Over the last few days, I've debated the actions of revolutionary groups, particularly those in the Levant, during the 70s, with some friends of mine. I've taken the stance that no matter how just their cause might be or how injust the actions of their enemies, the deliberate targeting of civilians is beyond the pale.
Following the brutal and inexcusable attacks against Kurdish Yazidis in northern Iraq, the Economist has a wonderful little piece about not confusing terrorism with resistance:
Even in the hell of Iraq, however, it is important to look at some things straight. And one of those things is that not all kinds of killing are equal. Some are less acceptable than others. This is not a callous or nit-picking legal point: it concerns a vital distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence that has long been spelled out under the laws and moral requirements of war and must not be fudged.
George Bush is rightly criticised for lumping together as “terrorists” anyone who takes up arms against America or its allies. This is a simplistic formula that blurs necessary distinctions and makes for clumsy policy. Yet some opponents of the superpower's occupation of Iraq make an equal mistake when they lump together—and condone—as “resistance” all of the violent acts committed by America's foes in Iraq.
This is profoundly mistaken. Military attacks against foreign soldiers who have come uninvited into your country can certainly be classified as resistance, whether you think such resistance justified or not. But the mass murder of Iraqi civilians can make no such dignified claim. The most lethal atrocities are those carried out by suicide-bombers, most of them from Saudi Arabia, who have imbibed some version of the al-Qaeda idea of war to the end against the unbelievers, who in their minds include Iraq's Shia Muslims. Many Iraqi Sunnis have in their turn been killed—for revenge or as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing—by Iraqi Shias, sometimes acting alone and sometimes at the bidding of organised militias, often with links to a political party or to Iraq's government.
Under all established norms and laws of war (and by most accounts under Islamic law, too) the deliberate targeting of civilians for no direct military purpose is just a crime. This remains true regardless of the justice of the cause, and whether the killing is done by states, armies, groups or individuals. The world should never tire of condemning such deeds.