Counting consequences: Why Wikileaks cannot be a 'terrorist organisation'

Summary:A break away from traditional tech, today, to explain why Wikileaks and Assange could not be considered terrorists, and the resulting consequences if they are.

Criminologically speaking, in both respects, Wikileaks as a whistleblowing media foundation is not a terrorist organisation, nor is Julian Assange as the effective lead of the organisation, a terrorist.

The vast majority of us are under the impression that women who detonate vests of explosives in busy market streets, or men who shoot students on a university campus are terrorists. A man in a coffee shop who shouts and scares an infant for no particular given reason, versus the killing of a family pet in retaliation for some neighbourhood dispute, might be argued otherwise.

If terrorism is widely accepted as premeditated, political violence targeting the innocent, one has to question who is defined as innocent, and how innocence is recorded, measured and perceived.

In this case, a Afghani suicide bombing of NATO forces compares equally and directly to a US drone attack where it kills militants but also a handful of non-combatant civilians. On the ground, the consequences are the same. Terrorism is action based, regardless of who commits it.

The label has become too easy, too indiscriminate and ultimately too vague. Not to mention, the term 'terrorist' already carries predetermined negative connotations. To call such collectives 'aggrieved groups' would open them up to at least a fair hearing out.

While the world is aware that he is facing extradition from England to Sweden to face allegations of sexual misconduct and assault, we are not for one minute preempting the court in any way by labelling him 'a rapist'. Can we therefore label him 'a terrorist'?

The consequences of labelling Wikileaks as 'terrorists' »

The reason I ask is simple. To label someone a paedophile in itself would discredit someone to such lengths automatically without need for proof or evidence. In such cases, it would be 'act first, ask questions later'.

But to label someone a 'terrorist' rings terror in itself, amongst many other emotions. The term is charged and emotive; the mere notion of terrorism strikes fear and concern.

Law and politics can determine what terrorism or a terrorist organisation is, but predominantly based on acts of terror itself. Then again, politicians barely listen to academics anyway, as only a small proportion of the representative electorate.

So who is to believe what? Should the law and politicians define and subject those who are considered terrorists to be as such, or should academic theory prevail and historical subjectivity be consulted, considered and fully understood?

Violence is not a means to an end, and terrorism as an abstract notion accepts this. On the most part, terrorism is subjective and varies between societies and cultures. Terrorism in the Western world may seem inconsequential and irrelevant and in some cases impossible in the rural mid-Sahara.

Terrorism and the fear of terrorism are not mutually exclusive. From a criminological point of view, and arguably the most direct and honed so far, terrorism is action based and not actor based.

There is no 'war on terrorism' because there you cannot wage a war against actions that have been and have yet to be committed. It is just as fitting as fighting a war with clouds; we see them, but for anyone who has flown commercially, when we fly through them they become seemingly conceptual.

Misconceived notions of what terrorism is has hindered the definition writing process. There are over 150 different definitions of 'terrorism' already existing in modern and post-modern academic literature. It is not to say they are right, because there are sub-types and different classifications and methods used to perpetrate damage.

If the actions of Wikileaks are deemed to be politically motivated along with traditional terrorist attacks, such as bombings and rocket attacks in Palestine and Israel for example, then the benchmark shifts entirely. If other politically motivated actions are considered, then non-conventional groups of people could be reapplied under the umbrella term.

Student unions and trade unions, often highly politically charged organisations which negotiate and battle on behalf of their members, could be reclassified or deemed as 'terrorists' for their actions, such as leading their electorate into disruptive general strike action and street protests.

The events in London during an National Union of Students' protest, which led to a group of breakaway protesters to vandalise and cause disruption at the party headquarters of the sitting UK government, could be considered under this hypothetical reapplication of the term as an act of terrorism.

With so many strands of terrorism now developed along with the development and intersection of technology and society - cyber-terrorism and eco-terrorism just to name two, the term is open to abuse and misrepresentation. One could apply any term to any situation and it could be coined and defined. Neighbour-terrorism, child-terrorism, cooking-terrorism.

Greenpeace, a charity which has sparked controversy before by launching protests against oil tankers and climbing buildings, under this framework could also be considered as terrorists also. While the very vast majority of their protests have been peaceful, one organisation cannot be wholly responsible for every one of their members. This has resulted in negative press and media coverage against the organisation just as was the case against the organisers of the student protests in London.

This demonstrates the case that terrorism in its simplest form is action based and not actor based, and that violence is not always the case nor the cause. The term 'terrorist' is entirely subjective and varies from person to person, government to government, and academic to academic. It is why there are so many definitions, legally and academically.

The fact of the matter is that Assange and Wikileaks, while disruptive as their methods and consequences of their actions may well be, cannot be considered terrorists. As David Gewirtz asserts, labelling may not make the slightest bit of difference to the treatment of someone.

Regardless of what we think, criminological theory dictates to a greater or lesser extent that if Assange and Wikileaks are in fact terrorists, under law or social and moral guidelines, then so are many more people, groups and organisations. To allow Wikileaks to be deemed a terrorist organisation would open up the floodgates to abuse, and would dilute the very concept that we have of terrorism today.

Perhaps it would be a good thing. The last defiant breath of a man who could be tried for treason in the United States: redefining what is and isn't terrorism by blowing the entire abstract notion out of the water.

Topics: Government : US, Government

About

Zack Whittaker is a writer-editor for ZDNet, and sister sites CNET and CBS News. He is based in the New York newsroom. His PGP key is: EB6CEEA5.

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