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One Man's Terrorist ...

Inevitably, questions have arisen over the scope of America's "war" on terrorism. The immediate target of this offensive is clear: Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. But what about other groups that arguably have "global reach"?

That, you may recall, was the qualifier used by President Bush in his speech laying out plans to combat terrorism.

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The Bush administration has been getting plenty of advice about whom to include in its campaign. Some critics say the Irish Republican Army (IRA), with its history of attacking civilians, should be included. Many argue that anti-Israel groups like Hamas, with its suicide bombers, ought to be in the cross hairs, too.

What about the Chechen fighters Russia continues to battle? Moscow calls them "terrorists." Or the militant Kurds in Turkey?

Definitions of terrorism can be slippery. The US Department of Justice is finding this out as it pushes for the creation of new legal tools - such as wider information-tapping authority - to use against terrorists. If the definition is too broad, law enforcement's reach could undermine civil liberties. Likewise, too broad a target for military response could do more harm than good.

And what makes a group "global"? A base of operation in more than one country might be a factor; so could international fundraising networks.

Two points might help clarify things:

First, indiscriminate and intentional acts of violence against civilian populations are abhorrent. They can't be morally or politically justified. But many groups that engage in such tactics operate within a narrow nationalistic context. Their methods must be condemned, but they don't necessarily warrant a US military response.

Second, terrorists clearly have global reach if their operations stretch beyond national or regional borders. Al Qaeda's connections in multiple countries are now well known. But other groups, including the IRA and Hamas, have relied on international networks to supply money or arms. Those networks should be more closely monitored, and in some cases shut down, if the fight against global terrorism is to be consistent.

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That would step on some toes. Some Irish-Americans have financially supported the IRA and spin-off groups for years, thinking of them as fighters for freedom. Contributors to Hamas may point out that the organization provides social services to Palestinians, as well as recruiting suicide bombers.

Clearly, the definition and perceived severity of terrorism will shift according to political perspectives. That's why the US is wise to keep its initial focus squarely on the Sept. 11 attacks. Varied perceptions of terrorism can't blur the sheer size and destructiveness of those acts, or the need to find and punish the perpetrators.


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