In global political discussions, one must view all possible viewpoints. It is sometimes stated that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Nations or radical or reactionary factions within nations may not necessarily have the funding to fight someone or something that they feel must be fought.

However, there is a difference between guerilla tactics and the methods employed by terrorists. Whereas the former employ means that are along the border of acceptable military conduct (and may go over), terrorists tend to slaughter innocent civilians, sometimes in the thousands. The difference in scale cannot be overlooked.

According to the U.S. Code, an “act of terrorism, means any activity that involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life that is a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State, and (B) appears intended
  • (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
  • (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
  • (iii) to affect the conduct of a government and by assassination or kidnapping.”

Source: United States Code Congressional and Administrative News, 98th Congress, Second Session, 1984, Oct. 19th, volume 2; par. 3077, 98 STAT. 2707

Terrorism can describe the slaughter of a village, the bombing of a cinema, buildings crumbling, planes being hijacked or the hacking of a database for destructive purposes.

It can be used as a call to action, a rationale for retribution, a cheap shot against an opponent or a gross hyperbole uttered for political gain. Recent events have moved many people to reevaluate their definition of terrorism, while others have simply become desensitized by its overusage in media and everyday conversation.

The term was coined in the 18th century during the French Reign of Terror, when average citizens were often publically executed to scare others into submission. Terrorism as an act, however, is much older than that. Murders, assasinations, the burning of villages and the rape of countrywomen were all on record long before old Robespierre ever went mad with power. Violence has been part of our history as long as we've had a history; terrorism has been a part of that history for as long as we've had politics.

In 1937, the League of Nations decreed that "all criminal acts directed against a State intended or calculated to create a state of terror in the minds of particular persons or persons in the general public" were to be considered terrorism.

Britain's Terrorism Act 2000 defines terrorism as "the use or threat of action to influence a government or intimidate the public for a political, religious or ideological cause. The action involved includes serious violence against people or danger to life, a serious risk to public health or safety, or serious damage to property."

The U.S. Department of Defense prefers to define terrorism as "the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological."

The consensus seems to be that terrorism is unlawful violence (as in, not sanctioned by war) that incites terror among civilians. This terror disables or alters the civilians' way of life for a political purpose. It is action that is premeditated, deliberate and designed to create the largest disruption with the smallest amount of force.

Groups who are not backed by dominant military powers are more likely to use terrorism, because their lack of resources and manpower makes traditional warfare all but impossible. Frequently, however, these groups are labeled as terrorist simply because they are in the minority. The difference between resistance and terrorism is a slight one, often highlighted by value judgments and prejudice. And while it is true that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," the largest distinction appears to be target. Aiming for your enemy is acceptable, aiming for your enemy's wife and children is not. For some of us, the distinction is of little consolation but the effect is quite visible. When soldiers die in war, we grow angry but do not feel endangered ourselves. When terrorism occurs, there is the inescapable fear that we may be next.

There is much controversy over the recent War on Terrorism, as many people believe it is being waged by a country that may frequently engage in acts of terrorism for its own gain. Furthermore, waging war against a concept that violates principles of war seems awkward at best. How can you fight a battle against someone whose goal is to win without combat?

These are complicated times in which we live, where it is difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, good and bad and missions of war or peace. Definitions in pristine doctrines kept in buildings far away from the bloodshed and the fear seem unlikely solace. Maybe it helps, though, to have a name for what you're dealing with.


Many thanks to the wonderful, the talented, the oddly misshapen Cletus the Foetus.

This writeup attempts to define the abstract term Terrorism using inductive logic.

Before the 1970s, most Americans would think of horror movies or general fear when hearing the word terror. Some of the well educated might have thought of the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France or perhaps the biblical King of terrors. Others might even have confused the word with a cuddly breed of dog: the terrier. But a string of events politically charged the word, and now it is a rhetorical hot potato. After a string of hijackings commanded national attention in the 1970s and 1980s, the word came to mean something other than fantasy violence or simple fear; these hijackings were warlike acts with real, bloody, and televised results. A terrorist came to describe someone who committed these so-called acts of terrorism. But there is something specific about what the word terrorism entails. Why were the hijackings not just called war, violence, or hate crime? If terrorism is simply the engagement of unsuspecting parties, then why don’t we use the term guerrilla warfare? What sets terror apart?

For many, the September 11 tragedy polarized Arabs as the only practitioners of terrorism. One definition of terrorism emerged: an act of violence against America or the West committed by a member of the Arab race. Note that John Walker Lindh was not tried and convicted of terrorism but rather treason. Also, once information linked the 2002 sinking of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemem to Al Qaeda, news agencies around the nation inserted the word terror into their headlines. If an Arab boy threw a rock at the window of a proponent to this racially specific denotation of terror, then the boy would be a terrorist. Surely more than race defines terror. One counterexample is Timothy McVeigh. The Oklahoma City bombing was widely reported as being a terrorist act.

What then did the actions of McVeigh have in common with the other acts of terrorism, specifically the September 11 attacks? Their overlapping characteristics reveal the truer definition of terrorism. One similarity was the symbolism of the target. Airplanes, airports, centers of elite capitalist trade, and federal buildings of law are all cells belonging to critical organs of the Western body. Terrorists do not strike suburban homes or grocery stores. Terrorists tend to hide their identity. Although they may eventually admit to or brag about their actions, the aggressors in these scenarios were either masked while committing the action or removed from the scene altogether. While terrorist attacks are never spontaneous, they lack an obvious provocation. It takes a bit of imagination to view the Oklahoma City bombing or the September 11 attacks as having been provoked. Perhaps, the American institution of law and the capitalist stranglehold on world trade was unfair and has oppressed the terrorists from afar for years.

Regular violence may be unprovoked, but if so then it is tends to be spontaneous; hate crime is the violent expression of discrimination. War is the physical diplomatic tension between nations competing over Boolean issues. Terrorism, on the other hand, takes place during diplomatic peacetime. It is a premeditated and unprovoked assault of an axiomatic target with weapons appropriate for war. The aggressor is an individual or group who intends to cripple the ability of an individual or group to realize the principle that the target represents.

Let us test this definition. Armed robbery of a bank would not be terrorism because the aggressor seeks personal wealth. His first priority is not to cripple the ability of the bank to function as a bank. A man murdering his wife would not be terrorism because the crime is not against an axiomatic target, but instead against the whole life of the individual. The capture of the Bastille in revolutionary France was not terrorism because the monarchial government failed to properly feed the people of France. This was a sensible provocation for revolution. Ousting Saddam Hussein would not be terrorism because the United States would first declare war against the Iraqi Government. The aggressor would respect the conventions of war.

There are many examples that will fit the above definition of terrorism but do not at first seem to be acts of terror. Consider a man who does not approve of watching television. Suppose he devises a plan to use a sniper rifle to secretly neutralize his neighbor’s television. He then carries out the action. This example of a civilian dispute fits all facets of the definition of terrorism. The plan was premeditated; the two neighbors were not in a diplomatic war at the time; the aggressor used a weapon suitable for warfare; the aggressor attacked a target with the intention of crippling his neighbor’s ability to watch television (which is the innate function of the target). This event would in fact be terror on the smallest of scales. There is no reason to toil with the above definition. Locke had no problem assuming individuals could be in a state of war with one other. Why, then, can an individual not terrorize another? Terrorism is just another tool in the toolbox of aggression.

Node your homework... Definition of an abstract term (using induction).

Althought I wrote the above definition, I may or may not actually believe this.

What is terrorism?

Terrorism is actual or threatened covert physical or destructive violence, performed indiscriminately and sporadically. Terrorist acts target the political agenda but affect the public in order to be most effective: in a democratic society, no one affects politics like the voters. Terrorist campaigns are usually ongoing to prevent media attention from wandering from the political agenda the perpetrators hold.

Terrorism can be divided into two distinct types: 'State' terrorism and 'Transnational' terrorism. State terrorism can be regarded from two perspectives - international and national. National State terrorism is a tool used by governments to control the population within its borders. It legitimises violence against the population by calling misdemeanors (fabricated or otherwise) 'civil disobedience'. Methods of state terrorism can include secret police, military action (particularly against areas of the geographical state which are not under the jurisdiction of the state), and intimidation tactics. International state terrorism is terrorism legitimised by the state against other states or groups. Action by a state against another state is commonly known as war, and shall concern us no further!

Transnational terrorism is independent of governments and usually operates in many countries. Transnational terrorist groups fight for a cause, and so are regarded differently depending on an observer's opinion - hence the expression "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". This sort of terrorism should not be confused with guerilla warfare or mafia crime, as acts perpetrated are claimed in order to get media attention for the cause for which the group is fighting. Tactics used in transnaional terrorism range from intimidation to random bombings to hostage taking to flying aeroplanes into large buildings, or threatening to do any of these.

Why is terrorism effective?

The key objective of terrorism is to produce a psychological fear and state of uncertainty among populations (and their rulers, with regards to transnational terrorism). Resulting from this fear will be political bargaining gain, awareness and support, and power for the terrorists. Margaret Crenshaw stated the importance of this:

Terrorism is designed to create power where there is none or consolidate where there is little.
The effectiveness in acquiring this power stems from two points: the effect of terrorism on the government and on the population. The fact that terrorists appear to be 'irrational' and adhere to no code of moral conduct bar their own increases the level of fear among the population. This is added to by the "It could have been me" idea: attacks are indiscriminate, sporadic and public. The more fear you can create as a terrorist, the more leverage you have over the government. This leads to the second reason why terrorism is effective: it threatens the survival of governments of regimes as their legitimacy is eroded by their failure to protect their populations. Naturally, the more a government does to protect its citizens, the more legitimate that government regime appears to be. Still, however, terrorism is effective as it creates fear which leads to awareness of the cause and gains the terrorists poitical leverage.

Why use violent protest? Gandhi suceeded, didn't he?

Often, the violent form of protest that is terrorism is used because there is no other means available to the perpetrators. The violence can then be legitimised in the terrorist's mind as a human right to defend oneself, human nature to resort to violence, and a backlash against the authorities who break the taboo with regards to non-violent protest. Perhaps, however, the would-be terrorist has seen others in similar situations gain from the use of terrorism. In this case, violence is seen as the obvious solution. It could be that there is a genuine belief that force is required to achieve anything - again that violence is 'human nature' or a natural right. A violent act achieves far more media coverage than a non-violent one.

Globalised terrorism

In the modern era, terrorism appears to be more frequent and more dramatic. This can be regarded as concurrent with the increasingly globalised society. Easier and better world communication and travel links, more advanced technology and instant global media all mean that terrorism is easier and more effective: more fear can be created in an easier manner and get wider coverage.

Said by a very wise Rabbi:
Violence always represents failure as it can never form the basis of a lasting peace.

Ter"ror*ism (?), n. [Cf. F. terrorisme.]

The act of terrorizing, or state of being terrorized; a mode of government by terror or intimidation.


<-- 2.

The practise of coercing governments to accede to political demands by committing violence on civilian targets; any similar use of violence to achieve goals.


© Webster 1913.

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