Last weekend, Londoners celebrated Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday with a big concert in Hyde Park. The event coincided with attempts by some in the US Senate to have Mandela's name removed from the terrorist watch list. Growing up in the UK during the height of the IRA's campaigns (& being narrowly missed twice) I have a high level of sceptiscm for those politicians who use terror as a vote gatherer. As our news continues to blurt out scare stories it's interesting to note who was considered a terrorist but is now seen as a senior statesman and hero.
Yasser Arafat, popular visitor to the White House lawn lead Fatah and the PLO during it's reign of terror across Europe & the Middle East. His leadership were directly connected to the kipnapping and executions of the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
But it isn't all rosy on the other side. Israel's founding father Ben-Gurion is still viewed as a terrorist by much of the Arab world after his violent expulsion of the Palestinians from Israel & his involvement in the Qibya massacre. British troops were often the target of his Zionist supporters as well.
Sometimes the journey from terrorist to statements takes an about turn. Robert Mugabe was seen both as the liberator of Rhodesia from white rule & as a terrorist by those fighting his Marxist rebels. He has degenerated back into being viewed as a terrorist as his violent grip continues to tighten around Zimbabwe.
So what of Mandela? As leader of the armed division of the African National Congress, he coordinated and participated in many violent attacks against government entities. Convicted & unrepentent in 1962 (he was outspoken at trial in his support for violent action) he began his now famous prison term. He was offered his freedom many times if he would renounce the use of violence but Mandela refused to negotiate with Cape Town.
What can we learn from all this? Obviously, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter and the term itself is not one we should use lightly or as a cheap scare tactic to acquire votes or viewers. Osama bin-Laden seems an unlikely character for a handshake amongst the White House roses but if history is anything to go by, I wouldn't bet the farm.