.S. warfighters. The President must lead development of structural responses to terrorism and other forms of international crime. This includes giving jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court to refer cases of terrorism to the United Nations Security Council for a collective security response. The United States must then solidify this effort by negotiating modifications of the Court’s procedures to protect American soldiers from being prosecuted as war criminals, and then finally becoming a signatory. By taking the lead in defining terrorism as both war and crime, the United States will take its place at the forefront of developing international society and regain some of its status as the world’s leading and most powerful nation.