After spending several hundred words scratching his head over what the word "terror" really means, intelligence reporter Scott Shane ended his Sunday Week in Review essay "Dropping the Word Bomb," on safe ground with a couple of selective anti-Reagan anecdotes suggesting the strongly pro-defense Reagan was naive about the threat of terrorism. (If we're talking about terror naivete, why skip the eight years of Bill Clinton, a period where Osama bin Laden attacked U.S. targets with impunity while planning 9-11?)
From the debate over word choice came the adage that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," a cliché already by the 1980s.
"That's a catchy phrase, but also misleading," President Ronald Reagan said in a 1986 radio address. "Freedom fighters do not need to terrorize a population into submission. Freedom fighters target the military forces and the organized instruments of repression keeping dictatorial regimes in power. Freedom fighters struggle to liberate their citizens from oppression and to establish a form of government that reflects the will of the people."
Thinking of ends and not means, Mr. Reagan praised the Nicaraguan contra rebels, who had a bloody record fighting the Communist Sandinistas, as "the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers." In the cold war contest with the Soviet Union, he armed and embraced the Afghan "freedom fighters" and their Arab allies, some of whom evolved into the terrorists of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
That long-ago radio address sounds naïve in retrospect in another respect, too. "History is likely to record that 1986 was the year when the world, at long last, came to grips with the plague of terrorism," President Reagan declared. President Obama is unlikely to venture a similar prediction anytime soon.