This essay was written in 2006. I no longer agree that a clear and useful definition of terrorism is possible. In another essay (written slightly later in 2006, but which I don't have a copy of) I argued this very point, against the possibility for there to be a meaningful definition of "terrorism". Terrorism is a term used to vilify and create hatred against certain groups or about certain acts, it can not be a "morally neutral" term. And a note from 2014, I'm not the only one to think that, see also Terrorism: the most meaningless and manipulated word (2010) and On the UK’s Equating of Journalism With Terrorism (2014) both by Glenn Greenwald.
What is terrorism? Terrorism is a term that is used to describe acts depending on the politics of the person and of the time. Not only are there genuine disagreements in definitions,1 but also the political atmosphere affects the meaning of the word. Terrorism is an "ideological construct", an essentially contested term.2 This essay will attempt to determine if it is possible to arrive at a 'working definition' of terrorism. It will do this by first outlining some characteristics of a 'working definition' and will look at problems associated with creating a working definition for terrorism. Problems with associated with how the words 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' are used are also outlined. A possible definition is then given with an explanation and clarification. A brief examination of different forms of political violence will follow.
It is impossible to find a definition of terrorism that everyone will agree on, but this is not important in itself, except for linguists.3 However, this is not what a working definition is. A working definition is a definition that can be used in a particular area by a particular group. So a working definition in the UN might be different to a working definition in an academic discussion (however, there exists no UN definition4 because of differences in politics and perception between nations5). A working definition of terrorism has a number of characteristics.
To be workable, a definition of terrorism has to be black and white. It cannot have any shades or possibles. Using the definition a person should be able to look at an act and (if they know sufficient facts about that act), be able to classify it as terrorism or another type of act (criminal for example). Use of the words 'generally'6 or 'usually'7 do not make a definition useful as it leaves open other acts not in the definition.
A terrorism definition has to be morally neutral. Different moral sets may allow different acts, for this reason any definition has to exclude the possibility of moral bias.
A definition needs to be useful and meaningful, it can not be too broad and cannot shift definitional problems to another word (such as 'legitimate' or 'non-combatant'), unless these words are also defined in the definition. A broad definition of terrorism is useless for moral,8 criminal and academic purposes.
A working definition can also not be too large. A long definition becomes unwieldy and unusable. A definition proposed in 1988 has one hundred and seventeen (117) words9, and while it was supposed to be an 'academic consensus' the length means that it is not useful or usable.
A definition has to focus on the act, rather then the actor.* No group, state or 'liberation' movement should be excluded.10 The reason for this is that it makes it clear that certain types of act are the same, no matter who commits them. While there maybe differences between criminals, who are motivated by personal gain, and 'terrorists', who are motivated by some 'higher good', and psychopaths, who kill for pleasure, or others with 'mental disorders', in why they commit acts, they maybe similar acts. The only difference maybe the spoutings from their mouths or perhaps the actual result of the act within the group. Ignoring the actor is also another part of not having a moral bias; an act cannot be excused from being terrorism because one group committed it rather then another.
These characteristics provide a framework for creating a definition that is usable in many different scenarios and will the basis for creating a 'working definition', and could be useful in investigating other definitions.
As mentioned in the introduction there are a number of disagreements in definitions of terrorism. These include property damage, the infliction of terror, and the reason why the act is committed and so on. The Australian Criminal Code includes "serious interference with essential electronic systems" in its definition.11 This raises the question of what else could be considered terrorist acts in this case, about can attacks on other essential infrastructure, 'cyber' attacks or blocking radio frequencies (such as those used by mobile phones and emergency services)? Can attacks on the economy (by for example attacking the stock exchange) in a non-violent manner be considered terrorism? The Economic Analytical Unit (part of the Australian Government's DFAT) include attacks on natural gas pipelines (which are disruptive to business) as "terrorists attacks".12 Does terrorism have to 'terrorize' as Anthony M. Burton argues?13 Or can it simply destroy? Does it have to have an aim to 'coerce'? Or can it be an act without any obvious demands?14
are always two points of view (at least) when considering a terrorist
act. There is that of the terrorist themselves, and that of other
people. When talking about motive and intent, as well as the
non-combatant, civilian status or innocence of a target, a definition
has to consider these from the point of view of the terrorist. This
helps to remove problems of subjectivity. Though this might be
problematic in some cases if the actor does not believe that there
are any innocents (such as the Frenchman Emile Henry who in 1894 said
Il n'y a pas des
innocents (at least
among the ruling class)).15
words 'terrorism' and 'terrorist' are pejorative and have a lot of
negative emotional and political connotations.16
They have also been misused quite often, for these reasons it is
preferable that the word is not used unless strictly necessarily.
The use of the words closes debate and inquiry.
has become merely another derogatory word, rather than a descriptor
of a specific type of activity.17
The word terrorism has spawned others such as 'eco-terrorism', that do not fit within the traditional meaning of terrorism. The word 'eco-terrorist' is a against both by those who damage the environment (e.g. clear felling forests) and those who commit acts of property damage to protest damage to the environment.
People talk about terrorist groups or insurgent groups or rebels; they want to classify groups in to a box, ignoring the fact that they do often commit different forms of political violence.18 'Terrorist' acts already have names and definitions. Murder is murder whether committed for hatred of a person, personal gain through ability to steal any goods or money a person has, or to instil fear in a segment of a population to coerce that segment to do something that they would not otherwise do.
While assassinations, certain types of property damage and other acts are intended to 'cause fear' and bring about a change in policy of a government (or other political/ideological/religious/etc. aim), there is not an attack on civilians.
An act of violence or the threat of such against a non-combatant/civilian/innocent target (according to the actor) to coerce an audience for political, religious, ideological, social, non-'personal' goals.
This definition includes the key characteristics, violence or the threat of, civilian/non-combatant target, an audience (that may or may not be the same as the target) that is intended to be coerced, for political etc. goals.
As was mentioned in the discussion surrounding what a working definition is, a definition should not shift the definitional problem onto another word. As such each possible 'problem' word in the above definition will be examined and explained. The first is 'violence', violence is physical assault on a person or person's body, threat of violence is propaganda, or other means to threaten violence. It does not include simple acts of property damage that are not meant to threaten violence or coerce. If it is widened to property possible problems arise such as if certain graffiti could be include (such as that written on a Sydney wall after 2004 Federal Election, "If you voted Liberal...I will hunt you down....and KILL YOU...I don't know where you live but I'm very good @ research."19). Within threat of violence this would be accepted however (but for other reasons this should not be considered terrorism). Another possible problem area is 'non-combatant/civilian/innocent', ultimately the target has to be view by the 'terrorist' themselves as a 'non-combatant/civilian/innocent'. Some might consider politicians to be non-innocent, and thus legitimate targets and attacks on them as non-terrorist acts.
The goal has to be of a nature that is political, religious or otherwise ideological or social. An act motivated by personal gain is not terrorism; again this has to be seen from the point of view of the actor.
Terrorism is a contested concept that is often confused with other forms of political violence. For example, political assassination is sometimes called terrorism, and sometimes it is not. The following table distinguishes between state and non-state actors in the types of political violence each can commit. For the state, these acts can occur with the the state, or in or against another state.
|Non-state actors||Actual terrorist attacks (as defined)||Supporting (criminal) 'terrorist' acts (acts not intended to cause fear or terror, but to facilitate future actions, such as bank robbery or arms depot robbery)||Acts against state CNCNI†||Acts against non-state CNCNI|
|State actors||Actual terrorist attacks (as defined)||Acts against state CNCNI||Acts against non-state CNCNI||Acts by 'sponsored' groups of the above types|
There are a number of different acts that are not terrorist acts as defined above. However it is necessary to mention them as they are often either confused or conflated with 'terrorist' acts. Specifically acts that are committed against state CNCNI (police, military etc.), such as political assassination or against non-state CNCNI (guerrilla's or other groups). Acts by 'terrorist' groups that are used to facilitate future 'terrorist' acts, such as bank robberies, are not terrorist acts in themselves as they are not intended to cause fear, though they could be combined with acts that are intended to cause fear, such as the killing of the bank staff and customers. Even in situations of armed conflict, violence against civilians is 'illegal'.
It is clear that with so many definitions of terrorism around it may seem hard to find one that fits all peoples needs, this is primarily because the definition of terrorism is often one that changes depending on the politics of the time. The problems of creating a working definition are many; however, the definition proposed fits the characteristics given. It is usable, not too broad, and ignores the actor and includes the aspects that a definition needs to differentiate 'terrorist' acts from other 'criminal' acts. It also addresses issues brought up in problems of usage section.
Burton, Anthony M.. Urban Terrorism - Theory, Practice & Response. London: Leo Cooper, 1975
CIA 'Terrorism FAQs' http://www.cia.gov/terrorism/faqs.html (accessed 24/03/2006)
Cockburn, Alexander. 'There Are No Innocents', http://www.thenation.com/doc/20041025/Cockburn (25/10/2004) (accessed 28/4/2006)
Constitutional Rights Foundation 'America Responds to Terrorism - What Is Terrorism?' http://www.crf-usa.org/terror/What_Is_Terrorism_rev.htm (accessed 25/04/2006)
Commonwealth of Australia. Protecting Australia - Against Terrorism. Barton, ACT: The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2004
Economic Analytical Unit (Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade). Costs of Terrorism and the Benefits of Working Together. Barton, ACT: 2003
Hocking, Jenny. Beyond Terrorism - The Development of the Australian Security State. St Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1993
Merari, Ariel. 'Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency', Terrorism and Political Violence 5, no. 4 Winter 1993
Primoratz, Igor. 'What is Terrorism', Journal of Applied Philosophy 7, no.3 1990
Santos Jr, Soliman M., 'Wanted: A legal definition of terrorism',http://www.i-p-o.org/terrorism/legal/definition.htm (11/09/2002) (accessed 03/05/2006)
'DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Renuart at the Pentagon' http://www.dod.gov/transcripts/2006/tr20060427-12908.html (accessed 30/4/2006)
'The Criminology of Terrorism: History, Law, Definitions, Typologies', http://faculty.ncwc.edu-toconnor/429/429lect01.htm (accessed 03/05/2006)
'What is Terrorism Defining Terrorism', About Inc, http://terrorism.about.com/od/historyofterrorism/a/defineterror.htm (accessed 24/03/2006)
http://thepublicineffectual.blogspot.com/2004_11_01_thepublicineffectual_archive.html (accessed 30/4/2006)
http://photos1.blogger.com/img/198/1621/1024/hgtjter7ue.jpg (accessed 30/4/2006)
*Actor is used in this essay despite where there might be more then one actor. When the word actor is seen then, substitute actors where appropriate.
†combatants, non-civilians, non-innocents according to the moral view point of the actor
1Does terrorism include, the "mere infliction of terror"? Or does it require violence? Does that include violence against people alone, or include "violence against property"? Should the word only apply in a political context? Is there such a thing as 'state-terrorism', or should it be "restricted to actions not sanctioned by law"? Igor Primoratz, 'What is Terrorism', Journal of Applied Philosophy 7, no.3 (1990): Abstract 129
2Jenny Hocking, Beyond Terrorism - The Development of the Australian Security State (St Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1993) p1
3 Ariel Merari, 'Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency', Terrorism and Political Violence 5, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 200
4'The Criminology of Terrorism: History, Law, Definitions, Typologies', http://faculty.ncwc.edu-toconnor/429/429lect01.htm (accessed 03/05/2006)
5Soliman M. Santos, Jr., 'Wanted: A legal definition of terrorism', http://www.i-p-o.org/terrorism/legal/definition.htm (11/09/2002) (accessed 03/05/2006)
6Such as in Constitutional Rights Foundation 'America Responds to Terrorism - What Is Terrorism?' http://www.crf-usa.org/terror/What_Is_Terrorism_rev.htm (accessed 25/04/2006)
8Igor Primoratz, 'What is Terrorism'
9'What is Terrorism Defining Terrorism', About Inc, http://terrorism.about.com/od/historyofterrorism/a/defineterror.htm (accessed 24/03/2006)
10Soliman M. Santos, Jr., 'Wanted: A legal definition of terrorism'
11Commonwealth of Australia, Protecting Australia - Against Terrorism, (Barton, ACT: The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2004) p18 (box)
12Economic Analytical Unit (Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade), Costs of Terrorism and the Benefits of Working Together (Barton, ACT: 2003) p6
13Anthony M. Burton, Urban Terrorism - Theory, Practice & Response, (London: Leo Cooper, 1975) p5
14Soliman M. Santos, Jr., 'Wanted: A legal definition of terrorism'
16Ariel Merari, 'Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency' 213
17Ariel Merari, 'Terrorism as a Strategy of Insurgency' 213
18 See 'DoD News Briefing with Lt. Gen. Renuart at the Pentagon' http://www.dod.gov/transcripts/2006/tr20060427-12908.html (accessed 30/4/2006) for an example.
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