Perspective, or point of view, makes a big difference in how you or others view something. When it really comes down to it, no one perspective is correct because everyone sees things just a little bit differently. Two people can experience the exact same thing, yet have different views about what happened, how it happened, who it happened to, and what happened afterwards.
One man’s patriot is another man’s terrorist.
When I was teaching my history classes and specifically a class on modern terrorism I used to challenge my students’ thought by giving them the phrase above. It is based on the statement, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” I have researched who may have first uttered these words, but I can’t find anything that definitively gives attribution, so I can’t give you that info. But, that isn’t really the point.
Who defines a patriot and a terrorist really comes down to perspective or interpretation. There is no one definition that can truly encompass what the words actually mean. As such, it almost always comes down to who has the power to define the people, the actions, and the result. As Michael Bhatia of Brown University puts it, “…it’s about power, authority, and legitimacy.”
Now, he is talking specifically about international terrorism in general, but I think we can apply the situation and phrase to many different historical events because there are always two sides to take a look at.
- The leaders in Britain saw the colonists as insurrectionists, terrorists, etc. as the colonists fought to create the United States. But the colonists saw their own people as freedom fighters, patriots, etc. because they were standing up to the tyranny of England.
- The American military saw Iraqis in Iraq as terrorists when they blew up convoys, attacked bases and outposts, and killed Americans whether they were in the military or not. But the Iraqis saw the American military as an invading occupier and those who fought against the occupier were freedom fighters and patriots.
- The leadership in South Africa saw the South Africans fighting for their rights and freedoms as insurrectionists and terrorists, but Nelson Mandela and his followers saw themselves as a freedom fighters and patriots.
- Fidel Castro and his followers viewed themselves as patriots and freedom fighters who liberated their island from the right wing government and imperialist international interests while the government and international community viewed him as an insurrectionist and terrorist.
These are but a few examples. The point is, those in power have the ability to define anything and anyone as they see fit. We can’t let them define situations and people so easily without a little common sense and critical thinking.
What happened at the capitol last week can be viewed in much the same way. Are we going to let the media and those in power dictate who is a patriot and who is a terrorist? The use of either word has strong connotations behind them and if not used carefully, as in just throwing them around to fit a political agenda, it could harm people and ideas, and most importantly freedoms. It could keep people from standing up and fighting for their rights when there is legitimate cause to do so.
We must be careful when defining who is a patriot and who is a terrorist, because if we aren’t then the terms can too easily be manipulated for political purposes, which in turn allows us to be manipulated for political gain.