The war on terror drags on, but we can all sleep safer now that the international terrorist formerly known as Cat Stevens has been deported. I mean, the guy put out a double-disc set of his greatest hits and gave all the proceeds to families of 9/11 victims. On top of that, he roundly condemned the Beslan attacks as against the word of Allah. Sounds like a dire threat to me.
We've all known that the no-fly list is severely flawed for quite some time now. When a list flags two prominent legislators - Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts - as terror threats, you know something's wrong. But this is easily chalked up to incompetence. The Cat Stevens incident is a symbol of a deeper problem.
As of now, there is no working definition of terrorism and terrorists. As a result, inconsistencies abound in our policymaking. Yaser Esam Hamdi is a grave threat one day and relatively innocuous the next. While a family making a vacation video of the Charlotte skyline is deemed a threat, Israeli spying is not really that dangerous. And Cat Stevens is deemed a terrorist threat for allegedly associating with terrorists, but we still maintain an alliance with Osama bin Laden's homeland of Saudi Arabia.
Several questions need answering, and need answering in a big way. For example, what constitutes a terrorist act? Does it have to involve a political or social ideology or can it be an act of anger? Do you have to be part of an organization to commit a terrorist act, or can lone wolves like the D.C. snipers be terrorists? Can national governments be terrorist regimes? If so, what makes a government attack an act of terrorism rather than an act of war? Can we differentiate Darfur and Chechnya?
And we have to deal with support for "terrorists" as well. What kind of contact with terrorists constitutes aid, and what constitutes innocuous contact? Is the simple act of talking to a terrorist tantamount to terrorism? How about befriending a terrorist, preaching to a terrorist, or writing a book that the terrorist reads? Should we be after those who talk a terrorist game but give neither financial nor material aid directly to terrorists? How about those who preach the ideologies that terrorists often use to justify their acts?
Again, we need to grapple with the idea of "state-sponsored" terrorism - i.e. terrorism not carried out by a state directly but with a state's aid. Should a state be responsible for the acts of all of its citizens - i.e. if a country gives citizenship but no material or financial aid to a terrorist, is that "sponsorship"? How about a state that spreads ideologies used by terrorists, like Saudi Arabia? Is official neutrality on terror - the Iranian tack thus far - the same as support for it, and should it be punished as such?
"Know thine enemy," it is often said. If we are to fight an effective war on terror, we need to understand the enemy that we are facing. We have avoided grappling with these questions for too long. Like any definition, the definition we come up with is bound to fall short. But by debating and answering these questions, we will get a better idea of who we are fighting and how we should fight them.