The use and the misuse of the term "terrorism" has become so frequent in discourse that it requires a discussion quite apart from just a discussion of terrorism as such. The phrase has become a Bavarian Fire Drill, so that when it is used to identify anything, either by those of the Right or Left Wings, it automatically stops discourse.
First I will define terrorism, and then discuss whether some famous and not so famous uses of the word "terrorism" are justified.
Terrorism is the use of violence or a substantial threat of violence to change or destroy the will of the civillian population through fear. There are many acts that are against international law, that involve indirect killing of civillians, that are morally and ethically wrong, or just plain evil, that do not qualify as terrorism. Call them what they are, but don't call them terrorism.
Examples of things that have been called terrorism:
- The attack on the USS Cole (called terrorism in many places, do a quick google search for "USS Cole" and "terrorist attack") : The USS Cole is a military target. While someone (either a government or another military organization) attacking it without making any kind of declaration of war is against international and civil law, as well as moral and ethical behavior, it is not terrorism.
- Israel's practice of targetted assassinations: is again against most standards of international law, uses violence, and uses violence in a manner that often leads to the death of civilians. Since the people the IDF attacks are more or less military leaders, and being attacked for mostly military reasons, it does not qualify as terrorism.
- The attacks on the World Trade Center: were violent acts done for the purpose of creating fear in a civillian population. They were therefore terrorist acts.
- The War on Iraq: I saw a man holding up a sign the other day saying "George W Bush is a terrorist", referring, I imagine, to the War on Iraq. There are many things to be said about the War on Iraq, such as that it has led to the deaths of thousands of civillians, and was done in a very grey area of International Law. However, the war was fought to destroy a military organization, and thus does not qualify as terrorism.
- Tre Arrow setting fire to some cement mixers: Tre Arrow, a Portland area activist that briefly enchanted people with some of his daring protests, before everyone realized what a fuckwit he was. He was recently apprehended by the FBI. His crime has been described as environmental terrorism, but I don't think the label is fitting, since his attacks were not meant to cause fear in the general civillian population. They were meant to protest and put an end to one specific operation by one specific organization. They therefore were probably not "terrorism".
- Hamas and their suicide bombers inflict violence against non-military targets for the purpose of creating fear in the civilian population. This is therefore terroristic.
- The United States Army bombing Germany during World War II was partially an attempt to break the will of the civillian population, but was also used against legitimate military targets. Thus, it had elements of being terroristic, but was still within the realm of what is considered acceptable in military law.
- Failure to provide employees with sufficient health benefits: was cited as terrorism by one union representative I heard speaking. I was forced to walk away shaking my head. A business not wanting to give their employees benefits could mean anything from fiscal sanity to greed, but it is not a form of terrorism.
These are just a small amount of the different examples of things that have been identified as "terrorism". The sad thing is, that people that should be able to debate issues on their own merits, have adopted the monolithic definition of "all things evil" put forward by a small group of people, and then choose to attempt to fight that group by twisting their own language against them. There is no reason to do so, since with a little bit of effort, it is quite possible to discuss these issues using the correct terminology.