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EU’s Moral Confusion on Terrorism

Today, the European Union decided to put the armed wing of Hezbollah on its terror list. This is a welcome, if belated, step, given that it took the EU a whole year after Hezbollah conducted a murderous operation on European soil to take action.

It is also a sign of the moral confusion reigning over EU Middle East foreign policy.

You will be shocked to know that a Google search for “red brigades” and “armed wing” will not yield much. Same for “IRA” and “armed wing.” Or Baader-Mainhof group and the same. Can you imagine, for example, a 1979 headline from an Italian daily announcing that the European Economic Community (the precursor to the European Union) had finally deliberated, a year after the Italian Red Brigades had kidnapped and murdered a former prime minister, that only their armed wing deserved to be called a terrorist group?

Granted, the EEC powers were more limited back then. But Europeans never found it as difficult to look at terror organizations and call them by their name. They did not waste time in intellectual contortionism and rhetorical hair splitting about what these organizations were–or what their members engaged in. The IRA, ETA, the Red Brigades, and the entire array of murderous groups from the extreme left and the extreme right of the European political spectrum became terrorists the minute they impugned a weapon and sought to achieve their political goals by murdering their adversaries and occasionally killing civilians indiscriminately. That those who gave the orders may have sat in an elected body, worked as members of a respectable profession, or served as the heads of a charitable foundation mattered little.

It took no great wisdom to see that the hand that held the gun and the mind that guided it were one and the same thing–that there was an inseparable, organic link between the ideologues who provided moral, intellectual, and political justification for violence, which in turn guided the violent executioners’ actions.

Similarly, there is no trace in newspaper clips or court proceedings for an “armed wing” of the mob or an “armed wing” of the drug cartels, which are somehow distinct, in terms of “command responsibility” from the rest of the organization. Mob hit man Giovanni Brusca, one of the Corleone clan’s most ruthless killers, did not somehow belong to the “armed wing” of the mafia, where he killed people unbeknownst to the otherwise charitable dons. The Mexican Zetas certainly have a military wing–more like an army of gruesome murderers–and it is certainly integral to the entire organization and its aims. Whether the Zetas or the mob provide a pension to their family members or send them to good doctors is immaterial to the way we understand these groups, their aims, and their methods. Nor are their business interests somehow classified into “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” Whether it’s drug trafficking or money laundering through art and real estate, we call it criminal, because … well, it is criminal.

But the EU sticks to its own imagined distinction when it comes to radical Islamic groups engaged in terrorist activities. Though you will be hard pressed to find reference to an armed wing of Hezbollah within Hezbollah, such references abound in the Western press. It is a convenient way to avoid having to tackle the problem of Hezbollah–a proxy of the Iranian regime whose ideology justifies the use of violence for political ends and whose entire structure thus serves the purpose of carrying out such violence.

All this, of course, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good–better sanctions against a legal fiction than no sanctions at all, if the former have more real consequences than the latter.

But longer term, the EU will prove itself yet again ineffectual in the Middle East unless it is prepared to exercise moral clarity and recognize that the “armed wing” of Hezbollah is not a case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand does–more like a case of a division of labor within an organization where the military wing executes the vision of its political leadership.



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