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Charles Kurzman, “Acknowledging State Terrorism,” June 20, 2019.

The United States government now recognizes the existence of state terrorism.

If the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a foreign terrorist organization, as the Trump administration announced in April, then what other government agencies around the world meet the Department of State’s statutory definition of terrorism: “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets”?

Is Saudi Arabia’s air force a terrorist organization too, since it has bombed hospitals and schools in Yemen? How about the Syrian military, which has targeted civilians on a mass scale? Or the armed forces of Myanmar, which have driven the Rohingya minority group into exile?

Farther back in history, did the United States government engage in terrorism when it sprayed Agent Orange chemicals on Vietnamese villages? When it bombed German cities during World War II? When it dropped nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

For years, the U.S. government resisted these implications by limiting the definition of terrorism to nongovernmental perpetrators. Governments may support or harbor a terrorist organization – that was the accusation leveled at the Taliban after 9/11 – but they were not defined as such themselves, no matter how much politically motivated violence they inflicted on civilians. That’s why the State Department designated al-Qaida as a terrorist organization, but not the Taliban.

The Trump administration has erased that distinction.

In its statement designating the Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO), the White House announced that this was “the first time that the United States has ever named a part of another government as a FTO.” This was a unique situation, the statement suggested, in light of “the fact that Iran’s actions are fundamentally different from those of other governments”: the Iranian government “is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” but also “actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft.”

Terrorism as a tool of statecraft may prove to be less rare than the Trump administration claims.

Many of the world’s conflicts involve politically motivated violence by governments targeting civilians – 40 percent of all armed incidents targeting civilians in 2018 were the work of state forces, according to data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

In Yemen alone, the Saudi government and its allies have killed more than 4,000 civilians since 2016, the project estimates. That figure excludes collateral fatalities and incidents where direct civilian targeting could not be established.

By the Trump administration’s new standard, arming the Saudi military might be considered material support for terrorism. (It might also be considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which are supposed to protect civilians in time of war.) Yet weeks after naming the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, the Trump administration announced new weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia.

Inconsistency is not new in definitions of terrorism. As legal scholar Ben Saul has documented, governments have long sought to apply the label to their enemies and exonerate themselves and their allies. Hence the cynical phrase, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” (The earliest usage I’ve seen so far is from the Manchester Guardian in 1957: “this gentleman who has just described someone as a terrorist … does he really mean ‘freedom fighter’?”)

Terrorism, by any definition, accounts for a small proportion of the world’s violence – deaths by homicide far outnumber deaths by all forms of armed conflict, including terrorism, according to the World Health Organization.

However, fear of terrorism remains out of proportion to the actual threat of terrorism in the United States and in many other countries. President Trump and other fear-mongers play into the hands of terrorists, whose strategy is, after all, to cause terror. I’ve written about this phenomenon in my book, The Missing Martyrs.

The Trump administration’s decision to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization is part of a broader campaign exaggerating the threat posed by Iran. As usual, Iran’s hard-liners seem happy to play along – they quickly responded with a bill labeling U.S. military forces in the Middle East as terrorists.

If the United States and Iran are able to back away from war, recognition of state terrorism may be the most significant implication of this dangerous escalation of tensions.

Perhaps the world will return to the original definition of terrorism, which grew out of a period known as “The Terror” during the French Revolution, in which the political opposition was attacked by both government and nongovernmental forces. Perhaps we will mobilize on a global scale to protect noncombatants who face politically motivated violence, regardless of whether the perpetrators are private individuals or government employees.