(Remember, this isn't a flaky semantic dispute or a Russophile/Russophobe debate: the use of the term is vital because it is the difference between whether or not a group gets its bank accounts frozen, its members harassed and hunted, and law enforcement officials access to FISA warrants on-demand.)
This bizarre double-standard holds true in the media as well. I tracked the evolution of the words used to describe the Chechen terrorists in the American press during the opening hours of the Moscow siege last Wednesday night. It was amazing: every possible description was found to avoid using the word terrorist, as if the Western reporters had a thesaurus with specific instructions: "Don't use the word 'terrorist'!"
In the early hours of the hostage crisis, Reuters called the Chechens an "armed gang," while AP and CNN called them "Gunmen." The BBC called the Chechens "armed attackers." Like bank robbers or Crips. This in spite of the fact that in the same article, they described how the "gunmen" were Chechens ready for suicide and that they would blow all 800 hostages up if Russia didn't end its war in Chechnya.
When it was clear that "armed gang" and "gunmen" had specific political demands, Reuters, early Thursday morning Moscow time, changed its term describing the Chechens: "About 40 Chechen guerrillas armed with guns and grenades held hundreds of Moscow theater-goers hostage on Wednesday night, threatening to blow up the building if police tried to storm it."
Not to be outdone, AP found a similar yet equally value-friendly term to define the Chechens: "About 50 armed Chechen rebels seized a crowded Moscow theater Wednesday night, firing their weapons and taking hundreds in the audience hostage."
They went from an "armed gang" and "gunmen" to "guerrillas" and "rebels." It's actually an improvement value-wise. Which would you rather be known as if you were taking over a theater of 800 innocents and trying to gain sympathy for your cause: a "terrorist" [worst], a "gunman" [bad, but better] or a "rebel"? Here's a hint: The Boston Tea Party and the Lexington Minutemen were "rebels." Al Qaeda and Abu Sayyef are "terrorists."
Which makes me wonder: why aren't Al Qaeda known as guerrillas or rebels? Their political demands are clear: stop supporting Israel and corrupt Arab regimes. Why wasn't the poor sap who farted his way out to the USS Cole on a rubber dinghy packed with C-4 a "rebel" or a "guerrilla"?
I've searched Yahoo for the past few weeks to see why some groups are called "terrorist" while others are "rebels." It's pretty easy to find the pattern: If you are a stateless guerrilla group and you attack America or America's sphere of influence, you are a terrorist. In an October 12th AP article "A List of Terrorist Attacks" catalogues the year's terror highlights, including bombs in the Philippines, Bali, Pakistan and Tunisia...yet no mention of the bomb in Kaspysk, which killed 42 Russian marching band members! Amazingly, even an attack on inorganic matter -- a French oil tanker -- gets terrorist billing over Chechen "rebel/guerrilla" attacks on 800 innocent middle-class Muscovites.
You've got to wonder: Do Russians count as people to the West?
Russia's problem, first and foremost, is that it dared, under Putin, to assert itself. That was unforgivable, and allowed the American Right to revert back to the only role it has felt comfortable in for the last 50 years: Russia-bashing.
Western journalists have had a somewhat more confused relationship with the Chechen resistance. At first, in 1994, it seemed like the Next Big Bosnia: evil Orthodox Slavic oppressors versus oppressed Muslim minority underdogs. Many a cub reporter's career was made in Chechnya... that is, until the Chechens got their independence and started lopping off everyone's heads, including Westerners'.
When the second Chechen War started, Western reporters were less inclined to see the Chechens as good-hearted minority underdogs. They were scared of the Chechens. And after the debacle in Kosovo, where another oppressed Muslim minority turned savage oppressor once given power, most Western journalists were a little less inclined to hyper-romanticize the Chechens.