It pervades contemporary societies throughout the world, and the sheer mention of the word stimulates trepidation and fear.
But what is terrorism?
Will my view of terrorism be the same as yours?
And these differences in perception of what terrorism is have been proven to have major implications for the national policies of governments the world over. And that’s precisely what I am going to discuss here.
However, before I delve into explaining this in more depth, it’s worth taking a quick look at how perceptions of terrorism have changed throughout the course of history.
A Brief History of the Word Terrorism
Terrorism by no means evolved in a vacuum. Many people in the Western world first became acutely aware of it following the 1993 World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
However, the roots of the word terrorism can be traced back to the late 18th century when it was used to describe the French government’s actions against its citizens. In this era, terrorism wasn’t attributed to the freedom fighters, but the actions of the government (White, 2016).
Later, it was used to describe the fight against capitalism and, later still, the actions of the Russian revolutionaries and, eventually, the Soviet government. It wasn’t until the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that the word terrorism was commonly employed to describe the actions of radical, nationalistic, revolutionary, or nihilist groups.
When one examines how perceptions of terrorism have changed over history, what becomes crystal clear is that the definition of terrorism that is in use changes with the political tide.
Today, terrorism remains very difficult to precisely define because it is a relatively subjective entity that cannot be measured and evaluated in tangible terms.
It a largely a social construct, which entails that the way in which it is defined will vary according to people’s perceptions and their social, political, and economic standpoints.
In light of the imprecise and idiosyncratic nature of perceptions of terrorism, it comes as no surprise that people throughout the world continue to engage in heated debates as to what does, and does not, represent an act of terrorism.
A Simple Definition of the Word Terrorism?
The difficulties defining terrorism that plague contemporary society are by no means new. As far back as 30 years ago, Walter Laqueur, an American historian, attempted to define terrorism in universal terms by presenting a definition that was very similar to that proposed by the RAND Corporation’s renowned counterterrorism expert Brian Jenkins:
Terrorism involves the use, or threatened use, of force against innocent victims for political purposes (Laqueur, 1987).
On the most basic level, some scholars describe terrorism as threats or actions that are designed to instill terror in the lives of innocent people with the objective of achieving a political agenda.
However, contemporary views of terrorism are not limited to acts of violence against a state. Some people argue that governments themselves can engage in acts of terrorism by repressing the people. As such, even under this simple definition, perceptions of terrorism still differ according to one’s political agenda.
As such, we cannot escape the fact that the definition of terrorism that is applied within a given context will have fundamental political consequences.
In the contemporary world, government agencies use the term to classify and dehumanize their adversary’s political views. In addition, by labeling people or groups as terrorists, governments bestow special powers upon their security agencies, which include enhanced investigation powers, ability to detain suspects for longer, and, in some cases, the ability to torture, or even kill the accused without any form of legal trial.
The Difference Between Terrorists and Criminals
In the majority of nations, terrorists do not benefit from the same human rights protection or civil liberties as those afforded to other lawbreakers or state enemies. This is particularly the case when terrorists wage war from an overseas location.
When it comes to suspected terrorists, the vast majority of the general public seems to support government activities that violate human rights laws on the basis that people who commit acts of terrorism are perceived to be subhuman. One very dangerous implication of this in the absence of an agreed definition of terrorism is that governments also have the ability to dictate what acts represent terrorism from a legal perspective and, subsequently, can use these powers to exert greater social control… all in the name of protecting people against terrorism.
The Policy Implications of Terrorism
A further reason why it is important to clearly delineate what does, and does not, represent terrorism is because conceptions of terrorism have policy implications.
According to Haviland Smith, who once worked as a counterterrorism specialist within the CIA, one major reason as to why the United States’ efforts to counteract terrorism have been largely unsuccessful can be attributed to the fact that interpretations of terrorism are convoluted. Smith argued that, although the terms terrorism and insurgency tend to be used interchangeably, terrorism relates to intelligence management and law enforcement, while insurgencies are fundamentally military concerns (Smith, 2008).
According to Ayla Schbley, an expert on religious terrorism, there is a need to extend debate surrounding terrorism beyond the political realm and to take into consideration the criminal nature of terrorism (Schbley, 2003).
When viewing terrorism strictly within a political context, conceptions of what constitutes terrorism will vary according to perspective. Schbley argues that this is ineffective on the basis that there is no legal basis on which to reprimand actions that harm symbolic victims. However, terrorism is very much an illegal act; as such, Schbley believes it should be defined as an act of violence that targets symbolic civilians in any way, shape or form.
Terrorists Vs. Revolutionaries
Boaz Ganor, an Israeli terrorism expert, tells us that the key point of differentiation between terrorists and those who are legitimately seeking revolution involves the targeting of civilians. He also contended that as a long as the debates surrounding the definition of terrorism remain grounded in theory, they will never transcend this theory to have practical application in the real world (Ganor, 2002).
To ensure issues related to terrorism are adequately taken into consideration in national policies that are internationally compatible, the world community needs to develop a unilateral definition of terrorism that is clear and unambiguous. Until this is achieved, terrorists will have the ability to continue to engage in acts of terrorism under the pretense that such actions are legitimate.
Ganor also argued that much of the confusion that surrounds what acts constitute terrorism can be attributed to the fact that many Western policymakers frequently employ inappropriate terms, such as “guerilla warfare” and “insurgence” when referring to terrorism, and this leads them to a semantic web that prevents any solid progress in terms of the development of international policy that can adequately deter and address terrorism.
The Difference Between War Crimes, Guerilla Warfare, and Terrorism
Ganor argues that it is possible to delineate between different types of violence by differentiating between conventional and unconventional wars. Although innocent citizens are often killed during wars, the main target of these activities are military targets, and any loss of civilians is largely unintended. On the contrary, war criminals purposely cause harm to target members of the general population and prisoners of war.
Guerillas do not specifically target citizens. Their main point of focus is the government, military, and security personnel. What stands terrorists firmly apart from guerillas and conventional soldiers is that they purposely try to cause harm to civilians as a means of instilling terror and furthering their religious or political agenda.
According to Ganor, to develop policies that can adequately fight against terrorism, governments need to start by developing a shared definition of terrorism according upon which national cooperative agreements can be agreed. It is only then that the legislation outlined within them can be consistently enforced. The development of a shared definition would also lead to the identification of nations that support terrorism and the development of plans by which these groups can be diplomatically managed.
Defining the Target Group of Terrorism
Eric Reitan, a Professor of Philosophy, approached the problem from a different perspective to that of Ganor. He argued that attacks on security personnel and members of the military should also be treated as acts of terrorism. However, he agreed that an acceptable definition of terrorism was lacking and that such a definition is required before governments can adequately distinguish between terrorism and alternative forms of violence (Reitan, 2010).
Reitan highlighted how traditional definitions of terrorism fail to differentiate between the criminal acts of violence and war-based activities. He echoed Ganor’s view that it is important that policies clearly identify a target; however, he believed that it isn’t just civilians who are the objects of terrorism. Rather, government representatives, civilians, and security personnel form a collective group target. If this group is attacked by an external force for a political purpose, this represents an act of terrorism.
Reitan cited the example of the case of Timothy McVeigh, a political activist who parked a truck loaded with explosive fertilizer by the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, killing 168 people, including innocent children who had been attending daycare. His attack was motivated by his hatred for America. McVeigh considered anybody who was associated with United States’ government to be an enemy. As such, within this act of terrorism, the Murrah building represented a group target; the people were targeted on the sole basis that they belonged to a group McVeigh hated.
Can Terrorism Be Justified?
The definition presented in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy adds further fuel to the fire. According to this perspective, there may be situations in which a given act appears to represent an act of terrorism; however, it is not if the people perpetrating the action are able to prove that their behavior will prevent a worse evil (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2015).
In these situations, the perpetrators of acts that appear to represent terrorism may not be terrorists on the basis that their actions prevent a second group from committing worse atrocities. Some scholars agree with this view on the proviso that there is no alternative action that can prevent the atrocity from taking place and that the targets are purely governmental or military personnel. No citizens or property should be harmed.
So, Where Does This Leave Us?
If there is anything that the debate described above has proven, it’s that definitions of terrorism vary significantly.
When these differences in the perception of terrorism are examined on a nation by nation level, it becomes apparent that the way in which governments define terrorism directly impacts their approach to national security and the way in which they fight against terrorist activities.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way in which the American defense and law enforcement policies have recently changed in response to a broader change in the definition of terrorism.
Ganor, B. (2002). Defining Terrorism: Is One Man’s Terrorist another Man’s Freedom Fighter? Police Practice and Research, 287-304.
Laqueur, W. (1987). The Age of Terrorism. Little Brown and Company.
Reitan, E. (2010). Defining Terrorism for Public Policy Purposes: The Group-Target Definition. Journal of Moral Philosophy, 253 – 278.
Schbley, A. (2003). Defining Religious Terrorism: A Causal and Anthological Profile. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 105-134.
Smith, H. (2008). Defining Terrorism: It Shouldn’t Be Confused with Insurgency.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2015). Terrorism.
White, J. R. (2016). Terrorism and Homeland Security.
- Terrorism: A History (Themes in History)
- The Terrorism Lectures, 3rd ed.: A Comprehensive Collection for the Student of Terrorism, Counterterrorism, and National Security
- Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse
- Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues
- Terrorism Studies: A Reader