Is there really any difference between a terrorist and an ordinary criminal?

‘Criminals’ are our chaps, while ‘terrorists’ are dark-skinned Muslims

Cops and reporters have a lot in common. Both are students of human folly. They have an osmotic-parasitic relationship. And so I suppose it’s only natural that they should fall into lockstep over crime.

Over the past few years, I’ve discovered that there is crime pure and simple (gangland crime, killing by gun-crazed students or anti-abortionists, Mafia hit squads), and “terrorist crime”, for which the guilty parties must qualify by being politically angry, adherents – directly inspired or otherwise – to a religious deviation and usually evil, messianic, sadistic, sick, medieval members of a “death cult”. The latter, needless to say, includes “homegrown radicals” who slaughter people of any religion because of the West’s adventures in the Middle East.

In reality, this means that “ordinary” crime – the mass killing of Westerners by Westerners for money, greed, personal revenge or a drug-related desire to kill fellow humans – is treated as somehow normal. But “terrorist” crime almost always indicates that Muslims are held responsible. In other words, criminals are our chaps, while terrorists are dark-skinned Muslims who hate our values, want to chop off our heads and are obviously crazy.

We saw the wobbly nature of this nonsense immediately after the killing of 14 innocent Americans in California. At first, the US cops said they did not know if this was a “terrorist-related” (sic) crime. They called it a mass shooting. We were told on several channels that the murders were the result of a dispute – the gunman had supposedly been angered by insults from one of the 14 victims. But then he turned out to have a Muslim name and, along with his wife, kept a whole armoury at home and had apparently pledged “allegiance” to Isis. The mass shooting then became “an act of terror”. To further confuse this new definition, however, the cops said that they did not believe the couple had any direct contact with Isis, despite the group’s claim of responsibility. Then it turned out that the couple had been “radicalised” – something the Mafia don’t undergo – years before the slaughter.

In the London tube station stabbing a week ago, the semantics became equally confused. At first, the police were “investigating a stabbing” at Leytonstone; but after a videotape soundtrack recorded a man shouting: “This is for Syria”, and a civilian shouting back: “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv” – the cops declared it “a terrorist incident”. Dave Cameron made much of the “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv” quote. A man has since been charged with attempted murder.

Yet all this is a bit odd. Back in the 1980s, when the British Army and the IRA were fighting to the death in Northern Ireland, the UK government was desperate to label the IRA as criminals, vicious criminals, desperate criminals, even terrorist criminals, but above all common criminals who must be made amenable to the law and sentenced to many years in prison, whatever the reason for their violent campaign. Then the IRA decided they wanted to be called “political prisoners” – the polite version of “terrorists” – because they wanted their murders, robberies and intimidation to be seen as “political crimes” outside the herd of mafiosi, contract killers, rapists and sadists that inhabit all societies, including that of Northern Ireland. 

So enthusiastic were the IRA to claim “political” status that they went on hunger strike. Ten died under Mrs Thatcher’s cold gaze. But then the UK government gave way on almost all the IRA’s demands. IRA inmates became “politicals” and emerged from captivity when “peace” was declared – while the common-or-garden crooks and murderers of Northern Ireland remained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

So does it pay to be a “terrorist” or an ordinary criminal? I suppose it depends how much your life is worth. For the British Isis fighters Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, killed in a UK drone strike, being classified as a terrorist proved lethal. Their deaths – for which read executions – were, according to Dave, “necessary and proportionate to the individual (sic) self-defence of the UK”. They had been planning attacks in Britain. In other words, Dave would not have directed a drone to annihilate a school murderer from Leicester or a hit man from the East End of London – even if they were planning a further killing. Messers Khan and Amin had to be far away and working for Isis to qualify for a drone attack. Then Dave and our military lads and lasses sentenced them to capital punishment.

Yet the criminal/terrorist dichotomy stretches even further. The latest claim by Syrian opponents of Bashar al-Assad – that Assad is a far greater “terrorist” than Isis because he has killed more people than the Islamist group (six times as many, according to Channel 4) – suggests that the sheer number of dead men, women and children who have died at your hands determines whether you are a criminal or a terrorist. Or perhaps it means that a “terrorist” group with more moderate aspirations in killing – presumably, in this case, Isis – is less horrid than a terrorist group with even more notches on the barrels of its guns.

But hold on a minute. If we take the example of Assad’s opponents to its logical conclusion, we have to concede that Messrs Bush and Blair – through the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 – were responsible for the destruction of far more innocent lives than Isis and Assad put together. So do Blair and Bush qualify as super-terrorists? Or just criminals, albeit “war” criminals who might theoretically qualify for The Hague international court, but who are absolutely safe from drone attacks and will never, ever, be called “terrorists”?

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