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12th January 2004 | Draft

Is God a Terrorist?

Definitional game-playing by the Coalition of the Willing

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On 11 September 2001 approximately 2800 people were killed by an "Act of Terrorism". This exploration was produced on the occasion of the death of an estimated 30,000 people in the earthquake at Bam (Iran, 26 December 2003) -- declared to be an "Act of God".
"Acts of God"
"Wrath of God"
Combining some threads
Politicization of the definitional process
Towards a generic model of definitional game-playing?
Is God a Terrorist?
Misrepresentation of "God" with respect to risk management
Conceptual gerrymandering


Concerns about the "Wrath of God" in contrast with "God as Love" have long been part of the debate in religious circles. Theologians of different religions have stressed one perspective over the other. The question might be perceived as relatively distant from the practical realities of an international community faced with "terrorists".

The following exploration is inspired by the film The Man Who Sued God (2001) in which a man whose "comprehensively insured" fishing boat was destroyed by lightning was refused compensation by the insurance industry because the small print provided for exemptions in the event of such "Acts of God". The owner then proceeded to bring legal proceedings against the main religious groups, who all claim to be representatives of God, in order to be compensated for the destructive consequences of that "Act of God". The case turned on whether the religious groups believed that God existed, and whether they effectively represented God and could in consequence be legitimately sued. The script was written by Don Watson. The film has been widely reviewed [more ]

The film is a comedy but the core theological, insurance and legal questions relating to the widely used legal device of an "Act of God" are especially relevant at a time of the death of 30,000 people in Bam (Iran, 26 December 2003). Indeed, depending on how exactly "terrorism" is legally defined, there is a probability that such "Acts of God" may be understood as "Acts of Terrorism". This would then imply that "God" was a "terrorist" or should at least be put to the question as having some complicity in "terrorism" -- according to the procedures envisaged by international conventions against terrorism, the US Patriot Act, and matching legislation in other member countries of the Coalition of the Willing. Although "God" cannot be extradited, there may be a case for extraditing his representatives to Guantanamo Bay!

The following exploration could be considered frivolous and trivial were it not for the importance attached to "Acts of God" by the insurance industry (and therefore in contract law), by theologians, and in the light of the religious dimension introduced both by the devout Christian leadership of the Coalition of the Willing into the pursuit of the "war against terrorism" as well as by those yhjery oppose as instigatorgs of that "terrorism". Christian fundamentalists have identified eight major "Acts of God" between 1991 and 1999 that are understood to be warnings to the USA by God as a result of its asking Israel to give up land for peace (see God's Final Warning to America) [more]. Increasingly the collective response to (and preparation for) "Acts of God" is allocated far less institutional resources than what are categorized as "Acts of Terrorism".

Statistics in the USA indicate that 88% of all accidents are caused by unsafe acts of people, 10% by unsafe conditions, and 2% by "Acts of God" [more], although in the case of aircraft accidents it is estimated by the insurance industry that 38% are due to "Acts of God".

It is interesting that the secular nature of international legal conventions makes no provision for "Acts of God" [more], although the United Nations General Conditions of Contract defines "Force majeure" to include "Acts of God" -- perhaps the only acknowledgement of God by the UN?

Others, as noted below, have explored the theme "Is God a Terrorist?". One of them carefully and amusingly demonstrates that, according to the Old Testament, God must necessarily be considered a self-confessed terrorist. Related themes have been humourously explored by The Onion (notably Lord Under Investigation For Failure To Provide, 1997; God Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, 2001).

"Acts of God"

Some definitions:

Concerns with how exactly God may act in the light of the combined insight of theology and science have been usefully summarized by Robert J. Russell (Agential Models of God's Interaction With the World, 2000). Agential models deal explicitly with contemporary science and its philosophical implications to explore the concept of God as interacting with, but not intervening in, the world. They, in turn, include three distinct approaches, each of which has been widely developed in the theology and science literature: top-down causality, whole-part constraints, and bottom-up causality. However, most scholars insist that a combination of these approaches will be needed eventually for an adequate account of non-interventionist divine action.

"Wrath of God"

Some definitions:

Associated with the sense of the "Wrath of God" is the fear that such potential wrath may engender. Jonathan Gallagher of the Adventist Sabbath School noted the relatively recent emergence of a new phobia termed theophobia:

The fear of God. Scared of God, terrified of him. Maybe He is out to scare us! Some views of God indicate just that. In the words of Oscar Wilde the central theme is "The terror of God, which is the secret of religion." The terror of God: a phrase which neatly summarizes the idea that the reason for and the importance of religion is this overwhelming and petrifying fear of God--of what he is, and of what he might do. All too often--at different times, and in different places--it seems Wilde was right. The essence of religious observance is fear. God is a divine scarecrow, we are the birds! For the moment it's enough to think of all the cruelty and terror used in God's name. At the heart of all these techniques--whether they are called "evangelism," "reconversion" and "encouragement in the faith"--is the same blunderbuss idea. This view says that violence and force are certainly acceptable to God, for they are only means to bring about something "good". Just like God, you can use terrifying threats and actual killing if it suits your purpose. Scaring people to God. Is this the way? Does God approve? Is God a terrorist? [more]


The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Definitions of Terrorism) notes that:

The question of a definition of terrorism has haunted the debate among states for decades. A first attempt to arrive at an internationally acceptable definition was made under the League of Nations, but the convention drafted in 1937 never came into existence. The UN Member States still have no agreed-upon definition. Terminology consensus would, however, be necessary for a single comprehensive convention on terrorism, which some countries favour in place of the present 12 piecemeal conventions and protocols. The lack of agreement on a definition of terrorism has been a major obstacle to meaningful international countermeasures. Cynics have often commented that one state's "terrorist" is another state's "freedom fighter". If terrorism is defined strictly in terms of attacks on non-military targets, a number of attacks on military installations and soldiers' residences could not be included in the statistics.

A recent book discussing attempts by the UN and other international bodies to define terrorism runs to three volumes and 1,866 pages without reaching any firm conclusion. The UN body identifies the following international approaches to such a definition:

  1. League of Nations Convention (1937): "All criminal acts directed against a State and intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or a group of persons or the general public".
  2. UN Resolution language (1999): "1. Strongly condemns all acts, methods and practices of terrorism as criminal and unjustifiable, wherever and by whomsoever committed; 2. Reiterates that criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be invoked to justify them". (GA Res. 51/210 Measures to eliminate international terrorism)
  3. Short legal definition proposed by A. P. Schmid to United Nations Crime Branch (1992): Act of Terrorism = Peacetime Equivalent of War Crime
  4. Academic Consensus Definition: "Terrorism is an anxiety-inspiring method of repeated violent action, employed by (semi-) clandestine individual, group or state actors, for idiosyncratic, criminal or political reasons, whereby - in contrast to assassination - the direct targets of violence are not the main targets. The immediate human victims of violence are generally chosen randomly (targets of opportunity) or selectively (representative or symbolic targets) from a target population, and serve as message generators. Threat- and violence-based communication processes between terrorist (organization), (imperilled) victims, and main targets are used to manipulate the main target (audience(s)), turning it into a target of terror, a target of demands, or a target of attention, depending on whether intimidation, coercion, or propaganda is primarily sought" (Schmid, 1988).

As pointed out by Michael Jordan (Terrorism's Slippery Definition Eludes UN Diplomats, Christian Science Monitor, 3 February 2002):

There are already 12 different terrorism "conventions," or treaties, on the books - created piecemeal over the past few decades. They criminalize activities such as airplane hijacking, hostage-taking, nuclear terrorism, and assorted bombings. In addition, the UN Security Council established a Counter-Terrorism Committee shortly after Sept. 11 to force member-states to harmonize antiterrorism laws, in areas such as financing. Since then, more and more countries have ratified the treaties. Still, some countries, some actions, slip through the cracks, observers say.

Some other definitions:

In response to the confusion regarding the definition of terrorism, the Rational Radical (October 2001) suggested the following clarification in determining whether an act is "terrorism" or not. In this view it would be more useful to eliminate subjective evaluations of the goals of the violence, and instead, utilize two other factors -- the expected result of the violence, and the nature of the actor -- to then distinguish among four different types of acts involving the application of force:

The key act through which terrorism is now defined to legitimate US government response against terrorism is the Patriot Act (31 October 2001):

Carroll E. Payne Jr (founder of the World Conflict Quarterly) argues that: According to these definitions the "Boston Tea Party" was a terrorist act and the British troops had every right to fire at the "Boston Massacre". Until a working definition is agreed to internationally, the problem of state sponsored terrorism and Terrorist vs. Freedom Fighter will not be resolved. Once nations can agree on who is a terrorist and what is terrorism then the extradition of people accused of terrorism between nations can proceed. A clearly stated, internationally accepted, definition of terrorists and terrorism will ultimately result in the reduction of tensions between nations in solving international crises.

The problem has become especially acute for the insurance industry. As terrorism coverage continues to be excluded from more and more property and casualty policies, insurance industry leaders are advocating a global definition of terrorism. (Insurers Push for Global Terrorism Definition, Insurance Journal, 25 July 2002)

One of the most problematic aspects of achieving any definition is clarifying the relationship between terrorism and any form of struggle for liberation. In this respect the analysis of Boaz Ganor (Defining Terrorism: Is One Man's Terrorist Another Man's Freedom Fighter?) is especially helpful (see below).

Combining some threads

The United Methodist Women have responded in part to some of the challenges of the above (Terrorism: a problem of definition) arguing that:

From the Roman point of view, the bandits who were hanged on either side of Jesus at the cross may have been "terrorists." However, they may have been "freedom fighters" from the point of view of the occupied, colonized zealous members of Palestine of Jesus' day. The word "terrorism" is fraught with complexities. There is a problem of definition. Therefore, one needs to make a distinction between the doer and the deed.

A helpful way of naming the doer and the deed is suggested by Peter C. Sederberg in his book, Terrorist Myths, Illusion, Rhetoric and Reality. He urges his readers not to confuse the actor (terrorist), the action (terrorism), and the effect (terror). He says, "...the inclination to equate sin with sinner (or terrorism with terrorist) may be an inevitable shorthand in everyday relations, but it impairs analysis. Once we apply such a label, that is all we tend to see" .

They also stress:

Further, terrorism is not a God-sent act. Terrorism is a human-designed, human-executed act. In Jesus' days, when anxious people asked why the Tower of Siloam accidentally fell and killed many people, Jesus said that it was a calamity, and the people who were killed in the tragedy were not worse sinners than others who lived in Jerusalem (Luke 13:4). Let us not confuse human acts with God's acts in times such as this.

For Rev. Garry Dombrosky, Campus Chaplain and Assistant Professor of Applied Religion of University College of Alberta Concordia. "This was not an act of God but an act of evil. It is the same evil that came upon Christ. It is the same evil which God triumphed over in the victory of Jesus Christ." [more]

For Pastor Don Schneider, president of the Adventist Church's North American Division:

"Some people say this is an act of God; they're wrong. When an Adventist Disaster Response worker helps someone hurt by these tragedies, that's an act of God. When people of all faiths get together and pray for the victims and their families and co-workers, that's an act of God. But when people create chaos and havoc and destruction, that's not even the act of people who believe in God. God's getting blamed today for causing the disaster, and He didn't have anything to do with it." [more]

Michael Wong (Terrorism in the Bible, 2001) asks the question: "What is terrorism, if not the events of Exodus?" He then proceeds to provide a useful comparison in parallel columns of Osama Bin Laden with Moses, both of whom claimed divine inspiration and assistance in their campaigns of terror. He then suggests that Moses -- as "one of the first arch-terrorists in recorded history" -- was Osama Bin-Laden's role model:

Both had legitimate grievances to air, and both thought that the proper way to air those grievances was by visiting pain, hardship, and death upon innocent civilians. Both thought that God was on their side (the same God!), both spared some of their hatred for any of their own people who step out of line, and both stepped away from privileged lives of wealth and power in order to do so. So what's the moral of this story? The next time someone rhetorically asks about the source of Osama Bin Laden's evil, point him to the Bible. If fundamentalists believe in a God who is capable of terrorism, we should hardly be surprised when they deal with their problems by resorting to terrorism themselves! Indeed, we should count ourselves lucky that Christian fundamentalists have few real problems to complain about (hence their whining about non-issues such as their desire to turn public schools into Sunday schools), or we could be facing a lot more domestic terrorism, even worse than the usual abortion clinic bombings and shootings.

In Australia, the Department of Veterans Affairs has now indicated that the Defence Service Homes Insurance now contains a "terrorism exclusion endorsement". This excludes any cover for "death, injury, illness, loss, damage, liability, cost or expense directly or indirectly arising out of or in connection with any act of terrorism". Terrorism is defined as anything designed to influence the government of any nation or any act in pursuit of "political, religious, ideological or similar purposes" designed to intimidate the public, and carried out by anyone, either acting alone or as a group. And in case ex-soldier home owners decide to defend themselves against an act of terrorism, forget that too. The exclusion means there will be no cover for any injury or loss "resulting from, or arising out of or in connection with any action in controlling, preventing, suppressing, retaliating against, or responding to any act of terrorism". From this it may be concluded that terrorism has been declared by Australian government insurers to be equal to an Act of God.

On USA national television, Christian leaders, such as Jerry Falwell (who asserted that Muhammad was a terrorist), have said outright that the act of terrorism of 9/11 was due to God visiting His judgment upon an apostate America -- God's judgment against feminism, homosexuality, and abortion. Or they have said that He "allowed" it because He has some kind of grand plan that somehow includes the vicious murder of thousands of innocent people. Islamic militants, meanwhile, rejoice that Allah has blessed their efforts to bring down the "infidels." Thus a choir of religious voices call the events of September 11 "an act of God." [more]

For Doris Drisgil (The Ultimate Terrorist):

Natural disasters have long been termed, "acts of god." To a rationalist, this phrase holds the strongest irony. Have all the earthquakes and floods that have killed thousands of people over millennia been willful acts of an intelligent, omnipotent god? If that is true, this supernatural being who has us in his power is the worst terrorist ever imagined. If he has the ability to regulate natural events, and chooses to cause disasters that result in undeserved pain and death, then how can anyone consider him good? Many believers will say that natural disasters can't be blamed on god. Are they admitting that their god doesn't have full control over everything that happens? Certainly a less-than-all-powerful deity would be more believable than the omnipotent but cruel god of traditional beliefs. Yet nearly all monotheists insist that their god is omnipotent, and we just don't understand this reasons for doing what he does.

For the EternityNow Ministries (Is God a Terrorist?, 2001): "God is not a terrorist, and recent events are not the result of his displeasure and his judgment".

Hope is deferred and the heart is made sick when we don't believe God accepts, loves and affirms us. The way you believe God sees you will shape how you see Him, how you see yourself, and will dominate the landscape of your Christian experience. Now, more than ever, American Christians need to see the love of God is real, vital and abundantly available. You have reeled in shock as you witnessed the horrors of war on your own soil. You have tackled the mind-numbing questions of "Why?" or "How could a thing like this happen?" and "What happens next?"

John Norman (An Effective and Reasonable Next Step in the War on Terrorism, 27 January 2002) takes as his point of departure the statements of Exodus (chapters 10, 11 and 12) in a careful analysis of George Bush's declaration that you cannot differentiate between terrorists, and also that anyone providing financial support to terrorists should be regarded as a terrorist as well:

Terrorism can be defined as the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians in order to coerce a given society and their leaders to change their political stand on given issues. The earliest recorded historical incidence of terrorism is found in sacred texts, and regards a certain Middle Eastern society who had been kept as slaves for various generations in a neighboring country. The leader of that other country was asked to let those people go, but he was stubborn and wouldn't do it. So, in order to coerce his decision a supernatural being by the name of Jehovah unleashed a series of calamities on that leader's nation. There were ten of these calamities, and the first nine cannot be characterized as outright terrorism, since they involve what might be called natural disasters. The tenth of these calamities, however, is different: ...."About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt: And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts..."

Now it has been argued that these were not innocent people, since all Egyptians shared in the guilt of this enslavement. But if we accept that, then we are bound to give credence to the extreme view that there are no innocent Israelis, Americans, etc., thus making them fair targets.

As argued by Charles Love of St. Andrew's United Church (Is God a Terrorist?): "A simplistic, literal reading of this story permissively opens the door to any imaginable act of aggression that we might hurl at any perceived enemy: God showed us in Egypt how to deal with them. Haul out the Old Testament and bombs away". Although God is acclaimed to be the epitome of Good, John Norman summarizes his argument that you cannot let any terrorist off the hook by referring to how nice a person he is outside of his terrorist activities. Given his point of departure, he concludes (whether humorously or not):

Now, since you cannot differentiate among terrorists, and since anyone who knowingly gives financial support to a terrorist should be considered as a terrorist, then the first step I propose is for Bush to order Ashcroft to close down every church in the United States where people worship this god, and, since the members support this god through their donations, to declare them to be supporters of a terrorist.

Some of the above points raise the question as to whether the actions of George Bush and Tony Blair -- profoundly held by them to be in conformity with God's Will -- are to be considered "Acts of God". In acting on behalf of God, to what extent are they to be considered agents of God? It was precisely this kind of thinking that was rejected by the USA before the UN General Assembly with respect to 9/11: "The representative of the United States said the barbarities of 11 September had been acts of war perpetrated by men who had perverted the basic elements of civilized life and had dared to call their deeds acts of God. The terrorists could not deceive the world by attempting to wrap themselves in Islam's glorious mantle." [more]

Politicization of the definitional process

The many examples above point to the core difficulty of any effort at definition and clarification, namely that every such effort is bedevilled by claims and counterclaims -- and especially about the quality of evidence and the legal context within which proof of any assertions is presented. This is exemplified by the common statement that "One man's terrorist is another man"s freedom fighter".

As noted by Boaz Ganor (Defining Terrorism: is one man's terrorist another man's freedom fighter?) in an excellent analysis (which is itself subject to this problem): "However, when dealing with terrorism and guerrilla warfare, implications of defining our terms tend to transcend the boundaries of theoretical discussions". It is the politicization of analysis that cautions against optimistic expectations that definition is fundamental to "the attempt to coordinate international collaboration, based on the currently accepted rules of traditional warfare" (in Ganor's terms). Any "objectivity" may indeed be simply a way of framing "terrorism" to the advantage of particular agendas whilst ignoring or marginalizing its implications for others. Ganor himself is in a difficult position in this respect as Director of the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (Israel) given the ambiguities of Israel's perceived role in relation to terrorism.

Ganor takes as his point of departure the 109 definitions of terrorism identified by Alex P Schmidt and Albert J Youngman (Political Terrorism, 1988) in a survey of academics in the field. From this he concludes:

The prevalent definitions of terrorism entail difficulties, both conceptual and syntactical. It is thus not surprising that alternative concepts with more positive connotations--guerrilla movements, underground movements, national liberation movements, commandos, etc.--are often used to describe and characterize the activities of terrorist organizations. Generally these concepts are used without undue attention to the implications, but at times the use of these definitions is tendentious, grounded in a particular political viewpoint. By resorting to such tendentious definitions of terrorism, terrorist organizations and their supporters seek to gloss over the realities of terrorism, thus establishing their activities on more positive and legitimate foundations.

Ganor then explores the following themes:

Ganor summarizes the thrust of his argument as follows: "The struggle to define terrorism is sometimes as hard as the struggle against terrorism itself. The present view, claiming it is unnecessary and well-nigh impossible to agree on an objective definition of terrorism, has long established itself as the 'politically correct' one. It is the aim of this paper, however, to demonstrate that an objective, internationally accepted definition of terrorism is a feasible goal, and that an effective struggle against terrorism requires such a definition. The sooner the nations of the world come to this realization, the better. "

Several questions must be asked however:

Despite the excellence of his analysis, however, the value of Ganor's work is diminished by his failure to use his scheme to confront, as a striking example, the evidence (presented by some) for "terrorism" by the Irgun and Haganah prior to the emergence of the State of Israel. It is such omissions which similarly undermine efforts to clarify the definition of "terrorism" within the USA by failing to distinguish when the USA may itself have engaged in, or supported, "terrorist activities" (as claimed by some) in a manner currently considered reprehensible by George Bush.

In the case of the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization) how is the King David Hotel bombing on 26 July 1946, commanded by Menachem Begin (subsequently Prime Minister of Israel) and resulting in the death of 91 people, to be assessed in the light of Ganor's definition? The extent to which Irgun was terrorist or not has been explored elsewhere (see for example Jean Shaoul. Terrorism and the origins of Israel, 2003; J. Bowyer Bell. Terror Out of Zion: The Fight for Israeli Independence, 1996; Nader Khaireddine Abuljebai. The Different Types of Israeli and Zionist Terrorism ), notably pointing to the inappropriateness of seeking to establish any moral equivalence between the activities of Irgun and PLO activitists [more | more | more].

It would appear to be the case that no international definition of "terrorism" can be agreed without recognizing the extent to which many of those parties to such a definition may themselves have been engaged in "terrorist activities", whether exceptionally, inadvertently or systematically -- or legitimately (if erroneously) perceived to have been so engaged. this suggsts an international equivalent to South Africa's innovative Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is such questions which justify the further exploration of the theme "Is God a Terrorist" -- especially given the strong possibility that the process of defining terrorism is driven in part by the needs of the insurance industry to avoid exposure to risk, and by other parties to avoid confronting their own historical realities and tendencies.

Towards a generic model of definitional game-playing?

This section draws attention to a number of areas of decades-long controversial debate over matters of definition. The familiarity with some of these areas may prove helpful in providing a larger context through which to explore the newer process of definition of "terrorism" -- and the relevance of the question "Is God a terrorist?"

Aggression: The process of international debate regarding the definition of aggression provides a classic case for reflection on the nature of such definitional processes. Efforts towards such a definition were initiated under the League of Nations in 1933. They were relaunched under the United Nations in 1950 with no conclusion. A further effort was started in 1967 and continued for seven years with the adoption (without a vote) of a consensus definition in 1974. Member states were by no means agreed upon its meaning. (see Benjamin B. Ferencz. The United Nations Consensus Definition Of Aggression: Sieve Or Substance, 1995) [more]. A number of issues were avoided to achieve consensus [more]. This definition is of course focused on that relating to states. It does not address wider understandings of aggression amongst ethnic groups and in interpersonal relationships [more]. Given that "terrorism" could be considered a subcategory of "aggression", it is clear that consensus was achieved at the cost of excluding a variety of important dimensions. It notably failed to provide adequately for the activities of the Coalition of the Willing in invading Iraq.

Slavery: Recognition of "slavery" as unacceptable has taken centuries. Slavery nevertheless exists today despite the fact that it is banned in most of the countries where it is practiced [more]. It is also prohibited by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1956 UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. Current forms include: bonded labour, forced labour, child labour, commercial sexual exploitation of children, traffiicking, early and forced marriage, traditional or 'chattel' slavery. Of special interest here is the degree of involvement of governments of the time in the slave trade, given its importance to their economies. Such governments of course include those of many of the industrialized countries of today. Also of particular interest is the controversial nature of the debate for abolition of slavery in such countries notably in the USA -- where the debate was not resolved rationally but through the American Civil War, 1961-65 of which it was a principal cause. The persistent forms of slavery, possibly with the complicity of the countries that have explicitly banned it, illustrates the ambiguities associated with the definitional problem.

Indigenous peoples: Recognition of indigenous peoples and the consequences of the marginalization to which they have been exposed over centuries, both in law and in society, has been slow in coming. The early decades of the last century saw them subject to the whims of state-sanctioned bounty hunters -- seeking their elimination in some countries. By being effectively defined as "subhuman" there were few constraints on their slaughter -- a mindset that saw its peak in the Nazi approach to the ethnic groups that they sought to exterminate. The operation of death squads to eliminate such peoples continues in parts of Latin America. The process of defining groups as outside society is echoed by Ganor's comment above that: "Individuals engaging in terrorist activities, even if not wearing a uniform, exclude themselves from the civilian community, and rules protecting civilians no longer apply to them". The definitional challenges relating to indigenous peoples persist in connection with land rights issues for which treaties may well have been signed in the past.

Communism / Socialism / Capitalism: The definition and handling of "dissidence", notably in relation to national security, has been intensively explored throughout the Cold War period and before. Under Communism it gave rise to notorious legal processes and executions in an effort to identify and remove those that were not acting according to the party line. In the USA, the process of the controversial hearings in the 1950s conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate Committee on Government Operations, and those conducted by the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), are of interest because of their efforts to define threats to American society through "Communism" and "Socialism". Comparisons with the treatment of those suspected of terrorism have already been made.

Collaboration in time of war: During, or following, major wars, a number of countries have had to explore the boundaries of any definition of "collaboration with the enemy". Given George Bush's definition of support for terrorism, this is an especially controversial matter at a time when newly-declassified documents in the US National Archives and Library of Congress are indicating the level of involvement of the family of George Bush in support of the Nazi war machine. According to John Buchanan (Bush - Nazi Link Confirmed, New Hampshire Gazette, 2003) the documents indicate that Prescott Bush, the grandfather of President George W. Bush, served as a business partner of and U.S. banking operative for the financial architect of the Nazi war machine from 1926 until 1942, when Congress took aggressive action against Bush and his "enemy national" partners, notably seizing assets on 20 October 1942, under authority of the Trading with the Enemy Act. (see also John Buchanan and Stacey Michael. Bush - Nazi Dealings Continued Until 1951 : Federal Documents. New Hampshire Gazette, November 2003) [more | more | more]. Of special interest in this case is the level of denial relating to the topic over 60 years by the media which only in October 2003 is finally exploring the matter [more].

"Civil society" and "NGO": The definitional game-playing in connection with the progressive recognition of "civil society" organizations in contrast to "NGOs" has been explored elsewhere (Interacting Fruitfully with Un-Civil Society the dilemma for non-civil society organizations. 1996). this has been evident both within the context of the UN system (originator of the term NGO) and in the academic community. Of special relevance here is the challenge of defining "terrorist organization" in relation to other non-governmental bodies, including liberation movements. Of particular interest is the difference in attitude in different cultures with different styles and traditions of organization.

Substance abuse: There has been considerable media coverage of the different aspects of substance abuse and the collective response to it. In the USA this was first marked by the Prohibition era (1919-1933) when the manufacture, purchase, transportation, import, export, and sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited. This was possible because of the manner in which alcohol was successfully defined as "evil" to the electorate. More recent periods have seen efforts around the world to restrict access to narcotic drugs through various "wars on drugs". But in both cases the definitional problems may be seen in the quite different attitudes and policies adopted around the world -- in the light of what is perceived by some to be the extremely irresponsible liberalism of the Netherlands. The use of tobacco products provides another classic example. All these cases illustrate the difficulty for governments, previously illustrated by the slave trade, of depriving themselves of a major source of revenue. The direct involvement of governments in the opium trade resulted in the so-called Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) in China. The complicity of governments in the international drug trade is a continuing feature of the "war on drugs"

Coalition of the Willing: This coalition was claimed by George Bush in March 2003 to number 49 states [more]. The interesting definitional challenge is the circumstances under which individual countries work within the Coalition on a particular issue, or fail to do so for whatever reason. The integrity of the Coalition can best be defined by that much-favoured European institutional expression of "variable geometry". It would be more appropriate to present the "hidden" structure of the Coalition of the Willing as a table indicating which countries were involved on which issues and which were actively opposed on which issues. Methodologically this points to the merit of a "variable geometry" definition of both "God" and "terrorist".

"Sexual abuse" and "Terrorism": The nature of the definitional process, and the abuses to which it can lend itself, is worth exploring in the light of "sexual abuse", notably of children within the context of religious institutions (as has been made evident in legal cases in recent years regarding abuses from earlier decades). For example, one source asserts: "By far the most pervasive form of terrorism is sexual in nature" (Sexual Terrorism). It is the widespread nature of the phenomenon (and hence the greater familiarity with its implications), and the fact that it seldom results in physical death, that permits the controversial aspects of the definitional process to be explored as the basis for a generic model of definition in emotional charged contexts.

Comparison of political and sexual terrorism

Political terrorism

Sexual terrorism

Terror experienced by victims of "Acts of Terrorism", whether through direct exposure or the threat thereof Terror experienced by victims, whether through direct exposure or the threat thereof
Intentional use of threat Intentional use of threat
Civilians ("innocent civilians") Vulnerable ("innocent women and children")
"Military personnel" as legitimate targets (but of of guerilla warfare) "Victims" framed as soliciting such activity ("professionally"), or habituated to it, in a process of legitimate "sexual warfare"
Acceptability of a declared "political" motive of "liberation" as part of a revolutionary political process Acceptability of a declared "educational" motive of "liberation" as part of a process of sexual revolution
State-supported (or tolerated) terrorism State-supported (or tolerated) sexual exploitation (R&R and "comfort women)
Institution-supported terrorism (characterized by provision of funds, shelter and resources) Institution-supported sexual terrorism (characterized by cover-up and failure to discipline perpetrators, in addition to provision of a sheltered institutional framework)
Concealment of evidence (or its destruction) and intimidation of potential witnesses Concealment of evidence (or its destruction) and intimidation of potential witnesses
"Interrogation" of perpetrators without adequate legal protection "Interrogation" of perpetrators, often without adequate legal protection
Accusation/condemnation by "victims" without effective appeal (as with cases of "targeted killings") Accusation/conviction on the basis of evidence from "victims" without effective appeal (as with cases of False Memory Syndrome)
Denial of evidence and repudiation of witnesses (incl. assassination of witnesses) Denial of evidence and repudiation of witnesses (incl. character assassination)
Secrecy: covert implementation Secrecy: covert implementation
Sanction of moral authority: selective presentation of religious citations Sanction of moral authority: whether parental, institutional or religious (in the case of abuse in religious institutions)
Exceptionalism: pattern of abuse framed as isolated "mistakes" arising from regrettable actions of a particular individual not respecting institutional policy Exceptionalism: pattern of abuse framed as isolated "mistakes" arising from regrettable actions of a particular individual not respecting institutional policy
"Trial" by media and public opinion in advance of (and undermining) any due process "Trial" by media and public opinion in advance of (and undermining) any due process
Manipulation of definition of political terrorism to exclude (or include) certain forms Manipulation of definition of sexual terrorism to exclude (or include) certain forms according to circumstances

Is God a Terrorist?

Proceeding on the assumption that there is a generic model of controversial definitional problems, characterized by a high degree of definitional game-playing, the framework elaborated above in the comparison of political vs sexual terrorism may then be tentatively applied below to a comparison of "Acts of Terrorism" vs "Acts of God".

Comparison of acts of terrorism and acts of God

"Acts of Terrorism"
Political terrorism

"Acts of God"
"God as terrorist"

Terror experienced by victims of "Acts of Terrorism", whether through direct exposure or the threat thereof Terror experienced by victims of "Acts of God", whether through direct exposure or the threat thereof
Intentional use of threat Intentional use of threat (eg Wrath of God; Hell)
Victims: Civilians ("innocent civilians") Victims: "Innocents" (eg "first born" of Egypt)
"Military personnel" as legitimate targets (but of of guerilla warfare) "Evil" people as evoking such a response in the legitimate warfare between "Good and Evil"
Acceptability of a declared "political" motive of "liberation" as part of a revolutionary political process Acceptability of a declared "political " motive (eg liberating the Jews from Egyptian slavery)
State-supported (or tolerated) terrorism Hierarchically-accepted terrorism
Institution-supported terrorism (characterized by provision of funds, shelter and resources) Terrorism supported by religious institutions representative of God
Concealment of evidence (or its destruction) and intimidation of potential witnesses Concealment of evidence for alternative explanations (or its destruction) and intimidation of potential witnesses by religious institutions representative of God
"Interrogation" of perpetrators without adequate legal protection "Interrogation" of those framed as instigators, by religious institutions representative of God, often without adequate legal protection
Accusation/condemnation by "victims" without effective appeal (as with cases of "targeted killings") Accusation/conviction on the basis of evidence from "victims" without effective appeal
Denial of evidence and repudiation of witnesses (incl. assassination of witnesses) Denial of evidence for alternative explanations and repudiation of witnesses by religious institutions representative of God
Secrecy: covert implementation Secrecy: unpredictable implementation
Sanction of moral authority: selective presentation of religious citations Sanction of moral authority of religious institutions representative of God (concerning the Wrath of God)
Exceptionalism: pattern of abuse framed as isolated "mistakes" arising from regrettable actions of a particular individual not respecting institutional policy Exceptionalism: pattern of calamities framed as isolated incidents arising from regrettable actions of sinnful mankind not then representative of God's Will
"Trial" by media and public opinion in advance of (and undermining) any due process "Trial" by media and public opinion of declared apostates in advance of (and undermining) any due process
Manipulation of definition of political terrorism to exclude (or include) certain forms Manipulation of definition of terrorism to exclude (or include) certain forms

This approach points to the possibility that a number of arguments presented earlier as evidence against "God being a Terrorist" are problematic. These include:

Reactions to 9/11 confirm that the status of "evil" has had considerable impact on modern thinking as explored by Susan Neiman (Evil in Modern Thought, 2002) who notes that "The 1755 earthquake that destroyed the city of Lisbon, and several thousand of its inhabitants, shook the Enlightenment all the way to East Prussia.". The reason was that philosophical thinking was at a turning point. Natural events (though caused by supernatural actors), were now beginning to be understood through scientific like investigations. "Evil" would be restricted, in such thinking, to acts of human beings, not acts of God or nature. Neiman takes "intellectual reactions to Lisbon and Auschwitz as central poles of inquiry", claiming that : "the problem of evil is the guiding force of modern thought."

Misrepresentation of "God" with respect to risk management

It could be assumed that there are currently three distinct approaches to risk management:

In the movie The Man Who Sued God (2001), which inspired this paper, the defendants as nominated (or self-acclaimed) representatives of God were forced to recognize that their best defence against a multi-million dollar class action suit was to deny the existence of "God" -- as defined by the insurance industry. Clearly, here also, "God" cannot be a "terrorist" if he does not exist. This is however equally embarrassing because then it raises issues as to what business religion and the insurance industry are actually in.

Is there indeed, as suggested in the film, a tacit "deal" between religions and the insurance industry through which insurance gets to brand certain disasters as being the sole responsibility of "God" (as a form of placement advertising for religion and thereby ensuring immunity from legal obligation), in exchange for the considerable investment made by religious institutions in the multi-billion dollar insurance industry whose exposure to risk is thereby reduced?

The insurance industry and contract law identify "Acts of God" as a subcategory of "force majeure" -- as are "Acts of Terrorism". Given a purportedly omnipotent God, would it not be more correct to consider all forms of force majeure as "Acts of God"? Or is there some implication that force majeure holds acts that are of "God" as well as of some other entity (perhaps more strongly identified with "evil")? Is there some sense in which some aspects of force majeure, such as "Acts of Terrorism" may well be of greater (or equal) power to those of "God"?

Elsewhere it has been argued, in the light of George Bush's widely publicized offering of a Thanksgiving "plastic turkey" to his troops in Baghdad (28 November 2003) -- that increasingly modern civilization is effectively entering a Plastic Turkey Era (Politicization of Evidence in the Plastic Turkey Era, 2003). In line with those arguments, it might then be asked whether the "God" that is thanked at Thanksgiving, as defined by the leadership of the Coalition of the Willing, should also be be recognized as a "plastic turkey".

Conceptual gerrymandering

As argued by Karen Armstrong (When God goes to war, Guardian, 29 December 2003): "We can be certain of one thing in 2004. Unless there is some unimaginable breakthrough, we will see more religiously inspired terrorism."

The citations above are striking in their assertiveness with regard to understanding of what is by definition beyond human understanding -- in the absence of conventional forms of tangible evidence. In this light "religiously inspired terrorism" could be interpreted to mean any form of "terrorism" inspired by evidence that is available only to those with special interpretative insight, access or convictions (see Groupthink: the Search for Archaeoraptor as a Metaphoric Tale, 2002). There is then a form of convergence between the traditional insights claimed and interpreted by priesthoods (and devout believers) with those insights obtained by people with unique access to "intelligence" (as claimed by the intelligence community) and those, like George Bush and Tony Blair, who have privileged access to it (whether assisted by insights from "God" or not). Like Bush and Blair, many will follow the path of acting on their own private understanding of what they profoundly believe "God" wishes. This parallels the behaviour of the suicide bombers labelled as terrorists. In both cases, after "getting out of bed" or "off their knees" (as exemplifed by President William McKinley in the case of the American war on the Philippines), they can claim to be following God's command.

The citations point to an appalling degree of definitional game-playing and denial for a supposedly mature civilization. Conceptual boundaries are willfully redrawn in different exercises of conceptual gerrymandering (see Conceptual gerrymandering and definitional game-playing, 2002). The experience of terror, and the perspective of the victim, is systematically ignored in any approach to a definition (which might acknowledge how terror is otherwise induced). The emphasis is placed on whether the terror is caused "legitimately" in military action according to the conventions of war or "illegitimately" by other forms of action. The fact that the former may cause as much destruction and terror, or more, is ignored. The UK fire-bombing of cities (Dresden, etc) and their civilian populations, and the USA destruction of cities and populations (Hiroshima, Nagasaki), is considered "acceptable" in comparison with the heinous, "evil" acts of modern "terrorists". Games are played with "military" personnel as "legitimate" targets of acceptable conflict (whatever the regrettable collateral damage) in comparison with the "illegitimacy" of targeting the populations that support them -- with special exceptions being made for "targeted killings" of people who are defined (without due process) as having lost the right to be treated as "civilians".

Wherever the definitions touch on the possible role of "God", boundaries are carefully drawn -- through further conceptual gerrymandering -- in order not to implicate "God". Although "God" is thoroughly implicated wherever possible by the insurance industry. In concluding the case in the movie The Man Who Sued God (2001), the presiding judge notes that the collusion between religions and insurance with regard to "Acts of God" constituted an oppressive exploitation of policy holders that was "offensive to reason and religion and most certainly wrong in law." The plea of the insurance industry that the term "Act of God" was commonly understood as only to be taken figuratively (as a legal fiction) was challenged. The case pointed to the possibility that the insurance industry, with the connivance of religions, was misrepresenting "God" and the nature of his actions -- and as such exposed the insurance industry to sanction under the relevant articles of any Trades Description Act regarding "misleading advertising".

Returning to the original question -- "Is God a terrorist from the perspective of the Coalition of the Willing" -- it can be readily asserted that from the perspective of those experiencing terror that it makes little difference whether the terror is apparently free of human intervention (natural causes) or directly caused by humans labelled as "terrorists" or "military" personnel. Increasingly, from the perspective of the insurance industry, "Acts of God" and "Acts of Terrorism" are equivalent.

If some at least of God's actions cannot be distinguished by the experiencer, or by the insurance industry, from "Acts of Terrorism", then there is surely a strong case for assuming that "God" is indeed a "terrorist" from the perspective of the insurance industry at least. This is completely unacceptable to most religious believers (despite Biblical supporting evidence), who are then forced to engage in even more complex forms of conceptual gerrymandering to focus solely on "God as Love" and to exclude any recognition of the "Wrath of God" -- except where it is framed as "legitimate" retribution against "evil" (for example, David Frum, Richard Perle. An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, 2003).

It is this logic which supports the "shoot to kill" policies of the Christian-led occupying forces of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq -- on the assumption that the person shot (whether a child or not) is necessarily a legitimate "terrorist" suspect. Again for the experiencer, it is completely irrelevant whether the shooting soldier is an instrument of the "God of Love" or of "God the Terrorist". It is difficult to feel that death is honourable when defined as collateral damage.

Clearly the insurance industry and contract law have done a major service to humanity through their ability to define "Acts of God" so clearly within an increasingly material world -- at a time when religions are increasingly incapable of doing so meaningfully. At the same time religions will continue to claim that because "God" is omnipresent, he is necessarily present in every act and phenomenon, necessarily including both "Acts of God" and "Acts of Terrorism" -- being omnipotent he is necessarily the essence of force majeure in all of its forms. Thus, with the assistance of the insurance industry, religions are placed in a position to assert that "God" is indeed a "terrorist", but that it is the Coalition of the Willing that is buying into a very simplistic understanding of "God" and of "terrorism". It is effectively promoting a lesser "God" accessible to human comprehension -- the "God" of "You are either with US or against US" -- and "If the latter, US will strike you down".


This argument raises questions about the nature of the "God" whose blessing is repeatedly sought for the efforts of the Coalition of the Willing, and notably by its leadership (see Sally McFague. Models of God, 1987). Is it the (male) "God" that fundamentalists are so fearful may be alienated by an apostate society -- evoking strikes against the unrighteous? Is the "God" so understood to be considered as selective in his blessing? Is he to be understood as cultivating favourites? Does he repeatedly need to be reminded of his favourites' desperate need for such blessing -- or does he believe that his blessings are ensured in such a continuous manner (through a form of "broadband" access) that such requests are a symptom of dysfunctional neediness?

At the core of any response to the question "Is God a terrorist" is human ability to comprehend a "God" that can operate in two seemingly incommensurable modes -- "loving" or "wrathful". Susan Neiman (Evil in Modern Thought, 2002) highlights the contradictory nature of "God" as being "good" (but sometimes allowing or doing "evil") -- as all powerful (but allowing, even contributing to, human suffering).

In this connection it is intriguing to recall the statement by Jesus "I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life." (John 8:12). Science has drawn attention to the duality inherent in the nature of light (as it is to be understood by humans), namely the way in which light operates through either a "particle" or a "wave" mode. Others have responded to the paradox of whether Jesus was God or human by pointing to the dual nature of light and his use of the light metaphor (Raymond Chiao. The Quantum Wave of Faith, 2002). According to Michael J. Bozack (Conjugate Properties and the Hypostatic Union, 1987) "God-man and the wave-particle have properties which transcend either nature acting separately... Reconciliation of the hypostatic union and the wave-particle dualism is dependent on the role of human perception".

Use is also made of light as a metaphor in Islamic mysticism as indicated by this verse of the Quran: "Allah (God) is the Light (soul) of the heavens and earth." According to Wahid Bakhsh Rabbani (Islamic Sufism): "Now, since God's being is pure light (Nur) and since according to the cult of Wahdat-ul-Wujud (oneness of being), God's Being penetrates everything in the universe including space, the building blocks of the universe, which are nothing but God's Light which, on devolution, appeared in the form of wave-like particles or particle-like waves... penetrating the entire field of matter and space whose oneness has already been established by both the scientists and the Sufis".

More intriguing however is the possibility that the metaphor is also of value in pointing to the paradoxical duality between the "loving" and "wrathful" dimensions that are apparently intrinsic to the nature of "God" -- who could then indeed be considered as a "terrorist" in one mode without detracting from the "loving" nature of another. In the light of Heisenberg's Uncertainity Principle, efforts at definition of the exact of nature of "God" then only lead to uncertainity. A helpful discussion of this matter is provided by Gene Poole (Benevolent vs. Wrathful Deities: Understanding the Double Bind, 2000) in the light of Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism).

Will the future see the processes of the current debate over the definition of "terrorism" in the same scornful light as the frequently-told tale of the scholastic preoccupation with determiing the number of angels that could stand on a pinhead? [more | more]


William B. Drees (Ed.). Is Nature Ever Evil? Routledge, 2003

Boaz Ganor. Defining Terrorism: Is One Man's Terrorist Another Man's Freedom Fighter? [text]

Anthony Judge:

Martin Kettle. How can religious peopke explain something like this? The Guardan, 28 December 2004 [text]

Sally McFague. Models of God: theology for an ecological, nuclear age. Fortress Press, 1987

Susan Neiman. Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 2002

Robert J. Russell . Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions (Agential Models of God's Interaction With the World). 2000 [text]

Alex P Schmidt and Albert J Youngman. Political Terrorism. Amsterdam, SWIDOC, 1988

Michael Talbot. Mysticism and the New Physics. Arkana, 1993

Benjamin Watson. Acts of God. Random House, 1993.

Brian Whitaker. The definition of terrorism. Guardian, 7 May 2001 [text]

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