Among the first statements to be released following the assassination of Lebanese Cabinet Minister Pierre Gemayel on November 21 was that of Nicholas Burns, the American undersecretary of state. He called it an act of terrorism.
Both the Lebanese and American governments believe Syria is behind the attack on the anti-Syrian Gemayel, as do many Lebanese. Lebanese politics are riven between those allied with the traditionally dominant Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim and Druse populations, and the pro-Syrian Shiite Muslims, who have a powerful representative in Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran as well as Syria. Both Syria and Hezbollah have condemned the assassination.
Assassinations, if they are one of many tools in terrorists' toolkits, are not inevitably considered terrorist acts. Morever, the charge of "terrorism" by an American official in the current context is extremely potent. It's a fighting word, and it carries heavy baggage when it travels in transnational media space. Calling a group or state a terrorist these days constitutes a threat that any number of American actions, up to and including pre-emptive military strikes against its perpetrators, may be taken.
"T word" implied, but not used, by Bush
Perhaps that is why the T word hasn't been repeated by even one American official since. It was implied, however, by President Bush in his response to the assassination. Speaking before troops at the Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii on the day of the assassination, the president condemned the attack using terms that have come to signify the "global war on terror."
Today we saw again the vicious face of those who oppose freedom . . . . And we support their [the Lebanese'] efforts to defend their democracy against attempts by Syria to foment instability and violence in that important country.
For the sake of peace, the free world must reject those who undermine young democracies and murder in the name of hateful ideology.
Opposing the opposers of freedom, defending democracy, and mentions of "hateful ideologies" have become staple signposts in presidential rhetoric that the "war on terror" is about to be evoked. In this case, though, the president stopped just short. The probable reason is that there was no decision made yet about how to deal with an almost intolerably complex situation. The United States has been on the verge of asking Syria's cooperation in Iraq, whose situation is worsening daily. The assassination has made that difficult.
Policy decisions will shape terror related language Also, a fuller invocation of the "war on terror" rhetoric, which is already a fairly confused set of symbols, makes especially little sense in the Lebanese-Syrian context: "hateful ideology" has become well-understood code for a presumed global jihadist movement that seeks to undermine the West. Despite the Islamist rhetoric of Hezbollah, one of the parties in this particular policy jigsaw puzzle, the context for the assassination is a regional geopolitical conflict with a deep history. "War on terror" symbology does not fit it. Nevertheless, depending on how the United States decides it would like the puzzle pieces arranged, we may hear more of it.