It is simple and well-known, still some people seem to have difficulties with the concept.

It does not depend on the cause you fight for. A cause which seems fair enough to some, may look unacceptable to others, and sometimes it is extremely difficult (not to say impossible) to decide who's right and who's not. See Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Palestine, etc.

So the nature of your fight does not depend on what you fight for; it depends on how you fight for it. The thin red line between Terrorism and Resistance has a simple name : it is called innocent civilians. The minute you intentionally kill civilians in order to reach your goals, whatever they are, you become a terrorist. It's as simple as that.

This is the most commonly used definition (and in fact the only one) for terrorism in international diplomacy.

Note that this is not a permanent doom: being a terrorist at some time does not prevent you from promoting peace later on. See Yasser Arafat (Peace Nobel Prize winner).

Note also that from this viewpoint, XXth century wars amount to little more than State-sponsored terrorism - although the scale usually differs.
No. In a war of ideals, everyone fights. A resistance is usually made up of civilians and if you think that the American Revolution would have spared civilians if they were fighting against any civilians to spare, you're deluding yourself.

The difference between resistance and terrorism is the person describing it. To the Nazis, the French Resistance were terrorists. The IRA call themselves a resistance movement. The original French Revolution left ample civilians dead and yet is a simple Revolution in the eyes of the people. History is written by the victors. Revolutionaries who succeed call themselves heroes and simply do not reference the bodies left by the side of the road to victory.

We have always been at war with Eastasia.

Noam Chomsky and others would say that the difference between "resistance" and "terrorism" is that:

Resistance fighters are fighting for causes or goal(s) that are supported by your government (ie. of the country you live in).

Terrorists are fighting for causes that your government opposes.

This is based on Chomsky's analysis of the United States media. For example, the Contras were "resistance fighters" even though they were not supported by most of the Nicaraguan population, and specifically targeted non-combatants and civilian infrastructure. But they were on "our" side, so therefore must be "freedom fighters". The (your country) government is by definition "democratic" and "good" and so are their international allies, even if they are evil bastards.

I think that Thomas Miconi's writeup here is the definitive one, and leaves little else to say on the matter. However, the following writeups perpetuate a few common misconectptions:

  1. You can't make an omlette without breaking some eggs

  2. In a revolution everyone fights. Perhaps. But at least they fight voluntarily. Those civillians who do die, do so accidentally.
    However in terrorism, the killing of civillians is precisely the intention of the perpetrators. It is a hostage situation where the terrorists threaten to kill more innocent men, women and children until their demands are met. There is never any attempt to fight toe-to-toe with the enemy, terrorists just strike in the night when they can never be hit back themselves.

  3. History is written by the winners

  4. It is true that the perception of events is altered by whoever actually comes out of it the best. However this doesn't change what is absolutely wrong and what is absolutely right.
    Just because the American government claims that the Contras are freedom fighters doesn't make it so. Equally, just because the word freedom fighter is associated with groups like the Contras or the IRA, it doesn't mean that the boundarys between resisitance and terrorism are forever blurred.
There is a lot of hypocrisy and a hopeless lack of clarity about who are the good guys and the bad guys. But there is a basic morality behind all things which can never be distorted.
Although it is true that terrorism can be defined as the act of killing civilians, the border between civilians and non-civilians can be more blurred than people think. For example, consider the new settlements being created in Israel. The settlers know perfectly well that they are living on land built on conquered territory. They know that they are going into a war zone. They are explicitly there so that Israel, if and when peace talks ever get anywhere can claim "We can't give back that area, we have settlers living there, and we developed it." Nobody makes any bones about the fact. The settlers are well-armed and know exactly what they are there for.

Given these facts, would Palestinians who attack what is quite clearly an invading civilian force (paradoxical, I know, but true nonetheless) terrorists, or merely a resistance movement, fighting against the forced occupation of their territory by a civilian force defended by the military?

"Resistance" and "terrorism" are not, as some people seem to be suggesting, alternatives in any form. The two terms are, quite simply, not in the same semantic category.

"Resistance" defines a type of conflict in terms of a broad category of aims: it implies an situation of oppression, which may be external (an invader) or internal (an oppressive regime), or some combination of the two. These are descriptions with a strong subjective element, and can and will therefore be disputed by people with differing views on what constitutes oppression in any given situation.

"Terrorism" does not define a type of conflict; it describes a method used in a conflict: the technique of attempting to achieve your aims through frightening enough of your opponent's population into accepting your demands. It would, by such definition, include random killings of civilians (and, arguably, of conscripted combatants), with the primary intention of intimidation and spreading fear but regardless of the means of delivery, but exclude actions which, to adopt that good old Gulf War phrase, cause collateral damage in the attempt to achieve a more conventional military objective. Indeed, terrorism might include actions which were intimidatory but caused no loss of life or injury at all.

There is therefore no inherent dichotomy between terrorism and resistance; a combatant can be a resistance fighter, a terrorist, both or neither.

Thomas Miconi is on the right track with his idea of "the difference between terrorism and resistance is one of whether or not the group in question intentionally kills innocent civilians".

The problem is, we need an adequate definition of civilian. The classic military definition, that is, "one who is not employed in an armed force" does not necessarily apply. Besides this, it can be argued that "civilian" is itself a relative term, defined by the conflict taking place.

Therefore, to refine Thomas Miconi's argument, I propose defining "civilian" as "any person not directly involved in the conflict in which the fighters are participating". In this way, to use ymelup's example, Jewish settlers in the West Bank are not considered "civilian" in the context of the dispute over the occupation of that region. Even though they are technically not employed in an armed force, they willingly and voluntarily enter the conflict, knowing and accepting their role as pawns in the game. However, by the same token, an Israeli commando stationed in Tel Aviv does not necessarily directly participate in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied territories, and so relative to that conflict he could be considered a civilian even though he is employed in an armed force.

If the term "civilian" is defined thus, then the difference between terrorism and resistance is more clear. A resistance movement will seek to fight only those who are actively fighting them, and leave everyone else alone. If a non-combatant dies, then it is purely accidental, and never by the resistance movement's design. On the other hand, a terrorist does not care whether or not the people he harms are the people he is actually fighting against, and might even go out of his way to harm noncombatants.

In short, terrorism is not defined by one's cause, or even one's method. It is defined solely by one's targets, and the line can be clearly drawn.

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