Greece is fighting what may be the worst string of forest fires to consume the country in over a century. The fires—as many as 44 separate in total—have killed at least 64 people since Friday, according to the International Herald Tribune. The suspected cause of the blazes: arson.
A Greek prosecutor, Dimitris Papangelopoulos, has ordered an investigation into whether the alleged arsonists can be prosecuted as terrorists under the country's antiterrorism laws. While fires certainly cause panic and fear--terror--they are not necessarily terrorism unless a political agenda is the motivation. Therefore, unless the arsonist's or arsonists' motivation for starting these fires was to terrorize Greeks for explicitly political reasons, Papangelopoulos should prosecute the offenders under the country's normal criminal laws.
Politics is rarely the root cause of arson, according to statistics. For instance, in both the United States and the United Kingdom, arson is typically associated with juveniles, vandalism, and the mentally ill. Think Devil's Night in Detroit, Michigan, or Camden, New Jersey. Other motives for arson include revenge and spite and insurance fraud. In a 2004 study, the U.S. Fire Administration quantified the leading motivations for arson. The primary reason for arson was revenge and spite, followed by vandalism, fraud, and crime concealment. The only reference to terrorism in the report came from ecoterrorists setting structures ablaze to protest urban sprawl and environmental destruction.
The term "terrorism" exists in a murky definitional realm. In every report you read, it is defined differently it seems. Even the U.S. government cannot agree on one definition for the phenomenon. To see my point, check out this Web page by Carroll Payne where she compiled various definitions given by dictionaries, academics, and governments.
Even where the term is correctly limited to acts tied to political agendas, it can create confusion because it leads us to lump together very disparate groups who have nothing in common but their tactic. That's why when we think of terrorism, organizations such as al Qaeda, the Irish Republican Army, the Red Brigades, Hamas, and Hezbollah instantly materialize in our minds. Despite the differing ideologies, religions, and goals of these different terrorist groups, there is one constant: politically motivated violence.
That's a problem. But worse yet is the fact that since 9-11, the labels "terrorism" or "terrorists" have been attached to an ever widening group of actions or actors, which continually dilutes the meaning of the word. A recent example of applying terrorism to a ridiculous action was British police invoking their expanded terrorism powers of stop and search and precharge detention to deal with Heathrow climate protestors.
The result: terrorism becomes just another label used by actors to smear those they disagree with or loath, which correspondingly desensitizes people to the word and could lead to a decreasing level of vigilance toward real terrorism threats.
If Greece does find and arrest suspects for setting these fires and cannot attach a political motivation to the crime, preferably self-confessed or revealed through writings or internet chats, Papangelopoulos should not prosecute the offender or offenders underneath Greece's antiterrorism laws, lest he further obfuscate a term already abused and misunderstood.