From Hiroshima to London: Terrorism in different forms

From Hiroshima to London: Terrorism in different forms

Context defines what counts as an act of terror

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Los Angeles --- How much the times change -- or do they really change that much after all?

Let us consider, carefully, the Madrid-like terrorist horror in London. In less than an hour the central transit system of the British capital was rocked and disabled by a quartet of rush-hour bombs. Dozens of people were killed, hundreds were wounded and the world was left in shock. The British prime minister made yet another fiery anti-terrorism speech ('We will fight them in the undergroundů' etc. etc.) and the international media reported the tragic event as if it were a nonfiction version of the new Spielberg movie "The War of the Worlds."

But it was earthlings, not extraterrestrials, who did the dirty deed. The attack was attributed to terrorism of some kind from some group. This is obvious. But what were the incendiary instruments that almost brought one of the world's great capitals to its knees?  Sophisticated little nukes? Laser-guided missiles? Star-wars technology? Not in the least: a set of explosives of a basically conventional sort.

How un-exotic: At the time of the blasts, about 100 miles north of London, the leaders of the G-8 (the Group of Eight Industrialized Nations) were meeting to discuss the issues of global warming and world poverty. But suddenly terrorism was back on their minds. And their public comments were excruciatingly predictable.

Terrorism, however, can mean different things to different people at different times. In New York, where the memory of 9/11 is still fresh, there is no quarrel about its meaning. By contrast, for years Sri Lankans have thought of terrorism as the evil work of the minority Tamils -- unless they were members of that oppressed Tamil minority, in which case they tended to regard these "terrorists" as freedom fighters battling the oppression of the majority.

But let us go back further -- go back six decades -- to July 1945 -- and to a different type of terror that was on the minds of the three dominant powers of that time.

The leaders of the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union (which was an ally then -- interesting, isn't it?) met in Potsdam, Germany, to discuss the conditions for the end of World War II. One seminal decision was to carve out the terms for an unconditional Japanese surrender (which is an ally now -- interesting, isn't it?) -- and those terms were non-negotiable.

It was only after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that Japan surrendered in August of that year and agreed to all the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. So who was the terrorist here?  The "allies" who used the ultimate atomic weapon -- or was it the Japanese, who had launched the Pearl Harbor terrorist attack on the United States and whose wartime invasion of Asia was notable for its brutal tactics?

The context of the times generally defines such tricky concepts as terrorism.

The good news was that the horror and aftermath of the bombing shocked the world and transformed Japan into a staunch pacifist nation. Asian critics sometimes conveniently forget this transformation and criticize the Japanese as if they were all today no different from the generation in the 40's that, until the very end, terrorized the world. The Japanese anti-nuclear philosophy, alas, may not survive the next generation of Japanese; it may not even survive this one.

Sure, no nuclear weapons have been used in the past 60 years, but that was when conflicts were between conventional nation states. In that context, the terms of war were clear and enemy combatants could be identified by the colors on their uniform.  But in the 21st century, the nature of conflict and warfare in general does not conform to these neat definitions and guidelines.

The rationality of mutual assured destruction -- that if one country uses nukes, the attacked country would reply in kind and both counties would fry into crisps -- certainly does not apply to stateless terrorists.  If they were to strike a major city with a nuclear weapon(s), how would the retaliation be carried out -- how would a country strike back?  To which target would it launch its nuclear-tipped missiles?

Alas, the age of nuclear weapons is not behind us, it did not die with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, it may well be the next new (and old) terror that we face.

Terrorism can come in different forms -- conventional and otherwise. You just don't know until it happens -- and, surely, it will.

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Tom Plate is a professor of Communication and Policy Studies at UCLA. He is a syndicated columnist whose work appears in Mainichi Shimbun in Japan, The Japan Times, The China Times in Taiwan, The Seattle Times, The San Diego Business Journal, The Korea Times in Seoul and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. The author of five books, he has worked has worked as an editor and writer at several major publications including TIME and the Los Angeles Times. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003. He is now founder and director of UCLA's Media Center.

For publication and reprint rights, contact the Media Institute at platecolumn@hotmail.com -- or Tom Plate directly at tplate@ucla.edu.

 A Chinese translation of this article is available as a PDF file.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.