If you've been tracking the tiresome troll attacks on Nelson Mandela, as I did here yesterday, you've undoubtedly noticed the frequent invocation of the word terrorist - such as, "Mandela was a heartless murderer and terrorist," and "Mandela was a thug, mass murder (sic), and a terrorist." And you have to wonder whether these people ever cracked a history book past third grade.

Mandela's death gives us a fresh opportunity to ponder the debasement of political language, but we don't need to be scholarly about this. Generally speaking, if somebody is violently confronting a regime that we hate, he's a "freedom fighter," and if somebody is violently confronting a regime that we love, he's a "terrorist." The right-wingers who are eulogizing Mandela as a "terrorist" do so because they were staunch supporters of an authoritarian racist regime that consigned blacks to a second-class squalid existence.

Mandela was not a pacifist. In the early '60s he studied armed resistance, he built an armed militia, and he said, "Non-violence is a good policy when conditions permit." But conditions did not permit. Confronted with institutional tyranny, Mandela didn't have the luxury of hewing to non-violence 24/7.

Nor did George Washington. Or William Wallace, the 13th-century agitant for Scottish independence. Or Menachem Begin, who fought to kick the British out of Palestine and establish a Jewish nation. If Mandela was truly a "terrorist," so were they.

Washington surely believed in non-violence, but conditions did not permit. If the British had managed to crush the colonists, he would've been charged with terroristic crimes - killing civilians who were loyal to the crown, ambushing British soldiers in violation of the rules of war (the Brits marched in formation) - and he would've been hanged as a traitor. But today we laud him as a hero of armed rebellion.

William Wallace also fought the British occupiers - in bloody medieval fashion. At one point (according to the historians), he skinned a guy from head to heel and used that skin to make a belt for his sword. But 700 years later he was so revered as a freedom fighter that Hollywood made him the hero of Braveheart, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

As for Menachem Begin, he was so reviled in his day that the British authorities labeled him "Terrorist Number One." A Holocaust survivor, he was determined to carve out a safe place for Jews, and that required dislodging the British from the presumptive homeland. Much blood was spilled; in his view, conditions did not permit otherwise. As head of the Irgun rebellion, he ordered the hanging of two British sergeants, in retaliation for British hangings of his comrades. In 1946 he bombed the King David hotel, which housed the British military command - killing 91 people, many of them civilians.

Sounds kind of terroristic, yes?

Nah, we allies of Israel generally see him as a freedom fighter who did what he had to do; as his biographer, Daniel Gordis, has written, "Jewish sovereignty did not happen by chance, nor simply through negotiation. It came about through determination, grit, courage, and blood." Begin wound as prime minister of Israel, signed the Camp David Accords in 1979, and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

You get my point. These labels can be quite circumstantial. When Nelson Mandela's critics slime him as a "terrorist," they're merely employing a pejorative to score a partisan point, attacking his (occasional) tactics because they opposed his goal. They would never dream of labeling Washington in that fashion, because they love America (as they so often remind us). And they'd never invoke Begin in that fashion, because the right loves Israel.

Indeed, Mandela's critics might well detect the spirit of terrorism in this remark - "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants" - but, the thing is, Mandela never said that. Thomas Jefferson did.


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