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Terrorism Semantics

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


With the death of Osama bin Laden as the top trending news story, discussions on the future of terrorism have become a prominent subtext. Given that the War on Terror is still ongoing and expected to continue even without bin Laden around, I think it is high time we established a sensible definition for the word terrorism. There is no easy way to define terrorism, especially in a way that the whole world accepts. A 1988 study found that there were 109 different definitions being used for the word (Golder, Williams 270). Only a year earlier at the United Nations, a resolution condemning terrorism would have passed unanimously, but for opposition from the US and Israel, and the abstention of Honduras. The US used its veto power to prevent passage of the resolution because the definition of terrorism within explicitly excluded resistance to racist or colonialist regimes and occupation forces (Chomsky). This demonstrates the difficulty presented by the conflicting interests of different states. It is important that a global definition of terrorism is general enough for flexibility in its application, but has enough specifics to avoid misapplication.

My suggested definition for global terrorism is, the systematic use of violence, or the threat of violence, directed indiscriminately against non-combatants or economically essential infrastructure and resources, in order to terrify, psychologically disturb, or provoke a fearful reaction in a wider target audience, for the purpose of fulfilling politically, ideologically, or religiously relevant goals, and is carried out privately by individuals or groups without the authority of a state, but which specifically excludes acts of civil disobedience, public protest, or industrial action.

A benefit of this definition is that it moderates between generality and specificity. It has enough specificity so that it captures the modern idea of terrorism, while it avoids over generalization with anything that could be thought terrifying to oneself, and prevents confusion with out-of-date historical uses the word (Novosty). This is needed because the meaning of terrorism has changed over time, from Edmund Burke’s apt description of the French Revolution and Jacobin Reign of Terror in 1793-1794 (Hoffman 3), to the Narodnaya Volya’s characterization of their attacks on civilians and the assassination of Tsar Alexander II as “propaganda by deed” (Hoffman 5). The modern use of the word terrorism has been mostly in the context of Islamic jihadist movements. However, as Dr. Zakir Naik has pointed out, a common, but incorrect, phrase heard in America and India suggests that “all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” He contends that this is not true based on the historical record, which indicates that many terrorist acts have been committed by non-Muslims (Naik), such as the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh and attacks carried out by the Irish Republican Army. My proposed definition strikes the right balance between specificity and generality, in order to avoid overloading the word with out-of-date usages or spurious applications based on religious profiling.

A drawback to my suggested definition of terrorism, is that is does not specifically exclude actions taken by revolutionaries, insurgencies, or guerilla forces. For example, organizations like Hezbollah, FARC, and the Tamil Tigers are categorized as terrorist groups by the US State Department (Hoffman 35), however these groups maintain control over territory and the local populace, and their size and methods indicate that they might be better characterized as guerilla armies (Hoffman 36). Other suggested definitions of terrorism have attempted to differentiate guerilla fighters from terrorists by their greater capability to overthrow targeted governments, which lessens their need to attack non-combatants (Sinai 11). This distinction is not necessary because a former terrorist organization can swear off terrorism tactics and become only a guerilla force without regard to their size. The justification for not explicitly excluding actions taken by guerillas or insurgencies in a definition of terrorism stems the tendency of modern terrorist organizations like Al-Qaida to claim the mantle of resistance fighter, or Mujahidin, and to claim that they are in fact the true victims of terrorism perpetrated by colonial and neo-colonial violence (Lia 415). The disadvantage to leaving some aspects of a definition general is that there may still be some ambiguity in its application.

Before I took a college course on terrorism my thoughts about the definition of the word focused on the perspectives of the victims and targets of any terrifying attacks, regardless of the form. A vague and broad definition seemed appropriate to me, as it does to many others, but now I think that the reason I saw it this way was due of the colloquial use of the words, “terror”, “terrorized”, and “terrifying.” People can be terrorized by many things, but not all the things that terrorize people should be considered terrorism. Al-Qaida strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri has sought to exploit this colloquial confusion by suggesting that terrorism is an abstraction that can be thought of as either blameworthy or praiseworthy (Lia 383). I believe that this tendency to vagueness creates a pressing need for a globally accepted legal and political definition, so that a broadening of meaning does not lead to misapplication.

Jared Roy Endicott

Terrorism Semantics
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Works Cited

Golder, Ben, and George Williams. “What is ‘Terrorism’? Problems of Legal Definition.” UNSW Law Journal. 27(2), 2004: 270-295. Web. 30 Mar 2010.

Chomsky, Noam. “What Exactly is Terrorism?” 4 May 2009. Web. 29 Mar 2010.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.

Lia, Brynjar. Architect of Global Jihad: The Life of Al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Print.

Naik, Dr. Zakir. “Definition is Terrorism.”, Peace TV. 24 Jun. 2007. Web. 29 Mar 2010.

Novotny, Daniel, D. “What is Terrorism?” Focus on Terrorism Vol 8, Google Books. Nova Science Publishers, 2007: 23-32. Web. 30 Mar 2010.

Sinai, Joshua. “How to Define Terrorism.” Perspectives on Terrorism 22(4), Feb. 2008: 9-11. Web. 30 Mar 2010.

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