As the phenomenon of “price tag” attacks grows in frequency and severity, we have seen a corresponding increase in the discussion of whether such attacks should be considered terrorism. Unfortunately, some people see them only as vandalism perpetrated by hooligans.
Defining terrorism is not just a philosophical question. Any fair legal system requires predictability. Clear, understandable definitions show people how to act. Also, everyone deserves to be treated equally under the law.
Terror is a tactic, not an ideology.
While there is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, the following is a good starting point: “The deliberate threat or use of violence against civilian targets in order to promote/ achieve political ends.”
This definition and others that have been used internationally contain common components: 1) They do not require a minimum threshold level of violence; 2) Attacks on property (e.g., cars, houses, crops and places of worship) are included if the purpose of those attacks is to instill fear in a group of people; and 3) The validity of the perpetrators’ political or ideological beliefs is irrelevant. The old saw that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is meaningless.
Price-tag attacks fit the definition of terror no less than bus bombings.
Both are violent acts aimed at civilian targets to further political ends.
Although price-tag attacks have, until now, been limited to property damage, their message is unmistakable.
Price-taggers are warning the target group that they will pay for anything deemed unacceptable. In essence, “You must fear the consequences of your actions.”
By no means is this to suggest that price-taggers should be treated more harshly than other terrorists. But neither should they be handled more gently. One can be a terrorist whether Jewish or Muslim, Zionist or jihadi.
Members of any group are terrorists if their actions meet the objective definition.
Classifying an act as terror is only the first part of the inquiry. The next question is how terrorism should be punished. The Israeli legal system recognizes that not all acts of terror demand equal punishment. We mete out differing sentences to people who are found to be terrorists depending on the amount of harm they cause.
This is a two-stage process. First, apply a simple, straightforward definition to determine whether an act of terrorism has been committed. Then, evaluate the seriousness of the particular terrorist act and any mitigating circumstances when deciding what penalty to impose.
This is parallel to common criminal trials that first find guilt or innocence, and only then decide on appropriate punishment during the “penalty phase.”
The two-stage process provides law enforcement agencies with the tools to investigate and stop terrorist attacks while allowing courts the leeway to impose lighter sentences when appropriate in individual cases. The non-lethal outcome of a particular act should be considered when determining the ultimate punishment, but not when initially evaluating whether the act is terrorism. Price-tag terrorism can be punished comparatively leniently because, up until now, it has not resulted in deaths.
Here are two hypotheticals that show the problem with the way we currently treat price-tag attacks: I. Suppose a price-tag offender sets fire to a car, not knowing that there’s a baby inside. Does the “vandalism” magically become “terrorism” because of the unintended consequences? Under the system I describe, the initial act is terrorism, but the level of punishment depends on the seriousness of outcome.
II. Suppose a price-tagger in the process of setting fire to an olive grove is confronted by the grove’s owner.
Thinking the owner has a shotgun, the offender shoots and kills him. In the US this would be “felony murder.”
(A death that occurs while in the commission of a serious crime is considered murder even if accidental.) It certainly is not self-defense.
Why should the act of setting fire to the trees be seen only as vandalism because the offender didn’t set out to kill anyone? Israelis should be concerned about a slippery slope that can lead to disaster.
The day is coming when price-tag offenders will kill someone, whether intentionally or by accident. All those who have viewed price-tag attacks with a “boys will be boys” attitude will defend their prior apathy by saying, “Gosh, I didn’t think they’d do that.”
The perpetrators will reasonably respond, “You didn’t object very strenuously, so we assumed you didn’t really oppose what we were doing.”
At that point it won’t matter what level of punishment we impose on the price-taggers. There will be an innocent victim, and (based on our previous experiences) the likelihood of deadly retaliation. The match will have been struck. Many more innocent Palestinians and Israelis could die.
We cannot credibly assert our opposition to terrorists if we ignore terrorism within our own society. The despicable acts of price-tag terrorists call into question our own morality. Failure to label them exactly what they are, and to oppose them with all possible legal and moral force, makes us enablers and accomplices. How will we possibly justify our unwillingness to confront this phenomenon honestly and forcefully when the first innocent Palestinian dies as a result of our inaction? The author is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He is a former law professor and retired American diplomat now living in Zichron Yaacov.