In an exceedingly interesting decision, an Italian appellate court has upheld the acquittals of three men accused of charges of international terrorism. Specifically, the men were accused of recruiting suicide bombers to strike against US soldiers in Iraq. The Italian judges held that the men could not be convicted as terrorists because terrorism involves "acts exclusively directed against a civilian population. The recruitment of volunteers in Iraq to fight against the Americans cannot be considered under any circumstance terrorist activity" Naturally, the decision has enraged ministers of the Italian government, leading the Justice Minister to apologize to victims of terrorism, and would certainly produce a similar reaction in the US, if anyone paid attention.
Is there something inherently wrong with the appellate court's ruling? Interestingly, I have been discussing this very question with my class The Politics of Terror here at the University of Puget Sound. If the concept of "terrorism" is to have any analytic meaning whatsoever, one must be able to distinguish "terrorism" from "not terrorism." After all, the word "terrorism" inherently means the illegitimate or illegal use of political violence, as opposed to the legitimate or legal use of the same.
If attacking soldiers occupying your country is not legitimate or legal, then there is no way in which political violence can be acceptable. To deem something legitimate is not to approve of it. I am a supporter of the war in Iraq and most certainly would prefer that the insurgents do not succeed. But that doesn't mean that I believe they are not justified in their actions. Terrorism must be defined by the means used to pursue a political goal, not the goal itself. A group pursuing a terrorist goal can use both legitimate and illegitimate means to pursue its goal. When Iraqi insurgents attack US soldiers, it's legitimate; when they attack schools or mosques, it's terrorism.
One caveat: the men acquitted by the Italian court were North African. In my mind, this changes things slightly...it's a matter of "standing." I'm not so sure if people not directly impacted by the occupation should have the "right" to legitimate political violence. If Sunni Iraqis are attacking US troopsin hopes of overthrowing the new regime and returning to power, fine. But I'm not so sure the definition works for outsiders more interested in causing chaos than creating a political alternative.