The question "what is terrorism" might seem to be an exercise in semantics or philosophy, except that we are supposedly engaged in a "global war on terrorism" and it might be appropriate to decide what or who we are fighting, and why.
And it seems particularly appropriate to ask this question now that Israel and Hezbollah are trading munitions. Hezbollah is firing rockets into Israel and so they are "terrorists" according to Israel and the Bush Administration, while the Iraeli bombing of civilian targets in Lebanon, destroying homes, roads, infrastructure, and private industry, and killing civilians, is described as Israel's "right to defend itself."
This is a clear dichotomy. Hezbollah is practicing terrorism, while Israel is exercising its right to exist, while both are killing civilians and destroying homes and other private property of people having nothing to do with the conflict. How to explain the difference?
1. Cynically: "Terrorism" is the tactic of people we don't like. (I.e, we don't like Hezbollah and we like Israel.)
a. More gently: "War" is for something we support, while "terrorism" is for something we oppose.
b. More specifically: Israel has a right to exist and defend itself by killing people outside of its borders, while Hezbollah has no right to exist and is not allowed to kill any people at any time or any place.
2. Objectively: "Terrorism" is poorly-funded, while "war" is well-financed and better equipped (i.e., with uniforms).
3. Democratically: "Terrorism" is violence by a minority against a majority. There are more Israelis than members of Hezbollah, so Hezbollah is terrorist while Israel is not.
4. Some combination of the above.
How to differentiate "terrorism" from what would otherwise be described as war, civil war, revolution, or simple criminality?
At present, the very vagueness of "terrorism" works to the advantage of the Bush administration because it is a one-size-fits-all kind of label that can be applied to any real or perceived opponent that the Bush administration wishes to vilify.