by Serge Berthier

There is no such thing as a good war. That is why we have to think hard and without passion at the true and crude meaning of the events that have led to the death of about three thousands civilians in New York on September 11, 2001 and at least 4,000 Afghan ones between October 2001 and early January 2002, among them hundred of young children.

Terror in the world affairs is not new. And a "war against terror", as the media has labelled the latest outbreak of violence taking place in our so-called "civilised " world, should not really surprise anyone.

What is thoroughly disappointing, however is that our new Millennium is already tainted in red, a color that we alleged for the most part of the past century was better suited to the previous one, which was for a large part described as the Dark Ages. Yet the XXth century has been the bloodiest ever in the history of the world, and it looks that the XXIst one is already on the same track. What a shame.

The use of terror for the furthering of political ends was the ultimate weapon used by Robespierre, the French revolutionary government against its opponents. Danton, another revolutionary with as much credential than Robespierre, tried to oppose it. He was executed for raison d'état. But so was Robespierre.

Fred Halliday, of the London School of Economics, considers that today assassinations, bombings, seizures of individuals as hostages and the hijacking of means of transport, the most spectacular being the hijacking of planes, are what terrorism is about. But since at one time or another, every government in every country has used one or more of these forms to carry out a political agenda, then it can probably be argued that every government has been or has the potential to be a terrorist. Think of the French government ordering the sinking of a boat of Greenpeace, many years ago. It was an act of state terrorism. As for the United States, today, the leader of the war against terror, the list of the acts perpetrated undercover for "legitimate" reasons, is so long in South America and elsewhere that its issue would not suffice just to list them down. Every nation-state carrying such action will use as an excuse that its targeted attacks are acts of "preventive" defence, or as the Israeli put it "self-defence".

Why is it that when an Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian or an Israeli helicopter targets a car with a missile, it is self-defence while when a Palestinian kills an Israeli soldier, it is a terrorist act?

There is of course no real difference between the two. The acts are the same. They both end with a killing, and if one actor is using a multi-million weapon and the other a $10 one, it is only because their resources are vastly different. That is why we should not confuse the way a terrorist act is carried out with its meaning. In other words, it does not make the act of terror itself more or less important because one ends up being a sophisticated act resulting with an enormous loss of civilian life (the Twin Towers attack) while the other remains an individual action resulting in the killing of an innocent victim.

We have asked eminent scholars of Asia to try to look at the concept of terrorism in Asia. What is terrorism in Nepal, for example? In the Himalayan Kingdom, the terrorists are a group of revolutionaries called the Maoists. They are at war against the Kingdom and its political apparatus. But why is it that they have the support of a large section of the population for whom the state appears to be the terrorist?

What is terrorism in Kashmir? For the Indian government, it is any act of violence against India. But a large part of the Kashmiri have never agreed to be part of India. Who is it that we have to blame? Pakistan, India or the British who contrive a plot that has no final chapter except a bloody insurrection that has been going on for fifty years? Ahmad Faruqui, a Pakistani scholar, and Ajai Sahni, an Indian scholar, analyse what terrorism means in this corner of the world.

Lu Youshi and Zha Junhong, two Chinese scholars look at the problem from a higher plane. To paraphrase President Bush, their view is that the G8 consider that if the world is not part of it, then it is against it. It is therefore not surprising that a champion of the non G8 countries would emerge to challenge such world order. Such a champion is currently Osama Bin Laden, and that is why it is important to hear what he says about his fight against America.

There have been many Bin Ladens before (but it is doubtful that President Bush has any knowledge of them!). In the most part of the past millennium, among many of the characteristics the past Bin Ladens share with him, was the religious creed that is underpinning his faith in the rightness of his mission. Many people challenged the papacy that was more or less in the Western world what the United States is today to the same world: its center. The enormous difference in resources made it likely that the challenger would be caught, dead or alive. When alive, a due process of justice would take place and with all the cards stacked against him, the perpetrator would be executed. It is expected that Bin Laden will one day be assassinated or be brought to a court that will condemn him. So there are many similarities.

In Europe, the latest of the challengers to the morally bankrupt and enormously rich papacy was Luther. The only reason he did not die was not because he outsmarted his predecessors who were burnt at the stake, but because at that point of time in history, some enlighted and powerful baron, Frederic de Saxe, started to have doubts about the papacy itself. Luther, first a pawn between the entrenched Medicis papacy and its detractors, was offered and took refuge in a German state. It was the beginning of a revolution that, in the end, after much blood had been splilled, brought more accountability and more justice to everyone. But Luther was not fighting for a more equitable civil society. He was a deeply religious man. He thought he was fighting for God and against the Medicis.

In fact it is precisely because the Islamic world badly needs a Luther that a man like Bin Laden has emerged from the shadows to challenge the family of Saud and its main ally, the United States. We publish what his views are because he is quite clear about what he wanted to achieve and In Saudi Arabia, they have already an enormous influence (see the notes of his interview).

While the similarity with Luther (or Calvin) cannot be pursued too far, especially in the religious field, what remains is the fight of an individual against a system that, in his views, is against his religious belief. Such a fight has always been qualified as an unacceptable challenge. Today Bin Laden is excommunicated by the international community, pretty much like kings and individuals not toeing the papal line were, in the past, excommunicated by the pope Leon X.

The excommunicate was no longer part of the civilised world. He/she was most of the time deprived of his/her life at the same time and would not be buried in a consecrated burial ground (the ultimate insult). By being an apostate, he/she was no longer a civilised human being, regardless his/her age and was treated accordingly.

The excommunicate victims of such a "Christian" world numbered several million of people. Most of them came from the poorest and less sophisticated section of the society.

The excommunicates of yesterday are since September 11, 2001, relabelled "terrorists". And the treatment the al-Qaeda and Afghan prisoners receive means that they are no longer considered "human beings" for many such rights seem not to apply to them anymore as can be seen from the manner a small number of them are being kept in an American military camp in Cuba, in conditions that breach the Geneva convention.

The historian will keep in mind that there is little between a religious movement and a nationalist one. In both, the members believe in their inner right to belong to some specific ideal others deny. And not surprisingly, for both, their forms of action are generally considered by those who opposed them as terrorist acts. Hence the Falun Gong is classified a terrorist organization in China and only a religious one in the United States.

The historical perspective that will emerge from the September 11, 2001 events and what ensued will place them in their proper place: that of a politically motivated act of violence. But it will be no more than that. It is not new, it is not a break from the past. Only their scope, methods and number of casualties are different. But a difference of degree or sophistication does not make them any more significant that past events. They are just a disappointing repeat of history. So much, therefore, for all the progress made in the XXth century. It evaporated in the aftermath of the collapse of two buildings in a matter of days.

Of course, acts of violence should not be tolerated, but unfortunately, and contrary to the general assumption, they are not only tolerated but conveniently ignored when they suit a particular agenda. And that is why the United States had no moral legitimacy in such a fight. Kofi Annan has himself stated that more often than not "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". That the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre were a massive crime, everyone would agree. That those involved must be punished is right, but as Bin Laden points out: he too as a list of who are the perpetrators.

If the perpetrators of terrorist acts have to account for their actions, then surely a common law must apply to all. That is where our statesmen are on the wrong track. If they want to make the current Millennium different from the previous ones, then they should surely not act like the pope trying to bring a dissident to justice to burn him at the stake anyway. Nor should they think that they have a right to self-defence while the subdued ones have no right to change the world. They should first fix a common benchmark, not an ad-hoc one that singles out the loser.

Surely our society should elaborate new rules and morality where we so far have only the law of the jungle. But it seems that none of this is going to happen.

We are pretty much like the Roman Empire, stultified in its dignity. For a couple of centuries, the Barbarians were kept at bay, at an increasing cost for the system. Then Rome toppled like a cardboard. The Barbarians of yesterday became the rulers of the day and the Christians, from being the villain, became the heroes. Terror then changed sides.

Are we condemned to a repeat of history? Not necessarily, but as long as we have world leaders that believe that military might is the best option to protect the upper-crust of the current order, I am afraid the answer is yes for it is precisely such callous views that brought our past "civilised" societies to grief.

Serge Berthier