Is Assange a Terrorist?
I’m in finals week, so I’m writing my blog posts in advance. So, I’m focusing on what is news as I write this. Hopefully I won’t be hopelessly out of date.
Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks, has been accused of being (or being like) a terrorist. He has also been called a traitor who has committed treason. I’d address the traitor charge then move to the terrorist accusation.
While Assange might be guilty of wrongdoing, he cannot be a traitor to America nor can he have committed treason. After all, he is not an American citizen and thus cannot be a traitor or treasonous relative to America.
As far as being a terrorist, this is somewhat trickier. The term “terrorist” is often used rather loosely and under some of these uses Assange could be classified as a terrorist. However, meanings are like rubber bands: they can be stretched, but if they are stretched too far they become useless.
The obvious starting point is to use the stock dictionary definition. While specific books vary, the general idea is that a terrorist aims at creating terror as a means of coercion. It is generally assumed that the terrorist is attempting to achieve a political end via terror.
By this account, Assange is not a terrorist. After all, he does not seem to be using terror as a means of coercing people to achieve political ends. While he does have political ends, this does not make him a terrorist. After all, all politicians have political ends and this does not make them terrorists. Perhaps switching to the the government’s definition of “terrorism” will help clarify things.
Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d) offers the following definition of “terrorism”:
While Assange did engage in premeditated, politically motivated acts, his acts are not violent. After all, he leaked information rather than attacking anyone. He set off no bombs, fired no guns, and crashed no airplanes. As such, he would not seem to be a terrorist.
It might be countered that he aided terrorist groups by providing them with useful information and this makes him a terrorist.
Even if his leak aided terrorists, this does not make him a terrorist. Intentionally providing useful information to the enemy already is already referred to by a perfectly good word: “espionage.” Of course, Assange is not a spy in the traditional sense. Rather, he is more akin to a journalist who provides the information to everyone rather than a specific nation or master.
It might be countered that his leak will lead to harm, thus he is a terrorist.
Obviously, this has no plausibility. While terrorists do harm people, harming people does not make a person a terrorist. After all, shoplifters, drunk drivers, combat troops, boxers and police harm other people. But this does not mean that they are terrorists.
A big part of what makes terrorists terrorists is their methodology. That is, they attempt to coerce via the use of violent acts calculated to create terror with the goal of achieving political ends. Assange leaks information but does not seem to have any intention of creating terror. As such, he is not a terrorist.
Of course, this could be countered by the following sort of reasoning:
“Information warfare is warfare, and Julian Assange is engaged in warfare. Information terrorism, which leads to people getting killed, is terrorism, and Julian Assange is engaged in terrorism,” said Newt Gingrich. “He should be treated as an enemy combatant.”
Newt is, of course, right. Information warfare is, by the very terms, warfare. This is comparable to saying that fast running is running. Why, yes, it is. Likewise, information terrorism would be terrorism.
Of course, there is the obvious question of what is meant by “information terrorism.” Sticking with the stock meaning of “terrorism”, this would seem to involve using information calculated to create terror as a means to advance political ends via coercion. Crudely put, this would involve scaring people with information rather than violence in the hopes of advancing political goals.
Assange does not seem to be doing that. He doesn’t seem to be trying to scare people and thus coerce them in a way that advances his political goals. After all, he just released the information without making any demands and without any attempt at coercion via fear.
It might be claimed that “information terrorism” is just trying to cause harm with information. This changes the meaning of “terrorism” and broadens it considerably by removing the component of the definition that involves the methodology. So, for example, if someone leaked information about a politician to harm his career, then that would be information terrorism. This seems rather broad because it leaves out a key aspect of what makes terrorism terrorism. After all, “terror” is not part of “terrorism” just for the hell of it.
As such, Newt seems to just be engaged in some rhetoric: he wants to say Assange is a bad man, so he calls him a terrorist.
Newt does, however, have a reasonable point about information warfare. Intelligence has always been a critical part of warfare and information can function as a weapon. Given what Assange has said in various interviews, he seems to regard himself as being a foe of certain governments. As such, it seems reasonable to accept that Assange is in conflict with these states. Perhaps this could be called an act of war, or perhaps it could better be regarded as a criminal act. Or an act of espionage. However, all of these are different from terrorism.
Now, if people want to make the words mean whatever they want whenever they want, then they need to be clear about that. Language is a game, but like all games the players need to know when the rules are being changed.