The One Man's Terrorist ArgumentMSNBC's Brian Williams, in response to the story that Iran's new president might be one of the 1979 hostage takers, offers an iteration of the "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" cliche:
. . . several of us raised the point (I'll leave it to others to decide germaneness) that several U.S. presidents were at minimum revolutionaries, and probably were considered terrorists of their time by the Crown in England.Presumably the point is that it's not that big of a deal that one of the 1979 hostage takers became president of Iran, because George Washington was considered by some to be a terrorist.
As it stands, this is a non sequitur; even if GW was considered to be a terrorist by the British, it doesn't follow that he was or that Iran's new president wasn't. To belabor the point, there are four possibilities:
- George Washington was a terrorist, and Iran's new president was a terrorist.
- George Washington wasn't a terrorist, and Iran's new president wasn't a terrorist.
- George Washington was a terrorist, and Iran's new president wasn't a terrorist.
- George Washington wasn't a terrorist, and Iran's new president was a terrorist.
At best, the "one man's terrorist" argument implies that we shouldn't hastily judge X to be a terrorist merely because X did something politically controversial. This cautionary note is fine, but it doesn't preclude me from finally and correctly judging X to be a terrorist. Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building because of his political views on Ruby Ridge and Waco--and some people think that he was a freedom fighter--but when all is said and done, he was a terrorist.
To drive the point home, compare the following:
One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.Those who assert the first would be loathe (and rightly so) to assert the second--but why? If we're going to play the "one man's terrorist" game, we have to play it through to the end. It's a fact that some people think that neo-Nazis are freedom fighters. If we're going to be consistent, that means we cannot be quick to label anyone a neo-Nazi. Since this is an absurd conclusion, it's best that we stop playing the game the generates the absurdity.
One man's neo-Nazi is another man's freedom fighter.