Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela was among the countries that recently threatened to break diplomatic ties with the U.S. by citing the case of Luis Posada, a Cuban exile and a prime suspect in the 1976 bombing of a civilian airliner that killed 73 people, currently seeking refuge in the United States. Chavez was attempting to place the United States on the horns of a dilemma. He isn’t the only one.
The dispute over Posada is being presented as a case of U.S. hypocrisy: either we are fighting against all forms of terrorism wherever it is found or we must accept the repugnant syllogism that “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.”
This is of course the logical result of the growth of moral relativism. After all, when there are no solid moral standards or clear definitions, everything is allowed. This cannot and must not be the case. Our policies must be grounded on a realistic yet moral setting. Terrorism is:
...warfare conducted by individuals or groups with the purpose of achieving or imposing the political or religious goals and objectives of the terrorist organization and/or its sponsors. It is directed against nations or societies in which non-violent means are available for the achievement of these goals. Furthermore, it is characterized by the use of systematic, arbitrary, and amoral violence (i.e. murder, torture, mutilation, bombing, arson, kidnapping, hijacking, etc.) in the pursuit of its goals.
With such a definition in place, distinctions between true freedom fighters and terrorists can clearly be drawn. For example, those that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan had no other means at their disposal while at the same time they sought to engage the Soviet military forces in what is more properly characterized as a guerilla war. Another such example would be the Contras, who fought the Soviet-backed Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Both of these groups were often labeled terrorists by their enemies. However, these true freedom fighters directed their violence at the actual enemy forces and not the innocent populations. Moreover, there were no non-violent alternatives to counter the Soviet-sponsored aggression.
Counter examples of actual terrorist organizations are clear: For example the Cuban, and increasingly Venezuelan-backed Marxist narco-terrorists of FARC in Colombia clearly use many forms of arbitrary violence, including kidnapping, as a form of financing their operations. They do so in a functioning democratic society in which they could easily pursue non-violent means such as running for office or use of a free media to pursue their political purposes.
Another example would be Hamas, which clearly uses violence not only against innocent Israeli citizens, but also the Palestinians themselves. This arbitrary use of violence continues to this day in spite of over a decade of effort by Israel and other democracies to develop a peaceful political solution to the conflict. Although a list of true terrorist organizations could thus be compiled. It would include such famous Islamist groups as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, as well as the Tamil Tigers, and one of the newer forms of so-called eco-terrorism, such as ALF/ELF. As is the case with groups like FARC and Hamas—representing terrorism from two different regions, with different political goals and even some difference in tactics—there are clear examples of terrorist organizations under the above definition.
Even with such clearly defined parameters, there are those who would argue that “justice” requires the United States to deport Posada to either Venezuela or Cuba. Putting aside the issue of the common use of the label of “terrorist” by tyrants seeking to de-legitimize opponents of their regimes—tyrants that are often the greatest terrorists in the countries they oppress—this is an example of another form of equivalency. Those making the argument are wrapping up their relativistic worldviews in the abstract value of justice; the unstated assumption is that justice in Cuba or Venezuela under Chavez is the same as justice in America, Europe, Japan, or any other free nation.
Too often, individuals, for their own philosophical reasons, seek to place the U.S., the UK, Israel, as well as other free nations on the same moral level as nations such as Cuba, Iran, or other tyrannical regimes. Even more unfortunate is that some in the West may actually believe that Cuban justice or the system being created by Chavez in Venezuela is more fair then the American legal system.
This is a misguided and dangerous view of the world. There is an extreme difference between an oppressive government and a free nation. For example, Posada has essentially been tried, convicted, and sentenced before having ever set foot in either Cuba or Venezuela. Any actual tribunal that would be held would be the epitome of the infamous “show trials” so often used by tyrants. Yet some still insist that he be returned to Chavez or Castro to satisfy their idea of justice in a relativistic world.
If Posada did in fact take part in the bombing of a Cuban airliner then he must be brought to justice for the death of innocents. But he should not be sacrificed because of our fear of looking hypocritical. Instead, we should think of this as an opportunity not only to highlight the tyrannical nature of the Cuban and Venezuelan governments, which are state sponsors of terrorism, but also to highlight what real justice is by offering a fair alternative. For example Posada could be tried in a U.S. or another free nation’s court, thereby ensuring that Western rules—including the need for evidence, right to counsel, an impartial judge and jury, and most importantly the presumptions of innocence—are respected. Cuba and Venezuela could provide the prosecution team. There is in fact already a precedent for such an extraordinary procedure. Recall that two Libyan nationals were tried in the Netherlands for the bombing of Pan-Am 103 over Scotland.
More important, though, the debate over Posada must not be allowed to distract or hinder the U.S. from fighting the War on Terror. Similarly, it must not be allowed to impede our strategy of reengagement in Latin America by those seeking to politicize the issue with their own moral relativistic worldview. Indeed, fighting that view is perhaps the true battle on the home front. It is a battle that must be won.
Christopher Brown works at the Hudson Institute for the Program on Transitions to Democracy.