Defining Terrorism

Terrorism is an international dilemma. It follows then, that such a concern mandates a forward-thinking response on the part of the world community, and not the disparate efforts of individual states. Since the attacks of 9/11 the long-standing phenomenon of terrorism has prompted a new central focus in U.S. foreign policy and has overwhelmed the American consciousness. Nonetheless, consensus has not been reached on a universally recognized definition of terrorism. Even the definitions offered by the CIA and the U.S. State Department have dissimilar language and possibly then, different implications for describing political violence. Defining terrorism is problematical due to the bias and human emotions that are impulsive features following such acts. Yet without an authoritative international description of terrorism a worthy global strategy to contest this phenomenon is not possible.

An objective definition of terrorism should be broad enough in its scope to include these necessary elements: the motive is political, the chosen method is violence, it primarily targets civilians, it has direct and indirect victims, it serves as a means of communication, and lastly it is a group phenomenon carried out by state and non-state actors. So terrorism can be defined as the use of political violence by groups of individuals with the purpose of communication and influence as a result of its direct and indirect victims. But in clarifying what exactly we are up against and why this is essential, it is also important to recognize the roadblocks to international consensus and meaningful operational resolutions. After all, we cannot overcome problems if we are unaware of their existence. And for this reason political violence has not been sufficiently handled by the international community.
To begin with, terrorism is first and foremost committed with political aim. It may have secondary goals, such as religion, but if it is terrorism it is fundamentally political. It should also be noted here that terrorism is distinct from the broader idea of national liberation: the difference being that national liberation movements may include terrorism as a chosen path., but other forms of resistance that describe national liberation also exist. For example, unlike peaceful protest or guerilla warfare--two distinctive forms of pursuing national liberation--terrorism is exclusively violent and is generally aimed at terrorizing innocents. Che Guevara is widely recognized for his guerilla warfare activities in Cuba, the Congo, and elsewhere, but if Che’s history includes the torture or murder of non-combatant civilians then this too should be described as terrorism. Furthermore, political violence is an attempt to amplify grievances made possible not only by the victims who were directly impacted, but also, and more importantly, the effects on the victims targeted obliquely. The latter constitute the key group for terrorists in their attempt at communicating their derision. For the individuals who carry out such acts, terrorism appears as the sole option for claiming the attention of their audience. The captivated world, through the fear and sensationalism following the terrorist acts, substitutes as their own judge and jury.
Terrorism, in addition, is an end game of group activity. This point is especially important because much of the cure for political violence that might be discovered lies with conceding the psychology of group terrorism. The acts of single individuals who undertake plots to terrorize should not be attributed to terrorism. Unambiguously, terrorism is a violent reaction formed from the ethos of the “psychological crowd”, the term given by Gustave le Bon. Psychological crowds, writes le Bon, are the replacement of the individual personality with the “possession of a sort of collective mind”. Visionary beliefs cast down from leadership among such groups help form the collective mind. Political violence is the means used to accomplish the goals and carry out the vision of the collective mind. In his study on global terrorism Robert Jay Lifton examines the phenomenon of “totalistic communities”, where common ideology and purpose transcend the personal spirit. Having taken on this group identity individuals become foot soldiers willing to see the all-important vision through. The value of the isolated individual--free from group thinking and so able to be reasonable—is undermined by group dogma. We cannot understand the violence of Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo’s subways if we are not ready to appreciate this social phenomenon of psychological crowds.
The final defining feature to terrorism involves the fiercely contested idea that states can commit terrorism. In fact, terrorism should not be exclusively limited to non-state actors. Governments are equally capable of committing terrorist acts, as we have repeatedly seen with the wanton destruction of villages, towns and whole cities, as well as the targeting of individuals. Professor Richard Falk argues that limiting terrorism to non-state actors is: “ethically unacceptable, politically manipulative and decidedly unhistorical. It is important to recall that the usage of the word ‘terrorism’ to describe political violence derives from the government excesses that spun out of control during the French Revolution.” Many state actors have implemented polices designed to indiscriminately attack civilian populations, and keeping with the previously listed traits of terrorism, states should therefore not be exempted from our perception of terrorism. This last point leads us back to the overall fundamental value in establishing a cooperative international language on terrorism and why this goal has been so elusive.
The best possible solution to this problem of consensus on terrorism has much to do with the over-emphasis on who the actors are, and less concentration on the act itself. In the study of terrorism “normative questions are irrelevant”, since this bias and emotion that generally surrounds our perception of political violence undermines any objective analysis. If government violence is carried out towards a civilian resistance movement, we should judge the act against the aforesaid criteria of terrorism. However, who the actor is should matter less in our deliberation of whether such acts should be described as terrorism. This helps to end disputes over the “terrorist-versus-freedom fighter” dilemma, as well as rebuking the notion that states cannot commit political violence. Then, when discussing contentious figures such as Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan, and Osama bin Laden, we keep from nepotistic values and concentrate impartially on the act itself. So indeed, the Reagan administration’s policies in Nicaragua can be explained as a program of political violence. No such group should be allowed impunity from the implications of performing terrorist violence. Only by keeping our focus on the act itself can we maintain accountability for all actors, so that the international community can form a cohesive and unimpeded response to this phenomenon.
As we have already seen, the ethos of terrorism causes the regrettable consequence of political exploitation, which in turn leads to the general division and ambiguity over defining terrorism. We are unable to properly deal with international matters when faced with the ill effects of misconceived notions regarding terrorism. Meanwhile, the self-interest of states leads to the exploitation of the public’s fear created from the idea of instability and destruction at the hands of terrorists, and often aggrandizing the actual threat so that otherwise unattractive policies might be tolerable. Consequently, these state actors begin implementing their own terrorist measures under the guise of “fighting terrorism”. In this manner Ariel Sharon maintains his esteemed position as combating Palestinian terrorism, while the economic and political plight of Palestinians are further ignored and the cause demonized as exclusively terrorist. The U.S. government, quite similarly, is allowed to operate in Iraq and the Middle East performing violent measures to pursue its political imperatives. So we often discover terrorism on both sides of a conflict but as might be expected we can describe our violence in a less repulsive light if it serves our purpose. With this confusion over terrorism, it is no wonder that such wars waged on “terror” become perpetual and reciprocal streams of violence.
In the end, political violence and terrorism cannot properly be studied and addressed if the world community is unable to resolve what exactly were talking about when we speak of terrorism. The absence of a complete and specific account of this phenomenon will keep the study and debate on such issues in complete disarray. The objective critique defined above would not only provide clarity on the subject, but also if introduced and agreed upon internationally then it would undoubtedly pave the way for more advantageous resolutions to terrorism. Prominence would be placed on debating the acts, and not the actors, and all responsible for such political violence would be held accountable and brought to justice regardless of popular opinions and personal prejudice.


add a comment on this article