It’s been a bad year for terrorism in the United States.  Not bad, fortunately, in the number of actual attacks (at least at the time of this writing), but in the continuing debasement of the word terrorism, so that it ceases to be a useful characterization of behavior and becomes merely a propaganda slogan for interest groups.

The U.S. Supreme Court contributed to this sad process when, last June, it decided the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.  The State Department maintains a list of so-called Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and U.S. law prohibits giving support or aid to these groups.  In Holder, the Court decided that this blanket prohibition applied when sympathetic groups were merely providing advice to alleged terrorist organizations, even when that counsel was intended to push the recipients in peaceful or constitutional directions.

What’s wrong with that decision is the whole concept of “terrorist organizations.”  For scholars or professionals, terrorist acts can be defined clearly.  They are acts of violence carried out by organized groups, in order to serve a political purpose, and (critically) they are directed against civilian targets, usually with the goal of creating fear or intimidation.  Armed attacks against military objectives are not terrorism.  U.S. law, sensibly, defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.”  The cause in which such acts are committed is irrelevant to the definition.

But “terrorist organizations” are a very different matter.  Countless groups around the world undertake terrorist acts, but only a tiny proportion are officially defined as terrorist organizations.  In U.S. law, the term applies to groupings that “engage in terrorist activity,” but with no sense of the proportion of the group’s actions that fall into this category.  Does a single terrorist action qualify a group for legal perdition?  Must the group carry out, say, 25 percent of its acts against noncombatants before qualifying?  In the real world, a movement might commit terrorist actions at some times, while at others it would better be described as a guerrilla movement or even a political party.

Nor is the labeling process applied with any consistency.  The term was never applied to the Provisional IRA, although that movement regularly slaughtered noncombatants.  (The tiny successor group Real IRA has subsequently qualified for inclusion.)  Nor did Washington label the African National Congress of the early 1990’s as a terrorist group, although, on rare occasions, it did target civilians.  On the other hand, the damning classification invariably includes Hamas, which likewise alternates between terrorist and guerrilla actions.

Even more questionable, a group can be labeled if its “terrorist activity or terrorism [threatens] the security of U.S. nationals or the national security . . . of the United States.”  And who exactly decides that?  In the context of the late 1980’s, we might think that the Provisional IRA was clearly undermining U.S. interests, by striking at a vital ally.  Alternatively, who is to say that any and all violent acts against the state of Israel automatically subvert U.S. national security?

There’s no great mystery here.  The definition of organizations as terrorist is a negotiated political process, subjective and partisan in nature, which depends on the interest groups that bring their efforts to bear.  The key question is whether or not the U.S. government, or a substantial part of the political establishment, sympathizes with the movement and its cause.  In the Irish or South African cases, that question is easy: We (or a lot of us) like the groups, so they aren’t terrorists.  Hamas has few influential defenders.

Another case in point is the Lebanese Hezbollah, which undoubtedly has carried out terrorist attacks through the years.  On other occasions, though, as when the movement was fighting Israel in 2006, it looks much more like a guerrilla army resisting foreign invasion.  No such nuances, however, prevent the group from being firmly included on the State Department listing.

Holder segued perfectly into the thorny Ground Zero Mosque controversy of this past summer.  Without exploring the rights and wrongs of that case yet again, one lively issue in the debate was whether the mosque’s sponsor, Imam Feisal Rauf, was sympathetic to terrorism.  After all, crowed critics like Andrew McCarthy, Rauf could not bring himself to admit that Hamas is a terrorist organization.  “Hamas is a shibboleth.  If you want to know whether an ostensible Muslim ‘moderate’ is really moderate, ask him if Hamas is a terrorist organization,” wrote McCarthy in National Review.  “It is not a complex question . . . It is a straightforward question that Islamists complicate with clever casuistry.”  Rauf failed Mc­Carthy’s test.  And so would virtually any competent terrorism scholar, of any faith or none, who knows just how tendentious the question is.